Just opened at The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, the exhibition Uniformity examines the role and influence that uniforms play on high fashion. Long a source of inspiration for designers (the get-ups of soldiers, flight attendants, and fast-food clerks, have been the catalysts collections at Chanel, Gucci, and Yves Saint Laurent), uniforms quickly denote different positions on the spectrums of power, wealth, and importance; they are at once the most utilitarian expression of fashion, and one of the most nuanced. Some are so commonplace, they are hidden in plain sight.
"I've always been fascinated by uniforms—how they're designed, how they function socially and physically, and also how they can have a psychological impact on the wearer and those around them," says the curator of the show, Emma McClendon, whose idea for the exhibition grew out of her own research in the museum, and the realization that many of the archival uniforms have never been seen before by the public.
The exhibition is organized by categories that range from the military to sports; contemporary pieces from household fashion names appear alongside uniforms from the museum's permanent collection.
One highlight is an original McDonald's uniform from 1975, designed by Stan Herman, the father of New York Fashion Week. (Before Diane von Furstenberg presided over the Council of Fashion Designers of America, there was Herman.) His uniform, claims McClendon, immediately makes you think of a Big Mac and fries—that's how effective it is in its branding.
Another section pits a WWI uniform against a deconstructed Comme des Garçons women's look from 1998. The exhibition is topped off with Eaton suits and school blazers—including a 1944 Princeton University blazer—that speak to the idea of adolescence and identity.
"What's interesting is how certain uniform garments have become so ingrained into everyday clothing that we don't realize its origin," adds McClendon. "Peacoats, khakis, breton striped shirts, and trench coats—a lot of clothing 'basics' started as uniforms."
Here, McClendon offers her own list of uniform facts for some of the pieces in the exhibition.
Football Uniforms Didn't Always Have Pads
Originally, durable materials like wool and canvas were used because they wouldn't rip easily.
The Royals Put Sailor Suits for Kids On The Map
A portrait of a young Prince Albert Edward that appeared in the 1840s sparked a trend for the style in children's wear. In it, the little prince wore a mini version of the Royal Navy's uniform.
The Schoolgirl Uniform Is A Little Too Sexy
The skirt of Rudi Gernreich's sexy schoolgirl look is so short that the designer included matching shorts underneath it.
Blue Came First
Before the 20th century, blue was actually the color of the American Army. This can still be seen today in the "dress blue" uniforms worn for formal occasions. In the 20th century, the switch to green came in response to guerrilla warfare.
The French Couturier Is Really American
Mainbocher designed the uniform for the W.A.V.E.S. during WWII. The French fashion house was founded in Paris in 1929, but the couturier was actually born and raised in Chicago—his real name was Main Rousseau Bocher. After the onset of WWII he returned to the United States and set up his business in New York.