Uniforms have enrobed humans for millennia, endowing a feeling of belonging and conjuring the power of the collective. Historians trace the rise of the uniform to 210 BC, the first emperor of China and his tomb of terracotta warriors. Since then – from the military to retail or sports – uniforms have imposed order and authority, denoted rank and affiliation and become invaluable brand promoters. According to Bill Dunn, author of the forthcoming Uniforms, one of the most important uses of the early uniform was ‘dress to impress’, as flamboyant garb made it more attractive to join the military. But uniforms are also handy in intimidating the enemy, bolstering troop morale or inspiring respect. It’s not just those in authority who don a uniform. Monastic vestments can emphasise religious vocation and elevate the wearer from the masses, while football kit – similar to early military wear – makes it easy to distinguish opposing sides. The growth in commercialisation in the 20th century has given uniforms yet another function: branding tool. ‘The commercial uniform in the company colours was born, and with it the concept of the “brand”,’ writes Dunn. Whether through a fast UPS deliveryman or a 1950s Playboy bunny, companies use their workers’ appearance to spread the brand message. The most unashamed example, perhaps, is the branding wars of airlines in the 1960s and 1970s. The Pucci-clad ‘Braniff babes’ and Southwest Airlines’ hot-pant-kinky-boot stewardesses wore their employers’ messages eloquently on their scanty sleeves.
By Anna Richardson