The Army was fixated on uniforms. Being “out of uniform” was a cardinal sin, so in anticipation of almost any event, the first question on everyone’s lips was, “What’s the uniform?” Even calisthenics had prescribed garb, as did commercial airline travel. When you received a written invitation to a social, the uniform was specified in the lower left-hand corner. The first time I got one that said “Dress Blue with four-in-hand tie,” I showed up in my dress blues with a bow tie. I was evidently the only one who didn’t know “four-in-hand” was the knot in a regular necktie. I remember feeling like a mohawk haircut at a Republican caucus.
After leaving the Army, I taught in a private school. The students were required to wear uniforms. They occasionally grumbled about infringement of their right to self-expression, but there was no question that the school reaped benefits from the policy. One of the few disadvantages was that it forced me to play the role of first sergeant. Each morning, I had to inspect the troops and ensure their outfits were compliant. Girls revealing too much skin were marched to the office, where they waited until mom brought a larger size.
If you take into account my years as a boy scout, I have more experience with uniforms than the average guy. I have to admit that the concept has embedded itself in one of my brain’s neural networks. I can’t help myself. I pay attention to uniforms, be they the formal variety worn by policemen and UPS drivers or such informal ones as white shirts on Mormon men, flag pins on politicians’ lapels and messenger bags at the University of Utah.
A lot of what I see gives me pause. Not long ago, I was making my way down the aisle of an airplane at the end of a flight from Chicago. The pilots lingered at the cockpit door to say goodbye to the disembarking passengers. I noticed they were wearing Air Force-lookalike uniforms with Navy-lookalike rank insignia on their epaulets. “What the hell?” I said to myself.
Police SWAT teams are puzzling, too. When I see them on television, they are usually besieging a building. I note they wear forest-camouflage fatigues and bloused boots. “What the hell?” I say to myself. Do these paramilitaries believe foliage-patterned cammies blend in with a concrete and asphalt landscape?
Nurse uniforms raise larger issues. I was idling in St. Mark’s Hospital a few weeks ago, where I noted all the nurses were wearing baggy scrub suits. They looked like Viet Cong in pastels and Nikes. Long gone are the crisp white uniforms that betokened tradition, skill, cleanliness and authority. Nurses don’t realize uniforms are symbolic. The late scholar Joseph Campbell described how a uniform like black judicial robes has a mythic dimension. In a courtroom, you stand to honor the principles the robes symbolize, Campbell said. Unpressed scrubs in pallid colors don’t measure up.
What really fires up my neural network are the hodgepodge uniforms of U.S. Postal Service letter carriers. Through rain, snow, sleet and hail, they dutifully deliver the mail. Some wear shorts; some wear L.L. Bean lumberjack hats, flaps up; and some wear Peruvian hats, flaps down. Pith helmets and straw beach hats are not uncommon in the summer. I have seen mail carriers in galoshes, but a few wear gaiters. Many walk their routes in unpolished Reeboks. Shirt tucked in? Insulated vest? Long underwear and short-sleeved shirt? Sometimes, yes; sometimes no. Taken as a group, they look like a band of guerrillas who have been in the hills too long.
I was surprised to learn that each letter carrier receives a yearly uniform allowance. Clearly, not all of it is spent on official shirts, pants and hats. Some is spent at L.L. Bean or R.E.I., where a weekday hat is sufficiently stylish to do double duty on the weekend. No doubt I am the only one who objects to blue uniforms accessorized by R.E.I. “What the hell?” I say to myself. The USPS needs a first sergeant.
That is definitely not the case in the national parks. Park rangers are strack; they have no choice. Even in 100-degree weather, they wear creased wool pants and felt campaign hats. Privately, they grouse about the strict uniform policies promulgated in Washington, but to my eye, the ranger uniform, has panache. So do the Marine Corps’ dress uniform and that of Salt Lake City motorcycle cops. Medical scrubs come up woefully short. Nurses have swapped tradition and style for utility and comfort. At the USPS, negligent supervisors tolerate employees who routinely compromise their official uniforms. The lapse is lamentable because uniforms add symbolic and cohesive value to organizations.
Uniformity is the real issue. Uniforms sans uniformity is an inherent contradiction. Moreover, an absence of uniformity calls attention to itself as a glaring wardrobe malfunction. To me it is an either/or situation: You either subordinate your individualistic instincts to be a member of a uniformed group or you don’t. You either wear a uniform, or you don’t. As any first sergeant would tell you, there ain’t no middle ground.
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