The Uniform: A Philosophy of Dress

For people who have adopted a signature ensemble, the uniform isn’t anti-fashion—just pared-down, simple, and effortlessly stylish.

| January/February 2014

  • I assumed those who dismissed the whims of fashion did so because it didn't matter to them, but this was simply a different way of valuing the importance of appearance.
    Illustration By Jason Greenberg

I tried, I really did.

Last summer I made an effort to pare down my wardrobe and don something like a uniform. It would consist of a white t-shirt, dark skinny jeans, and a pair of Vans—a deliberately curated week’s worth of the same outfit, worn until worn out.

I was inspired by the simplicity of the idea. Ever since I’ve had a paycheck I’ve been purchasing clothes on binges. Barely worn items accumulate around me in the chaos of endless choice. I was worried my sartorial confusion belied an internal disarray, the “uniform” was my chance to eliminate excess, clean up the mess, and add some symbolic stability to my life.

The uniform is the grand equalizer. It levels the playing field, showcasing our unadorned selves. It can indicate what team we’re on, unifying players. Boy Scouts and soldiers, protesters and police, schoolgirls and religious leaders adopt them. They dictate power, rank, and affiliation—an “us and them” message that assures us, whether in comfort or fear, who’s on which side.

It’s easy to find examples of standardized clothing: the Uniform Project’s Sheena Matheiken and her one little black dress; Mark Zuckerberg’s 20 gray t-shirts; Tom Wolfe in his white suit, Johnny Cash, Karl Lagerfield, Janelle Monáe, Henry Rollins, Annie Lebovitz—the list of uniformers is long. In a Vanity Fair interview, Barack Obama validates the elimination of sartorial choice: “You’ll see I wear only gray or blue suits … I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make.”

In the essay “Boring is Productive,” Robert C. Pozen surmises, “Making too many decisions about mundane details is a waste of a limited resource: your mental energy.” Most of the people I’ve encountered who choose a daily uniform agree with this theory; its introduction into their lives has a stabilizing effect.

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