Has the time come for the self-styled "work uniform?"

Photo: Harper's Bazaar.com 

Around 2012, a young Saatchi and Saatchi art director, Melinda Kahl, adopted her own daily work uniform: narrow black pants, white silk blouse, black blazer for colder months, and a lone accessory,  a black leather rosette tie. In her original post, she mentions both the responses—people asked whether she was she all right, had joined a sect, or had made a bet—and also spoke of her vast relief at letting of early-morning struggles.

Kahl commented that suit-wearing men have used this approach for ages, and tartly said, "...I couldn't help but notice that it appeared as if I needed a male authority to legitimize my choice of clothing in order for others to truly accept it."

Recently, she refreshed the pieces, ordering 15 identical white Zara shirts (at a discount).  On weekends, she wears whatever she likes, including "lots of dresses".

I did a half-Melinda for awhile: in the early 2000s, when I worked for a global telecommunications company, I wore as the bottom part of an outfit only black pants or skirts. I found the formula liberating, professional yet simple. I wouldn't have had the nerve to wear but one full outfit, and am impressed by her resolve and equanimity.

Secretly, I've always been drawn to uniforms (and I admit, to men in uniforms; pilots, naval officers in dress whites. Now, where was I?) I spent my junior high and high school years in uniforms, and though we suffered itchy grey wool, I didn't envy my friends at other schools who waded through stacks of discards to find a different look, the right look, each day.

At only one other time was I issued a uniform of sorts, a lab coat, when I worked in hospitals in the 1970s. I liked the lab coat; it didn't much matter what you wore under it. 

By 1980, I had moved to corporate life with its formal business attire: jacket-and-skirt, hose, heels—the whole kit on my dime, a steady drain on the paycheque for the next thirty-five years. I learned to enjoy the business-world fashion show, but by the 2000s, was disenchanted with the continual expense and upkeep. Hence, the black on the bottom gambit.

There was definitely competition in the corporation. One woman executive made it known that her female direct reports should buy their suits from a designer she favoured.  (Men, I noticed, might compliment another man's new suit but no one sniped that Jim's blue pinstripe had been seen for several years.)

Many companies specify a dress code so that employees wear all but a uniform, but have some choice regarding fit or quality. Some retail apparel stores specify that staff wear only clothing sold there, and offer attractive discounts.

Kahl, though, marches to her own elegantly emphatic beat, and I love it! She reminds me of certain designers (Calvin Klein, Yves St. Laurent, Marc Jacobs before he went into kilts and kohl) who worked in austere, self-styled uniforms, such as jeans and a white shirt. In photos of Coco Chanel in her atelier,  she's usually wearing her classic suit and brimmed hat, with low heels (like the classic Vivier) or flat-heeled boots.


This post was interrupted by my Canada Post carrier, in her regulation navy and red pants and parka, topped with a jaunty toque. She didn't have time to discuss her clothing, she's a working woman headed out in -12C/10F weather.



Have you ever worn a uniform? Would you welcome its comfort and constancy, or find that a dispiriting way to face the world? 


 



34 comments

materfamilias said...

I wore one through to the end of Grade 10, when the private (Catholic, girls-only) high school I attended closed and I was shocked at suddenly joining 2700 other students (a huge, 8-12 school, at its Baby Boom peak population). I began to see, in retrospect, the comfort of the uniform I'd begun occasionally to bridle against, but overall I think I found the choice both liberating, even exhilarating, and intimidating, sometimes chastening given the family budget.
More recently, I feel into a retirement uniform this fall and have much enjoyed it, although I seem to be coming out of it a bit with spring's beckoning. Jeans, a sweater, often in neutral tones, often cashmere, Blundstones or oxfords, my pea coat, and a camel-coloured cashmere woven scarf. So calming, somehow....

Madame Là-bas said...

When I taught, I often wished for a uniform for students and for teachers. When I started, a blazer meant that you were the teacher but as time passed, the distinction between student and teacher attire lessened. As a retiree, my grey jeans, capris, a sweater and
a scarf or necklace are my uniform. It just saves so much time and frees up my brain cells for other activities.

Murphy said...

This is my 3rd year with a uniform of my own design for work: black or navy pants with a coordinating black or navy tee and topped with one of my selection of neutral, fitted jackets. I do vary my jewelry, though. I love my uniform - it is easy and professional. When it's really hot (which doesn't happen often around here) I might wear a dress, but otherwise, I'm very content with the usual oufit.

John said...

I do exactly this. I knit pretty scarves or cardigans in colours I like and have trouble finding in stores.--Louise

John said...

I do exactly this. I knit pretty scarves or cardigans in colours I like and have trouble finding in stores.--Louise

LauraH said...

I never wore a uniform at school or work, I wish I had. Choosing clothes that looked good on me was never a strong point and a uniform would have saved much money and unhappiness.

In retirement, I wear my uniform of sweater & pants in winter and linen shirt & pants in summer plus scarves and jewellery. So easy and freeing. Currently I'm experimenting with tights and dresses to ring some changes.

Wendelah said...

I'm a retired RN. For the first part of my career, I wore a traditional nurses uniform: white from head to toe, purchased out of my own salary. I even wore a nurses cap. Eventually, the dress code became more permissive and my look shifted to colored shrubs and a white coat, plus white walking shoes. My final four years at the medical center, I wore the mandatory, employer-provided navy scrubs embroidered with my title and place of employment. We were allowed to wear any kind of sturdy, closed toe footwear--walking shoes, clogs, or trainers were all fine. I chose black walking shoes. White coats were verboten, lest we be confused for a physician. Accessories were considered hazardous. Naturally, nails had to be kept short, and once caps went the way of the dinosaurs, my hair was either worn short or or pulled back in a ponytail. I wore minimal makeup, too--just tinted moisturizer and a neutral lipstick, but that was my choice.

There was an obvious hierarchy being reinforced by how much choice we were allowed in our work attire. Nurses, physical therapists, and respiratory therapists all had to wear hospital provided uniforms in different colors depending on their title. So did housekeeping and dietary staff. Doctors, on the other hand, wore whatever they wanted. Even though they, too, were involved in direct, hands-on patient care, their higher status gave them complete autonomy in what to wear. Social workers and dietitians were treated like doctors and allowed to wear street clothing. I have no idea WHY. My nursing manager wore street clothes and a long white coat issued by the hospital, similar to what the attending physicians wore.

It was certainly easy (and cheap) to wear the hospital provided scrubs, but I missed getting to pick out my own uniform. But it wasn't until the hospital started providing SCRIPTS to the nursing staff that I began to understand where they were going with this. There was a correct way to answer the telephone, complete with a greeting and a closing. We had a script to follow for when we entered a patient's room and another one to recite before we left the patient. Once the behavioral audits started where we were forced to follow our fellow workers into rooms and make sure they were staying on script, it wasn't long before I took early retirement.

I wish they'd decided to to go back to the old dress code of nurses wearing white from head to toe. It looked clean. It looked professional. And no one confused you with one of the housekeeping staff.

At least I didn't need to buy new clothes for retirement. I worked three 12 hour shifts per week so I already had a wardrobe for the other four days of the week.

Duchesse said...

materfamilias: You and I are attending the same School of Retirement; at least, we're wearing the same uniform!

Mme: I've had many primary-school teacher friends over the years and they keep saying the clothes have to be washable, and they like colour; some feel it signals warmth and approachability. My high school teacher friends wore "business casual" attire and many schools had a dress code for teachers.

Murphy: Does anyone remark on your 'uniform'? Are others there doing that, too? I used to get teased, "Oh, is that a new...black skirt?"

Louise: Sounds ideal, to have that personal touch.

Wendelah: Thanks for the peek at the culture in your hospitals. I well remember the full nurse's dress, with the cap that signaled her (they were 99% women) school, and the stripe for grads. Some of those nurses looked very sexy because you could wear those uniforms tight! Then came the shift to scrubs or pants with tunics. (Funny how the tunics had to cover the butt but the dress uniform did not!) I also worked with nurses who were nuns, and who wore a version of their habit, first full-length, then knee. They never adopted the tunic pantsuit.

There were minor status signifiers- who got to wear a stethoscope, as I recall. Anyone visiting the floor (e.g., MDs, RTs, infection control officers, chaplains) was required to wear a lab coat; the surgeons often wore scrubs. No one could wear street clothes. The signifier was the name badge, which was coloured by occupation.


lagatta à montréal said...

Wendelah, I have a friend who is a veterinarian at a clinic in a smaller city southeast of here, and even the veterinarians wear scrubs, or a lab coat. Veterinary medicine degree or not, they don't want to destroy their nice suit jackets wrestling a large dog or high-strung cat onto the examining table, not to mention bodily fluids, which "human" medical professionals also deal with. My friend is glad not to have wardrobe pressures between work and parental duties.

Working at conferences abroad, I quickly adopted uniform: always a black skirt (with leggings or tights; I don't work in as "straight" a field as corporate ones) or trousers and some kind of jacket over a top; mostly black clothing though I do have some colour in tops and scarves. One thing I hated in some jobs was having to wear sheer stockings that ladder immediately; nowadays bare legs have become more acceptable in many work settings, in the summer.

rb said...

I am in the corporate world and also only wear black skirts. I don't think anyone notices.

It's my intention to also wear a charcoal skirt (ooh, edgy!) from time to time but realistically, I never do.

hostess of the humble bungalow said...

The only time I wore a uniform was when I was in Discoverers and CGIT at the United Church that we attended...Mother often wished that we wore uniforms to school as it would make (her) life so much easier!
I do wear a uniform of sorts now that i have retired...pants or jeans, a tee and a sweater unless I am going out and then I add a scarf or swap the pants for a skirt or dress...most of my clothes are black, grey and whites...

Carol Woodard said...

As an art teacher who gets hugged by gluey hands and has loosely capped paint bottles "blow up" I have a self-imposed uniform that does not cost much more than $20 a piece. In warm weather it usually means twill pants (khaki, black) and a white blouse. Often times I add a blazer or jacket, but that comes off as the day goes on. In winter, I crave color so I wear cords and a blouse and a colorful sweater. Because some of my students are young teens, I like to wear really nice jewelry or scarves to punch up the interest. I want to show that it is possible to look good on a budget and that professional dressing is easy to do. I also have an obsessive habit of planning & writing outfit ideas on a calendar each month. Then on Sunday afternoons, I pull together the outfits, including jewelry, and hang them up on hooks in the order I'll be wearing them during the week. If I need to make changes due to the weather I can do that. This organizational strategy has allowed me the freedom from standing in front of the closet each morning wondering what to wear and gifted me a few extra minutes at the beginning of a hectic day. I can also make sure that the clothes I want to wear are clean & ready to go. It also allows me to rotate my clothes so I'm not wearing the same pants or shirt over & over again so I can make each piece last longer.

Duchesse said...

Carol: Indeed you have a stellar system rolling, there! The calendar, the complete outfits in order, on hooks, including accessories... it's like being your own stylist. (I would love to see your lesson plans ;) Planning and writing your outfit ideas also I am guessing prevents you from buying mistakes, too. Ms Carol, you get the Teacher of the Year award here!

Duchesse said...

lagatta: That's a wonderful outfit for conferences because you can also go out in it afterward. At such events, I think few persons look at what you're wearing below the table/desk view.

Any woman who travels for work learns to collect scarves, even if she didn't before!

Duchesse said...

hostess: I'll be you were an adorable CGIT in your white and blue middy! (Non-Canadian readers: Canadian Girls in Training is a girls' group similar to the Girl Scouts, but with a more religious (Protestant) focus.)

Katja said...

Melinda? Miranda? Matilda? (All lovely names, of course!)

Duchesse said...

Katja: Melinda; thanks for catching that.

Murphy said...

Actually, no one has ever commented! I think as long as I keep rotating the jackets (which are different neutral colors) no one will notice :)

Kristien62 said...

I attended both elementary and high school where a uniform was required. In elementary, it was a green jumper, white shirt, bow tie and beret. In high school, it was a green plaid skirt, grey blazer and white shirt. When I went to university, I joined a sorority whose colors were green and white, thus another green blazer. Upon graduation, I swore I would never wear a uniform again. But I have revised my assessment. The uniform relieved me of the worry of what to wear each day. It equalized everyone in the class. I now love uniforms.

Alexandra said...

I always wished for a uniform when I was in school, but never was required to wear one. I ended up with a uniform of my own about six months ago, when I got tired of feeling like I didn't have much to wear. I also did the KonMari method. So, I have one pair of black dress pants and one pair of dark denim trousers for casual Fridays. Five different colored/patterned blouses which coordinate with five blazers of different colors and five patterned scarves that have many of those same colors in the pattern. I can coordinate each piece with one another. In the mornings, I can grab one of each and go without much thought, as they all coordinate with one another. I have two suits (dress + coordinating blazer) for the rare days I have an important meeting.

My closet is not overwhelming, my morning is streamlined, and no one seems to have noticed I'm wearing the same five things because I mix up what I pair. It's perfect.

Duchesse said...

Alexandra: I'd say our approach is more Kon-Mari'd or, (and if you can get your hands on this out of print work) "Simple Isn;t Easy": the pared-down closet where nearly everything works together. SO after writing this post, I think there is a continuum of approaches, from "no uniform, but a consistent approach" (Carol, hostess, lagatta, mater,LauraH to "unform-ish", where one element is, at least at work Murphy, me) to the absolute uniform of one unvarying outfit, like Melinda Khal's.

Uh oh, now I am thinking about pilots again ;)

Sisty said...

I love this idea, too -- love it. And I was thinking along the same lines you just wrote, Duchesse. What some posters are describing isn't a true uniform (technically, uniforms don't allow for individualization). One difference is that the "no uniform, but consistent" approach allows you to disguise the repeats, while Melinda's approach embraces the fact that people are going to notice.

I'm especially intrigued by her one, unchanging piece of "jewelry," the leather tie. This whole discussion brings back good memories of the "plus strict" discussions here a while back.

I went to public school, and did long for a uniform from time to time. I'm very, very drawn to trying this -- what's the worst that could happen?

cjhaab said...

My winter work "uniform" consists of black or navy slacks, a white with black or gray pinstripes button shirt, a pullover or cardigan sweater, and loafers, Chelsea boots or oxford shoes depending on weather. I have a variety of colors in the sweaters: blue, purple, teal, red. I guess it's not as much a uniform as having 10 identical slacks and blouses would be, but it makes it easy and quick to get dressed in the morning, and on the weekend I wash and iron all the worn shirts, no fail. I do add jewelry to up the femininity factor, and a scarf if it's cold.

Most of this evolved because I kept narrowing down what I chose to wear from a larger selection. The white blouses were too "bright", the other colors of slacks were too "loud", the other sweaters that had prints or fancy features were too "busy" - they have disappeared. The pinstripe shirts match anything yet give a bit of interest over plain white, so I settled on that and now don't buy any other type.

My summer "uniform" consists of slip-on flats, gray or black pencil skirts and print "silky" blouses, either with out without sleeves. Then I can add a colorful cardigan if the weather dictates.

Eleanorjane said...

I like dresses as my work uniform. The right dress (knee length, heavy jersey fabric, fitted but not too fitted, with sleeves (preferably 3/4 length) can just be slung on with opaque tights in winter and bam, you have yourself an outfit. I have one similar to this (with a more muted pattern) https://www.hobbs.co.uk/product/display?productid=0116-2340-155L000&productvarid=0116-2340-155L000-NAVY-IVORY-10 which I'm wearing every week at the moment.

Duchesse said...

Eleanorjane: I like your elegant "Sally" dress! You belong to the "uniformish" contingent, those who have settled on a formula and vary the pieces but not the general approach. Khal's stance is more definite: this, only this. It's like a nun's habit, no room for variation.

Perhaps the more flexible approach, you with your dresses, others with neutral trousers and jackets, is a happy medium.

babette said...

I love this style and adopted it myself as I rose in rank at my business. When my job required frequent travel it became a necessity to simplify my wardrobe. I also wore black or gray trousers or skirts, white blouses, and black, navy or red blazers. It was more important what I knew not how I looked at the meetings. It was more important to be respected by my associates. As I remember, I was a role model for and attempted to mentor as many of the younger women as I could before retiring. I still avoid trends.

Duchesse said...

cjhaab: I find myself referencing "Simple Isn't Easy" (2005) to commenters on this post. You and others have refined your wardrobe into what works for you and now will not be led astray by trends, what you admire on someone else, or those "must have" lists.

What the authors (Olivia Goldsmith, Amy Fine Collins) really meant is that •Getting• to Simple Isn't Easy. Among other steps you have to divest a lot of mistakes, and learn what's best on you. I've listed the principles in this post:
http://passagedesperles.blogspot.ca/2011/06/simple-isnt-easy.html

babette: You and I were alike in that the bottom half varied little, and the top
changed. (But it took me years of bulging closets and equally bulging Visa bills to figure that out.) Kahl went beyond our simplified wardrobes: the same clothes and accessory every day, only adding or leaving off her black jacket. Not red, not navy... only that same black jacket. I think that takes fortitude, and I wonder if she will keep it up.

Duchesse said...

rb: I thought on one noticed but eventually my dept. colleagues teased me good-naturedly. And I adore charcoal; I say, eat a peach!

Sisty: You'll see from the comments that many of us have edged to a variant of a uniform, maybe not as purely as Kahl, but with a preference for only slightly varying ensembles. Yes, Kahl's suit is 'strict': discreet clothing characterized by clean lines that follow the body without being either too tight or loose, no pattern, and the whole outfit unrelieved by that "pop of colour" some women feel they must have. It is a lightly androgynous look leavened by her long, tumbling hair.

Hilde said...

Our German chancellor Angela Merkel has developped a uniform: black pants, dark t-shirt, solid-colored blazer, often in quite bright colours. Not having to think much about what to wear surely gives her more time for the more important things.

Sue Nations said...

Carol -- I want to be that disciplined. I am going to try again to make it happen.

s. said...

I wore a strict uniform from grade 5 through high school graduation and loved it. Hunter green tunic, bloomers, wool socks and tie. Cream button down shirt and black regulation oxfords. No jewellery. No makeup. I know that there are women who are thrilled by shopping, selecting different outfits each day, rotating their wardrobe, etc. but I am not one of them. Honestly, if I could go back to wearing my tunic and oxfords 5 days/ week, I'd be ecstatic. It would free up closet space, money and time.

KPD said...

I wore a uniform through school and it seems I still wear a uniform. I too am an art teacher and I wear washable clothes. In winter black or gray pants with a turtleneck of whatever color. All are washable - change up the sweater and change up the look. In warmer weather I'm in khaki or black pants with a shirt of white, blue, pink, or stripes - maybe a cardigan if it's chilly. Mostly all solid colors and all very washable due to paint, glue, markers, and lots of little hugging hands.
Love my job.

Duchesse said...

Hilde: Indeed, she has found a look that projects authority without pretension. And she can also wear elegant evening wear when the occasion requires.

s.: Oh, you old girl... I know where!

KPD: You remind me of the primary school principal who once said to me, "The difference between your job and mine is, when I'm having a rough day I can walk onto a playground and get twenty hugs."

Constantine said...

The color of scrubs is vibrant and pretty and the top actually has a nice shape to it without being too binding or restrictive. The pockets of lab coats are really nice too.