Scholar muses on meaning of uniforms

Posted: November 20, 2002

Surveying Paul Fussell's elegantly crammed Walnut Street apartment, one suspects how and why Philadelphia's great scholar-curmudgeon ended up knocking out his droll new study, Uniforms: Why We Are What We Wear (Houghton Mifflin, $22).

Late at night, while wife and fellow writer Harriet Behringer sleeps, the 78-year-old author of The Great War and Modern Memory - named by Modern Library as one of the 20th-century's top nonfiction books - undoubtedly wanders amid his rooms of war and travel bric-a-brac in full regalia of one sort or another.

Encountering first the Marine Corps flag that marks the entrance to his inner sanctum, you move at a smart clip past the World War II medals over his desk, the images of Pershing and the USS Arizona, the book awards and Bill Clinton photo, the swiped sign from decades ago: "You Are Leaving the American Sector."

Just as restaurant obsessives adjust their cuisine fix every night - Thai on Tuesday, or French on Friday - you imagine Fussell marching quietly come the wee hours, in Italian feather plumes and Ruritanian chic one evening, in Swiss-Guard splendor the next.

Except - a spoilsport to the last - the retired University of Pennsylvania English professor insists the whole thing grew from humble origins, not a private fetish. Like Class and Bad, his trenchant earlier satires, it started with simple noticing.

"The immediate trigger," he says, chatting at home on a fall afternoon, "was my being in the hospital of the University of Pennsylvania for about two weeks with nothing to do. So I looked about. And I noticed that the old-fashioned nurse didn't exist anymore. I mean the one in the white costume with the white stockings and the white shoes and the cap."

He made inquiries. He got answers about why many nurses abandoned that uniform (read the book). Then he started thinking about old-fashioned nuns, who'd "also disappeared from the streets" for reformist reasons. And about the uniforms of various religious groups, like Orthodox Jews. He pondered Salvation Army officers. And dandified doormen. And police. And the Boy Scouts to which he once belonged.

The pattern that emerged was not, as he originally surmised, one of oppressed workers forced to don dehumanizing outfits that demean them and crimp their individuality.

Au contraire, Uniforms R Us, and we like them.

"People who wear real uniforms are very proud of them," Fussell explains, "even if they're standard waiter or waitress uniforms. Because these days a uniform means you've got a job, and a lot of people don't." Uniforms, he adds, generally "do not change, and that's why people love them. They give a sense of permanence, which people are desperate to have."

"People like to wear uniforms so they won't be lonely," he continues, his broad grin suggesting that if the generalizations he's unfolding don't convince, well, he can come up with equally pleasant countertheses. "They're all secretly scared to death all the time. . . . And if you have a uniform, that means you belong somewhere. That notion can be developed into the idea that you deserve to belong, that you have value."

"I talk hesitatingly about this," he comments, "because I don't know much about it. I actually made up the whole thing."

He's playful enough to almost make you believe that. But while you can take the scholar out of the university, you can't strip the basic scholarly shrewdness from the books. Zooming in on the "career apparel" of UPS workers, Russian shoulder boards, or droopy chefs' hats, Fussell mixes an everyday, American kind of semiotics - brisk, funny, mordant - with a comprehensive overview.

"Uniforms ask to be taken seriously," he writes, "with suggestions of probity and virtue (clergy and nuns, judges when robed), expertise (naval officers, senior chefs, airline pilots), trustworthiness (Boy and Girl Scouts, letter carriers, delivery men and women), courage (U.S. Marines, police officers, fire-fighters), obedience (high school and university marching bands, Ku Klux Klan), extraordinary cleanliness and sanitation (vendors of ice cream on the streets, operating-room personnel, beauty salon employees, food workers visible to the public, and, in hospitals, all wearers of white lab coats, where a single blood stain might cause shame and even dismissal)."

Admit it. Before Fussell, you had no idea we live in an almost uniformly uniformed world. Except, that is, when we're among costumes.

Costumes, Fussell contends, unlike uniforms, are not honorific outfits worn by many people. Adding to the difference, costumes bring to mind "ideas of frivolity, temporariness, inauthenticity, and theatricality."

Laundry lists completed, distinctions drawn, vinegar ready to pump, Uniforms quickly becomes both a delicious romp into a world where "minor, harmless weirdos ... buy conductors' uniforms on the Internet," and a sharp analysis of institutions whose uniforms teem with symbolism (the required 33 buttons of the Catholic priest's soutane corresponding to the years of Jesus' life, the five buttons on the cuffs to his five wounds). Only rarely, as when Fussell refers to "the anti-sexual garb of monks and friars, with notably loose robe and rope belt," is one inclined to question his judgment about the relation of garb and, uh, gambol.

Fussell concedes that the study of uniforms is a "quasi-scholarly" rather than scholarly field "because there's nobody sitting there saying, 'That's wrong!' " No surprise, given that the "theory of uniforms is full of inexplicables, paradoxes, and contradictions."

And so, for an emeritus still so full of nervous energy that he and Behringer "walk everywhere" around Philadelphia "and absolutely feel about 16 years old," there is, alas, no reason to pull out his one-time academic uniform of tweed jacket and gray flannels, no Regius Professorship of Uniforms at Oxford to covet.

"I wish there were," he says. "I'd like to be that."

Contact Carlin Romano at 215-854-5615 or

Book Signing

Paul Fussell's "Uniforms"

Fussell will read and sign at Penn Bookstore, 3601 Walnut St. at 7 tonight. Information: 215-898-7595.

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