Lure of Uniformity
By Robert E. Shepard | Americans, writes Regan Professor of English Emeritus Paul Fussell in Uniforms, are so caught up in their conviction that they enjoy an extraordinary degree of freedom Ö that it is left to foreign visitors to perceive the truth. These dispassionate observers from abroad see a nation both yearning for the ideal of individualism and drifting toward the equally powerful pole of conformity. Walt Whitman also understood this dualism well, and attributed the lure of uniformity to a democratic urge to seek social safety in numbers, even as Americans of his era continued to cast an affectionate eye back at aristocratic Europe. His contemporary Thoreau wondered aloud whether it would take anything less than the elimination of clothing to erase societys fascination with rank once and for all.
Fussells appreciation of mass culture is alive and well in his latest work, an eclectic but welcome investigation of uniforms and the uniformity they confer, an appropriate subject for the author of Class and The Great War and Modern Memory. True, we might all have survived without a book on uniforms; Fussell is fascinated by seemingly every aspect of every kind of costume, from the Eisenhower jacket to the getups worn by doormen at fashionable hotels, and Uniforms is sometimes more inquisitive than it needs to be to make a point. But clothes make the man more frequently than we might expectwomen seem mostly immune to the allure of uniforms, at least in this bookand Fussell once again proves a canny and engaging observer.
Sometimes, the clothing we deem most individualistic turns out to
No sartorial revolution better illustrates this yearning to be freebut only to a pointthan the spectacular rise of blue jeans during the 1960s and 70s, when one of the eras ultimate counterculture statements quickly became as mainstream as the skirts and gabardines it had replaced. Like jazz, Hollywood, and Coca-Cola, Fussell writes, the institution of blue jeans is one of Americas most impressive inventions. But when everyone has at least one pair, what do you have? A uniform, and just as much a uniform as the dark suit. This particular uniform, however, was more than just a statement of anti-parent and anti-respectability chic; jeans also caught the new wave of sexual freedom ushered in by the Pill and gay liberation, achieving peculiar resonance because they seemed to call attention to the bodys sexually charged nether regions. It may be one of the fashion ironies of all time that a pair of pants whose origins were strictly practical and strictly working classthe companion of gold miners and cowboyswas transformed for a time into the ultimate uniform of rebellion, only to becomein our own time the squarest uniform of all.
Real uniforms receive no less thorough treatment. Readers will learn that gilt buttons long engendered controversy because their aristocratic pedigree placed them off limits to average citizens. Steerage passengers immigrating to America were terrified by the approach of anyone on shipboard who wore them, Fussell writes, not that they were of much help in an emergency (Titanic captain E. J. Smith wore an impressive 10 gilt buttons on his dress coat). The books most enjoyable passages, however, relate to the costumes worn by American college marching bands. Fussell devotes two full pages to the rules and regulations governing the uniforms of one Midwestern high school band (maybe the one rumored to have inherited preposterous uniforms Richard Nixon tried to foist on his White House guards in 1970).
When my father was at Penn in the 1940s, band members drilled in crisp, military-inspired uniforms, their marches mirroring the precise formations they would soon execute in wartime basic-training exercises. With the exception of Cornell, however, todays Ivy League marching bands will have nothing to do with pseudo-military uniforms. Penns band, Fussell notes, until recently complemented its navy letter sweaters and gym shoes with white pants, but decided even these were too uniformish. Their replacement? Khakis, the same pants that so many students wear to class and thatif fashion remains on coursetheyll soon be wearing on casual Fridays.
Robert E. Shepard C83 G83 is a literary agent in Berkeley, California.
2003 The Pennsylvania Gazette
THINGS ORNAMENTAL : The Arts