The Uniform: A Philosophy of Dress

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Illustration By Jason Greenberg
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.

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.

I’m early arriving at Carl Phillips’ Kensington Market apartment in Toronto. His partner answers the door wearing a floor-length black-and-white synthetic printed dress from a local vintage shop. “I wasn’t planning to wear this to have drinks. I was just trying it on,” she laughs, rushing up the stairs to change. Phillips has maintained his staple style of a white shirt and blue jeans for five years, and worn some variation of the uniform for at least a decade. He might layer with a dark v-neck wool sweater and a blazer, but there is little difference otherwise. I’ve always admired, and often joked, about his consistency.

Phillips began in high school. “I used to buy the same shirt in lots of different colors. Always with blue jeans. I hate pants, but jeans are the least offensive of the pants.” Phillips’ partner interjects, asking if he would wear skirts if it were socially acceptable. “No question I would,” he replies.

Phillips has a basic philosophy of dress: “One of the reasons I like to do this is that it doesn’t draw attention to me stylistically in a fundamental way. It lets me control that. I don’t want my clothes to be the conversation piece.”

Phillips has a dozen white shirts in the same style. If they wear out, he buys replacements, retiring or reassigning the old ones to “home shirt” status. As someone who pulls together outfits from piles, often in a panic, I admire the rigidity of his system and how he’s streamlined his life.

“I know that every shirt I have matches every sweater I have. Every sweater I have matches every jacket I have,” he tells me. “I’m a person with an addiction to order and control. So it gives me maximum control. Nothing can go wrong. I’m never going to look unsightly. I’m never going to be halfway through a day and say, ‘Why did I wear this? This isn’t working.’”

The idea Phillips uses his uniform to combat a concern that he may look “unsightly” is fascinating. 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. “It allows one to be a person who has some style, but who is not overly concerned with stylishness,” Phillips continues. “I never feel overdressed and I never feel underdressed. I never have to think about it.”

But when newness can translate into status, I wonder if dressing this way projects carelessness or lack of means. I ask Phillips about reactions to his unwavering aesthetic; he reports either a total lack of awareness or humble admiration. “Because it’s such an anonymous, unremarkable thing, most people just don’t notice. Most people who call me out on it are actually impressed by the simplicity and smartness of the plan.”

Phillips’ uniform asserts both adulthood and responsibility. His is very much a suit industry, especially in positions of power. This addresses the power dynamic in a new way: “It’s part of a general articulation of ‘in-charge-ness,’ but it is not challenging or overbearing. It’s not like walking into a room wearing a four-thousand-dollar suit and smelling like money or power. Not off-putting or showy. It’s competent and confident but also understanding and considerate,” he tells me.

Finally, I ask how Phillips would change his approach to his dress if his resources were unlimited. “I’d just buy nicer white shirts,” he laughs.

In most cases uniforms are unassuming, a deliberate choice made by strong yet accommodating personalities. JP Robichaud is a prime example. I meet him at a dumpling house on Toronto’s Spadina Avenue, the same street where he procures his signature black t-shirts at five for 10 dollars. He is intimidating, all in black, heavily tattooed with a shaved head, wearing what has been jokingly described as a “grim” expression. “When someone looks directly at me they think that they should show me their ID,” he laughs.

He describes his uniform as “Pollardian minimalism,” named for Cayce Pollard, the fictional protagonist in William Gibson’s 2003 novel Pattern Recognition. Pollard is a brand and marketing cool hunter, cursed with an unusual intuitive sensitivity for branding.

“She has an allergy to and can’t wear anything branded,” Robichaud says when he tells me her story. “The degree of the allergic reaction depends on the brand.” He had already started dressing in his signature uniform before he read Pattern Recognition, cutting the red tabs off his black Levi’s and taking a stitch ripper to the leather patch on the belt line. “No images. No text.”

Robichaud works in theater and event planning and has worn all-black clothes and boots for close to 15 years. In New York he rejoiced in finding an unadorned black belt with a black buckle. He prefers minimal pockets and design; he never wears color and rarely wears patterns—“at most an extremely subtle pinstripe.” His devotion to this aesthetic is near religious and, like Phillips, has to do with control, part of a process of figuring out who he was and what he wanted. “Shaving my head [in 1995] was the first step in getting rid of what I was seeing as excess.”

His uniform was also greatly affected by the evolutions of his profession, working backstage and needing to wear plain black all the time. “It speaks to signal versus noise. If you want to take a signal as a presence, then your presence should cut through the noise, without making a big show of it. Your presence should be felt even if you are background. Even if you are invisible.”

Though you would never know it to look at him, Robichaud’s clothing choices are less about rejecting fashion and more about the thoughtful accommodation of others. A self-described “bondage enthusiast,” he has staged public rope performances and has worked on “life-drawing with edge” events with Toronto’s The Keyhole Sessions. His theories on consistent clothing and subsequent expectation translate into trust from the women he works with, especially with the vulnerability and risks inherent.

“I feel like it makes me solid. I feel like it makes me boring. I feel like it’s easier for me to be dependable. If people can always associate me the same way, they say, ‘Right, there’s JP and he’s going to do what JP does. Because the look of JP doesn’t ever change.’”

As Robichaud talks, I realize although their aesthetics are different, he and Phillips have a lot in common. Minimally, both maintain exacting standards. “I’m actually very particular about what I wear. I worry very much about the things that I do choose, much like Carl when his cuffs start to fray.”

More notably, for both Phillips and Robichaud, pared-back wardrobes speak volumes about their identities. Their outfits are about careful, deliberate communication, regardless of how they look to the uninformed eye.

As I talkto more people about uniforms, I note the recurring issue of gender. Robichaud suggested it’s “easier for men to adopt an unobtrusively uniform way of dressing because their options are already more uniform.”

Classic uniform options for women, especially those who wish to present femininity in their style of dress, are distinctly limited.

Maryam Siddiqi is a full-time writer and editor at a national newspaper. She agrees in part with Robichaud’s assessment of the gendered nature of uniform adoption. “I don’t know that I think a uniform is more of a man’s thing or woman’s thing, but I definitely think it’s easier for men by sheer virtue of the existence of the business suit. I mean, that is a uniform, at least in the Western world.”

After making a New Year’s resolution to simplify her wardrobe, Siddiqi is still in the process of refining her signature look. She takes a modular approach, selecting items that always go together, making shopping and getting dressed easier, and facilitating the confidence that she always looks good. “Women have more freedom to choose what they wear, but sometimes too much choice can be paralyzing,” she notes.

A year ago, Siddiqi was much like me, her closet brimming with what she refers to as “cheap, fast fashion.” But as impulsively purchased garments showed increasing wear and tear, she opted to rebuild her wardrobe in a deliberately executed way. “I was trying to adopt a refined look. I thought simplifying and being smart about what I buy would be a good move.”

Siddiqi’s choices were not accidental; she studied pictures of Audrey Hepburn and classic French fashion to get an idea of how she could wear simple things without erring on the side of boredom. The result was classic slim-fit pants, simple shorts in the summer, and tailored v-neck tops. “Basically, I wear variations of the same thing every day.’

Siddiqi, early in her experience of uniform adoption and in the development of a philosophy around it, is the most pragmatic of my uniformers. She sums up, point by point, why it’s worth pursuing: “On occasion I do feel that my outfit is same-old, but honestly, that happens maybe once or twice a month. Overall, it’s made my life so much easier. One, I know I always look put together. Two, it makes getting dressed simpler. Now I can pick [my outfit] in about 10 seconds in the morning. Three, I’m shopping less.”

Siddiqi says she hasn’t faced any friction from others, but instead sees the interesting offshoot of people pointing out items of clothing and saying, “this is so you.”

“It’s changed the way I see myself. I just feel better about how I’m presenting myself to the world. Because I’m dressing a bit more seriously than I used to, I’m taking myself a bit more seriously than I used to. My uniform makes me look like I’ve got my shit together, and so even if on the inside I don’t, I know that people won’t be able to tell by looking at me.” The sentiment sounded familiar, and so it should.

The problem with my own plan to pare back my wardrobe was simple—I’m gleefully enamored by the diverse possibilities of fashion. I didn’t really want to strip things back; no wonder my chosen uniform and what I perceived as its dreaded monotony lasted less than a week. But my other mistake was in assuming a uniform was the opposite of my sartorial disarray, only to discover it was simply the more orderly side of the same coin.

Phillips, Robichaud, and Siddiqi have a lot in common with each other and, not surprisingly, with everyone else. For many uniformers, wearing the same simple thing daily is as much about building an identity—and an armor—as consistent variation is for others. Regardless of approach, our individual style offers the world a deliberately crafted way of being seen and, perhaps most importantly, of seeing ourselves. We each decide what makes sense for us.

And while for now, perhaps, a uniform doesn’t make sense for me, it doesn’t keep me from appreciating the discipline and control of that same shirt, purchased multiple times and worn into retirement. While I’m not ready to give up my own choices, paralysis and chaos notwithstanding, I will admit I admire the healthy efficiency of a choice removed.

Stacey May Fowles is a writer and magazine professional living in Toronto. Her writing has appeared in various publications, and her latest novel, Infidelity, was published last fall by ECW. Reprinted from Worn, a twice-yearly fashion journal that discusses the cultures, subcultures, histories, and personal stories of fashion.

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