Uniforms: Why We Are What We Wear is a fun little
compendium of facts on an interesting subject. This
work, however, lacks the heft of Fussell's earlier
works, including The Great War and Modern Memory and
Class. Uniforms reads more like a haphazard collection
of "scrap material" rather than a detailed analysis of
its subject. Fussell also does little to answer the
titular question: "why we are what we wear."
One of the advantages that a uniform affords its
wearer is the ability to skimp on "the work of
remaking one's external character all the time." That,
of course, is one of a uniform's many advantages, but
the flip side is a concurrent loss of individuality.
Sometimes, as in the case of Levi's blue jeans, an
effort to rebel and stand out gets adopted by so many,
that it becomes the new uniform.
As would be expected, Uniforms talks about all manner
of military attire and even the general military
attitude (many a generalization here!) of a nation's
people. Fussell points out that American uniform use
was widely considered "sloppery." Europeans in WWII,
it seems, were enraptured by the sloppiness of
American army personnel, uniform and all. American
soldiers were often seen "driving their jeeps with one
leg outside, foot on the fender," displaying a
Besides military uniforms, Fussell also briefly points
out uniforms in many other codes of dress. A nuptial
dress, which is usually white, religious uniforms, and
Boy Scout uniforms are but some of the examples
outlined in the book. Long baggy boys' shorts and
pants, we learn, are derived from prison wear as an
act of rebellion against parents. Belts are taken away
from inmates so they are not used as a weapon or to
commit suicide, so the pants hang loose and low.
Then of course there is the cute UPS truck driver in
his cool brown uniform classified as "delivery chic."
It seems many a woman will make extra catalog
purchases just to be paid a visit by her UPS truck
guy. I believe it!
Often Fussell makes the most obvious of statements and
tries to pass them off as analyses. For example, he
says that the wearing of a uniform confers dignity and
a sense of belonging to the wearer. This holds true
for many organizations, from McDonald's to the United
States Marine Corps. A layperson is also more liable
to trust a police officer in traditional attire and
the "dark blue uniform is joyously received by most
In his book, Fussell points out the overwhelming
masculinity of the subject (women came to uniforms
pretty late). He also says that: "Dressing
approximately like others is to don armor against
contempt." Any woman who has tried buying her guy a
purple shirt can attest to the verity of both of those
Fussell's book is quite full of interesting facts
about uniforms. One wishes, though, that he had
provided the matter with some more stuffing. As it
stands, Uniforms is a fun look at the subject but it
is not a detailed analysis of it.