[Exhibition] Uniformity: Fashion & Textile History Gallery

We encounter uniforms everywhere—on soldiers, school children, flight attendants, and fast-food clerks. According to fashion historian Jennifer Craik, the omnipresence of uniforms has “shaped our ways of seeing.” Uniforms are constant reminders of the social order, so commonplace that they are often overlooked. Designed both to blend in and to stand out, uniforms play a unique role in our daily lives.

In some ways, they are the antithesis of high fashion. While uniform design focuses on functionality, control, and tradition, fashion design promotes constant change, creativity, and subversion. Yet throughout history, fashion has drawn inspiration from uniforms of all kinds. For example, fashion designers often take functional features and transform them into decorative elements.

Uniformity explores the dynamic history behind a variety of uniforms, considering their social role and their influence on high fashion. The exhibition is organized thematically to focus on four categories of uniforms: military, work, school, and sports. Within each category, historic uniforms are juxtaposed with the high fashion looks they have inspired.

Military uniforms are referenced in high fashion more often than any other type of uniform. Designers often borrow elements such as metallic braiding, gold buttons, epaulettes, camouflage, and Breton stripes—features that were originally employed to convey a soldier’s nation, rank, regiment, or branch of the armed forces. The translation of military details into high fashion ornamentation flourished during the nineteenth century. Ornate soutache found its way onto women’s outerwear, and by the end of the century, sailor, or “middy,” collars had become fixtures of women’s daywear. Since then, designers such as Chanel, Claire McCardell, Rei Kawakubo, Jean Paul Gaultier, and Sacai have expanded on the trend by constantly drawing on uniforms in their work.

ensemble

[L to R] Comme des Garçons (Rei Kawakubo), ensemble, 1998, wool; U.S. Army World War I service uniform, 1914-1918, wool, USA. Chanel, “Brasserie Gabrielle” ensemble, fall 2015, wool, silk, cotton, leather, France.

To a certain degree, the adoption of military elements for use in (predominantly female) fashion subverts the hyper-masculine authority of the uniform itself. The power and strength of the uniform fuses with the “feminine” fluidity of fashion, resulting in a garment that is transgressive in its dichotomy. It is both at odds with the original uniform and visually similar to it, which creates an intriguing aesthetic tension.

military elements

[L to R] Jean Paul Gaultier, ensemble, 1992, cotton, France; Sacai, ensemble, spring 2015, cotton, silk, synthetic.

Work uniforms are designed to make employees of different occupations immediately identifiable. To do this, uniform designers utilize easily recognizable devices. Nurse uniforms, for example, have historically included a distinctive cap and bright white aprons or smocks worn over a standardized dress of blue, pink, white, or grey. McDonald’s uniforms, on the other hand, utilize the distinctive colors and symbols of the company logo to transform each employee into an extension of the company’s branding. While work uniforms have not had as much impact as military uniforms, they too have inspired fashion designers. One example of this is a look from Chanel’s fall 2015 collection that plays on the uniforms of Parisian waiters, complete with a clutch bag that mimics the look of plates.

WORK

[L to R] Stan Herman, McDonald’s uniform, 1976, polyester, USA. Stan Herman, TWA flight attendant uniforms, 1975, synthetic blend, USA.

School uniforms hold a special significance for many wearers. Worn during childhood and adolescence, a school uniform—or more accurately, a person’s reaction to a school uniform—can have a marked impact on that person’s attitude towards dress and even his or her own identity. Many designers have experimented with the signature elements of the school uniform, from blazers to pleated skirts. Thom Browne, for example, often combines the iconography of the school blazer with a traditional grey flannel suit, thus fusing adolescent and adult dress codes in a single look. Likewise, a Rudi Gernreich homage to a schoolgirl uniform from 1967 demonstrates that the style became increasingly sexualized during the second half of the twentieth century.

[L to R] Rudi Gernreich, “Japanese Schoolgirl” ensemble, fall 1967, wool, USA. Princeton University blazer, 1944, wool, USA.

[L to R] Rudi Gernreich, “Japanese Schoolgirl” ensemble, fall 1967, wool, USA. Princeton University blazer, 1944, wool, USA.

Athletic uniforms sometimes borrow elements from military uniforms. Color contrasts, bold stripes, and soutache braiding help to convey a sense of power and strength. Athletic jerseys distinguish a team from its competitors, and also unite its members as a cohesive group. However, individual numbers help to maintain a level of individuality within a team. The bold insignias and markings of athletic jerseys have influenced the logo-driven branding of many luxury fashion labels. Companies such as Gucci will often place their company names or logos where a team name, player number, or mascot might appear on the front, back, or even sleeve of an athletic uniform.

[L to R] Football uniform, c. 1920, wool and cotton duck, USA. Geoffrey Beene, “football jersey” dress, fall 1967, silk and sequins, USA.

[L to R] Football uniform, c. 1920, wool and cotton duck, USA. Geoffrey Beene, “football jersey” dress, fall 1967, silk and sequins, USA.

The push-pull between the identity of a group and that of an individual is a constant tension in modern society. Fashion critic Suzy Menkes once said, “The way that people dress makes them part of an army, dressed in their own uniform, determined to do something.” Although we may not each wear an official uniform in our everyday lives, the influence of uniforms can always be felt, even in the basic activity of getting dressed each morning.

Uniformity is organized by Emma McClendon, assistant curator of costume at The Museum at FIT.

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[Makeup] A Salute to Starfleet Style

THE COSMIC WOMEN OF STAR TREK NOT ONLY MADE THE SERIES IMMORTAL, THEIR POWERFUL SENSE OF STYLE SENT SPACE-AGE FASHION TO A NEW FRONTIER.

It’s impossible to think what life in space would look like without Star Trek. The TV and movie series isn’t only a limitless marvel of sci-fi storytelling; it’s a launching pad for some of the most iconic, inventive, even comical costumes we’ve ever seen. Star Trek brought street style to space and back to Earth again. Turtlenecks, spandex and tunics haven’t been the same since the Starfleet donned them, but that’s only the beginning of the rabbit hole (or black hole) of fun. Let’s explore the cosmos of Trekkie style!

Star Trek made its impact upon first contact by thematically dressing its cast in skintight clothes that (really, truly) boldly went there. The immortal Starfleet uniforms were like none other onscreen: in The Original Series, men’s uniforms were colourful tunics, while women’s were short dresses with dark knee-high boots.

A SALUTE TO STARFLEET STYLE 1

Made of velour – which looked svelte under set lights – and in a sleek Spartan silhouette, it became the official sign language of fashion’s future.

Trek’s costumes came in fabrics hailed forward for their time: plastic, Perspex, a lot of new polyblends hatched straight from the lab. In the post-Sputnik 1960s, buzzy designers like Mary Quant and Paco Rabanne were working in similar space-age materials. Plus, Star Trek was already pushing gender and racial boundaries – The Original Series featured television’s first interracial kiss! – so, androgyny and bodycon styles felt right on (or, rather, perfectly ahead of) time.

A SALUTE TO STARFLEET STYLE 2

Lieutenant Uhura, the legendary African-American character who shared that fated kiss with William Shatner’s Captain Kirk, intrepidly piloted her own red miniskirt onto primetime.  The garment flaunted a sense of empowerment, professionalism and team identity, it was a badge of modernity.  Actress Nichelle Nichols, who played Uhura, notes cheekily; “I was wearing them on the street. What’s wrong with wearing them in the air?” Touché.

Leonard Nimoy’s portrayal of the half-Vulcan,
half-human commander is at the heart of every
Star Trek fan’s obsession, and that worship comes
with its own special salute – and style. “Angular
in all the right places,” Vogue has hailed
him approvingly. V-shaped, indeed!

That gleeful sense of “Why not?” permeates many of Star Trek’s bolder style experiments. There were moments where Captain Kirk and his fellow crew resembled members of a ballet troupe at the Big Top. There were sparkle disco ensembles, tin foil bikinis, man thongs, young Wesley Crusher’s inexplicably generous collection of ruffled sweaters – shoulder pads and all. When the Starfleet landed on a foreign planet, new forms of life weren’t the only unknown variables to decode. But the pinnacle of extraterrestrial aesthetics is best captured by one name: Spock! Leonard Nimoy’s portrayal of the half-Vulcan, half-human commander is at the heart of every Star Trek fan’s obsession, and that worship comes with its own special salute – and style.  “Angular in all the right places,” Vogue has hailed him approvingly. V-shaped, indeed!

A SALUTE TO STARFLEET STYLE 3

As the series evolved, Star Trek costumes evolved to draw upon an athletic, balletic feel, incorporating stretch fabrics like spandex and Lycra to give the Starfleet look a new physique-enhancing appeal. The Next Generation’s spritely styles have influenced future-facing looks at Versace, Alexander Wang, Jean Paul Gaultier and beyond.  But thanks to social media and fan-driven events like Comic Con, Star Trek cosplay strives to heroic levels of creativity, with its most avid participants literally morphing from eyeball to modified toe-claw to capture their most cherished characters in the flesh. When the Star Trek: Mission New York convention debuts later this year for the series’ 50th anniversary, it will not only celebrate a major pop-culture milestone, it will be proof that dressing up like our heroes can keep their story, and our part in it, going forever.

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