In this unkempt seasonal moment, with summer-heat-swollen feet spilling over sandals and shorts bunched with horizontal crotch-creases, entering a cool, dark space full of regimented, rule-bound clothing feels like a balm. “Uniformity,” a brisk, wide-ranging exhibit about literal and figurative uniforms on view at the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, is a sort of anti-celebration of the goopy, leaky, tender fragility of bodies, presenting some of the ways in which we shield and cloak those bodies, standardize and categorize them.
The exhibition is divided into four headings: military, work, school, and sports. Uniforms of all kinds, from those of the WWII U.S. Women’s Army Corps to the NYPD circa 1940 to Eton schoolboys, sit alongside various fashion designs they’ve inspired over the years. There’s a French marinière shirt next to a lace and Breton-stripe dress from Sacai, an unexpectedly cute and trim 1976 McDonald’s uniform (complete with cropped flared pants and a visor) next to a sloppy-preppy Moschino by Jeremy Scott sweater-and-skirt set emblazoned with a giant golden-arches Moschino logo.
Military influence dominates, perhaps because when designers want to evoke power and authority, they often throw in a sharp shoulder, a braid, an epaulet, camouflage. “Uniformity” seems to argue that this breeds subversive tension in women’s clothing, melding the traditionally hyper-masculine with the feminine to create garments that are at once both and neither. Which it often does, like in a Comme des Garçons ensemble based closely on a WWI-era U.S. Army service uniform, but with its sleeves ripped off, leaving frayed armholes both punk and pastoral. (Although it must also be said that this blend can result in deranged Moreauvian mash-ups, as with camouflage-print ball gowns reminiscent of nightmarish Burning Man party wear.) It makes for a sometimes titillating mix: Sailor collars on midcentury day dresses showcase bows as ostentatious as secondary sex characteristics; a Marc Jacobs outfit pairs a U.S. Army service jacket with a long floral skirt, as if the ensemble came from two different paper doll sets. Many of the women’s uniforms immediately recall or already are sexy versions of themselves, while the only men’s uniform that closely resembles its sexed-up counterpart is the sailor suit (or was that just me?).
The sports section is more explicitly tribal, mostly focusing on how uniforms help band a team together and allow players and fans to recognize one another. Loud colors and stark graphics are par for the course, although there’s a late-nineteenth-century baseball uniform the color of sand that evokes Eileen Fisher. The jerseys brought to mind the recent news that players from various WNBA teams were fined (then later un-fined) by the league for wearing black warmup shirts to raise awareness for the Black Lives Matter movement and mourn the victims of recent shootings in Minnesota, Dallas, and Baton Rouge. It was a reminder that uniforms can be used to silence, making the wearer beholden to the owner of the brand — because of course it’s almost always someone else who owns the uniform you wear.
A categorized body can be a protected one, too. Military uniforms, by design, reflect this: Heavy braid in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries provided defense from blades, and even after hand-to-hand sword combat became less of a thing, this detail stayed on dress uniforms because, hey, it looks great and tradition is security, too. U.S. Air Force flight suits stitched together shirt and pants into one sleek and aerodynamic piece less likely to get caught in machinery. And it casts a strange bit of shadow on those admonishing “how to dress like a French girl” articles to learn that Breton shirts, a/k/a marinière shirts, were distinctively striped in order to make the wearer more visible in water should she fall overboard. And, back to the WNBA, I found myself thinking of New York Liberty player Tina Charles’s comment that “the 70 percent of the WNBA that are African Americans are protected when the jerseys are on. [But] when we take off our jerseys and we are out there, we could be next.”
There’s one uniform that appears throughout the exhibit but isn’t intentionally part of it — that of the museum guard. One guard stands next to some work uniforms (maid and chauffeur) on display; others are stationed at the exit. The exhibition compelled me to notice them; they are the last thing you see before you emerge back into the disordered outside world. In a time of fetishized minimalism (capsule wardrobes, Kondoing until you have the single best version of everything, or, at least, way fewer terrible things), the uniforms comforted me by reminding me of the bodies underneath: each very different, each requiring untold care and protection. A uniform is a mixed bag of protection, categorization, and purpose. And at its functional best, it’s also something you can take off at the end of the day.
Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology
Seventh Avenue at 27th Street
Through November 19