Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Uniformly Fashionable

For me, it's a black tank top atop a miniskirt and colourful tights, usually with a slubby scarf wrapped around my neck. My boyfriend favours black jeans, basketball shoes, and a concert teeshirt. Rachel won't leave the house without wearing something in a mustard shade, while Lindsay favours electric teal. Liz likes a silhouette best described as maternity chic: tight on top, and a flowing midsection. My sister keeps it simple: jeans and a sweatshirt.

GQ recently wrote about the power of a uniform in a man's life. These aren't military ensembles or garbage-man jumpsuits, but rather the colours, shapes, and concepts that makes these powerful men return to again and again to feel their best. It's an intriguing concept. The suit has been the de facto uniform of successful men for decades, with jeans and a teeshirt standing in for the double-breasteds on the weekend, so playtime is easy. Shrink the proportions, add in a hat, or subtract a tie, and bam: instant uniform. Replicable, portable, and memorable. Dudes at home can survey their own closets and quickly spot patterns; maybe a penchant for flannel, or a small but growing collection of wingtips, or a signature pair of sunglasses.

For women, our fashion terrain has been a bit more treacherous. Short hemlines? Long sleeves? Should we emulate the menfolk and don boxy jackets in the office, or attempt a softer silhouette? Bright colours, or a more muted palette? Some women (hello!) walk like T-rexes when we put on high heels, while others shudder at the idea of flip-flips anywhere but a spa. Can we wear linen a la Eileen Fisher, or do we have to wait until our post-menopausal granola phase? Not to mention that we can mine pretty much anywhere in the last eighty years for fashion inspiration, from the sleek CK-ish silhouettes of the 1990s to the crinoline skirts of the 1950s.  Look at your life, look at your choices!

Which is why the idea of a uniform struck me. Paradoxically, it feels freeing to ignore 95% of the fashion white noise and zero in on the few pieces that I claim as my own: black tank tops. Capris. Chunky scarves. Am I interested in a strapless bustier or a pair of high-waisted floral jeans? Anthropologically, sure, but I'm not going to put it on my body.

I brought up this concept at friend's recent dinner party, and one of the other guests shied away from the idea of wearing the same thing every day. "I don't want people thinking I can't do my wash!" she exclaimed. I hadn't thought of that: uniforms are still often a blue-collar reality, rather than a fashion choice. For many, the idea of wearing the same thing every day reek of McJobs, of aprons and smocks, of polo shirts with your name pinned above the nonfunctional breast pocket. Or maybe of only having one pair of pants, of only having one pair of sneakers, or of wearing socks until they're more holes than sock. While Alexander Wang might wear black pants every day, nobody really thinks they're the same black pants 365 days in a row. This is not a universal truth.

Even without formalizing it to the point of "having a uniform," I think most of us gravitate towards the same things over and over. Taking stock of my closet, I can see clearly that I like natural fibres in a muted gray/black colour family. Other women would dismiss this as boring. Occasionally I'll buy outside my wheelhouse, and you know what happens? Those things just sit there. My lime green teeshirt gets no love, while I've worn my best black tank top until it was see-through. I feel like an impostor in those clothes, while my favourites empower me, revealing my most confident and best self through fashion.

It would be easy to dismiss this as trite—after all, if you're not confident, clothes aren't going to change that—except that clothing is our armour in the world. Putting on something that makes you feel fantastic is a secret weapon, and figuring out shortcuts to that feeling is not a worthless exercise. If it comes by developing a uniform, a signature, or a favourite, then by all means, claim it as yours. There's no shame in returning to something that makes you feel great. As far as I'm concerned, too many black tops just isn't a thing that can happen.