I have always liked wearing uniforms. Cub Scouts, Boy Scouts, High School Band were attractive to me for lots of other reasons, but the best part was dressing up to meet with your co-ornati. Yes, the Latin word for uniform is ornatus, the same root as ornament and ornate. I was of a member a fraternity in high school where we decked ourselves out in tuxedos, capes and swords! So, you can see where I’m coming from with uniforms.
The more time I spend in Vienna, Austria, the city that has been the site of my ethnographic research for over forty years, the more I find points of connection between my costume-love and the clothing priorities of the people who have deeper roots in this place. Paintings of ‘turn of the (20th) century’ Vienna portray men taking every opportunity they had to wear uniforms. There were hundreds of possibilities: every military regiment had their own colors and regalia. Some of the hats alone were two feet high! The university had a uniform for everyday wear, apart from the gowns worn at graduation and such cermonies. Doctors had a uniform. Lawyers had a uniform. Officials of the government wore uniforms. Tram conductors were very proud of their uniforms.. Housemaids wore uniforms that have since become Halloween cliches. The various ministers and members of religious orders each had their own, some of which were just as elaborate as the military uniforms. The different guilds had their uniforms. You could tell a carpenter from a butcher by what they wore when they were not working. Bankers all wore the same clothes, just like today. And there were social class uniforms too. And today, we find various uniforms in and around hospitals, military installations, stations for first responders, clubs for post-punk musicians, and sports events, to name only the most obvious.
At a theater last week, I came across a room full of men wearing uniforms. The women were more individual. It was much harder to discern common patterns. I’m sure someone who is more knowledgeable of women’s fashions could have written a good analysis of them, but I’m too ignorant to do so. With the men, however, the elements of the uniform were clearer. Some of them, like the fellow in this picture, seemed to have stepped right out of a painting of a charity ball from 1900!
This fellow is a master in the guild of miners. They have a technical school in Vienna. One sees these uniforms on the street often. I find the brass buttons on the coal black gabardine cloth really beautiful. It’s is actually unlawful for me to wear one in public, but more about that in a minute.
The other uniforms were more subtle. There was the standard, middle class sport jacket with tie, the artsy sport jacket without tie, sweater with tie, and sweater without tie. But no one had fewer than two layers on their torso.
Who can and cannot wear what has a long history in this Europe. Sumptuary Laws, as they are called, originated back in the day (late 13th century) when laws that reinforced religious morality were more common (I heard that snicker!). In particular, they helped people avoid the Christian sins of pride and greed. If you were punished for wearing garments that were too expensive for your level of earning, you had a good reason not to buy them. Such laws are not exclusive to Europe. They existed in Ancient Greece, Rome, China, Tokugawa Japan, and Medieval Islam. Most of the laws were directed at woman, both to limit ostentatious dress and to make it easier to identify prostitutes. Only they wore red dyed fabric in public. The laws also made it possible to identify social rank and privilege. This made it easier to then discriminate against people of lower status than you. Uniforms were actually described in law for different occupations and statuses. That’s why the minor cannot wear my academic robes and I cannot wear his guild suit of ‘brass on black.’
These remnants of the sumptuary laws are a good example of what Bourdieu described as the internalised structures, dispositions, tendencies, habits, and ways of acting, that are both individualistic and yet typical of the social group, community, family, and historical position, while at the same time, an individual trace through this entire collective repertoire (1990).
So, this got me thinking what kinds of uniforms we might design for callings in life that were never imagined in the Classical and Medieval world. What might the uniform for computer hackers look like? Which elements would be included and which specifically excluded? White hats and black hats, perhaps, but what style of hat? Baseball cap? Hipster fedora? Top Hat? Or, member of the guild of direct mail soliciting for political candidates, polling, or charities. They are otherwise invisible and therefore, deserve a uniform.
Or, anthropologists! When I was first starting in the discipline, the AAA meetings had an opening ceremony on Thursday night (they were only three days long up until the late 1970s). Everyone put on clothing from the place where they did their research. This was appropriation then and downright insulting now. That option is out. Nor is it feasible for every archaeologist to wear an Indiana Jones hat and carry a bullwhip, though I have known archaeologists who have tried to pull that off (not recently). It would also not be the right thing for all of us to don the white lab coat of the bioanthropologist. Only a small portion of them wear such things even in their labs.
So, I invite you to offer your own designs. What selection of ornati would you recommend to recognize each other and be recognized for our special knowledge of the world?
Bourdieu, P. (1990) The Logic of Practice. Cambridge: Polity.