The Beauty of Uniforms
What if you never had to think about your work wardrobe again? For an entire year, Sheena Matheiken, founder of the Uniform Project, didn’t: To raise money for charity, Matheiken wore the same black dress each day. And though it sounds incredibly boring, a quick glance at how radically she was able to reinvent that dress on a daily basis is a great reminder of the breadth one simple garment can have. While Matheiken’s approach is a bit extreme, the basic premise of a uniform is completely workable for most people and lifestyles — and especially professional wardrobes. Turns out, a personalized uniform is more powerful than it is boring.
Men are no strangers to visual uniformity, particularly in the form of a suit. But a uniform appearance is something many women have yet to embrace. Why should they? Well, for starters, a key selling point of the uniform is the elimination of choice, which allows you to save your mental power for other, more important thoughts and actions. Making repeated choices wears down mental energy and causes decision fatigue, so we need to conserve and routinize whenever possible. A tired brain can even encourage a loss of self-control. So finding daily ways to foster repetition, like eating the same thing for breakfast or dressing in a similar fashion, can radically improve your efficacy in other areas of life (not to mention the time you’ll save).
Historian Paul Fussell argues that uniforms symbolically connect us to a specific community and command respect. And since your appearance is your brand identity, consistency in dress is important in conveying a coherent, memorable message that connects with your audience. Meaning, uniforms can be liberating, economical and even socially conscious (less material waste!) — all while establishing a strong sense of identity.
While Matheiken’s approach is a bit extreme, the basic premise of a uniform is completely workable for most people’s lifestyles — and, particularly, their professional wardrobes. Here are five uniform types to inspire you. Not sure where to begin? Start streamlining your look — choose a palette, silhouette, color or maybe just a theme, and start building your uniformed brand around it. Here are five uniform types to inspire you.
The Industry-Specific Uniform
Andrea Jung, former Avon CEO and the longest serving female CEO in the Fortune 500, is known for her pearls, (often red) sheath dresses, stilettos and Avon-red lipstick. (Her look became so iconic that Mattel even made a one-of-a-kind Barbie in her likeness.) Like many successful executives, Jung built her uniformed style in alignment with her company: She physically embodied the brand she represented, sending a cohesive message to her audience and giving a face to the brand.
No matter what industry you’re in, you can find ways to align your uniform. Maybe it’s the creative minimalism of all black with a splash of color in an ad or branding agency or bold prints and chunky heels within the non-conformist spirit of the entrepreneurial world.
The Mistake Minimizer
Say what you will of her pantsuits, but after a few headbanded missteps, Hillary Clinton finally found her sartorial niche. Women in politics are amongst the most heavily scrutinized public figures, so embracing the pantsuit is a way for Clinton to deflect fashion pressure by eliminating many of the variables that left her vulnerable to criticism. And she isn’t the only female politician to join the pantsuit parade: German Chancellor Angela Merkel shares her affinity for sleek slacks and a tailored blazer — a combination that communicates both comfort (physical and mental) and authority.
Follow their lead and eliminate vulnerabilities by minimizing choice. Maybe you always wear the same silhouette, or you can stick with a go-to jewelry combo. Whatever aspect of your appearance causes you trouble (or wastes your time!), streamline it and stick to one option whenever possible.
The Era-Inspired Outfit
Janelle Monae sets the uniform bar high with her black and white menswear-inspired apparel and 50s-era quiff hairstyle. Monae herself worked as a maid when she got her start in the music industry, and she comes from a long line of uniformed family members — making her uniform part distinguishing mark, part homage.
Replete with symbolism, uniforms like Monae’s evoke a powerful sense of nostalgia that draws in and connects with the audience on a subconscious level. Choose a genre or era that complements your body type and overall look, and use it for style inspiration.
The Trend-Resistant Fashion Designer
Many of the most celebrated arbiters of style, like Vera Wang, embrace the uniform mentality and prefer a simplistic style to tricked-out trends. In fact, most are seemingly immune to seasonal styles and instead prefer a streamlined look with perennial staying power. Perhaps they’re deflecting attention onto their product, or perhaps they are too wise to fall for the trend cycle of their own industry.
Regardless of the impetus, if uniforms are good enough for the fashion elite, it’s worth taking a page from their enviably dressed playbook. Bonus: Dressing in a classic, simple uniform is also a budget-friendly time-saver.
The Tailored Professional
Even when Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer was working her way up the corporate tech ladder at Google, she didn’t settle for the lax, anti-fashion aesthetic of Silicon Valley. Instead, she followed the trite-but-true adage: Dress for the job you want, not the job you have — and favored designer dresses and separates over jeans and hoodies.
Professional aspiration is reflected not only in the work your produce, but also the image your project. David Letterman famously told Barack Obama he was wearing an “electable” suit. And while you may not be running for office, that doesn’t mean you aren’t vying for a raise or a promotion. So in a sea of suits, how do you keep from blending in and project an “electable” persona? There are two secret ingredients for this uniform formula: 1) Expert tailoring can make even a cheap suit look expensive, and 2) investing in quality pieces made of elegant fabrics will radically transform the drape and flow of any garment.
Anna Akbari, Ph.D. is the "thinking person's stylist" and the founder of Sociology of Style, which takes an intelligent look at image-related issues and offers holistic wardrobe and image consulting services. Find out more and follow her on Twitter.