The Unique Appeal of the Personal Uniform

Wes Anderson in a corduroy suit and knit tie
Image credit: 九间 / CC BY 2.0

Earlier this week I wrote about Fran Lebowitz’s style. She has become almost as famous for her aesthetic as her wit. By pairing upmarket blazers and dress shirts with Levi’s and cowboy boots, she has created a personal uniform that’s enviable for its idiosyncrasy and timelessness. 

The personal uniform — which is to say, some version of the same clothing worn every day — is a rare phenomenon, and also a distinctly modern one. Go back a few centuries and anything much more than a change of clothes would be considered an aristocratic luxury.

Industrialisation, rising income levels, and the glut of fast fashion has meant that most of us now have wardrobes filled well beyond what is strictly necessary or perhaps even desirable. 

In this context of overabundant supply and a paralyzing degree of choice, the appeal of a personal uniform is no mystery.

Eliminating unnecessary choice from an otherwise optimised brain is probably what the personal uniform is best known for, thanks to PU poster children like Einstein, Jobs, and Zuckerberg. The notion is widespread enough to have become pop cultural shorthand for a certain kind of obsessive genius. Consider Jeff Goldblum in The Fly (1986), Ben Stiller in The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), or Tony Shalhoub as TV’s Monk.

For reasons of mential optimisation — and no doubt the desire to imitate an idol (here’s looking at you, Elizabeth Holmes) — personal uniforms have proven a popular choice in tech circles. These days the Silicon Valley look has become a simple capsule wardrobe on a spectrum from Patagonia to Allbirds.

Flat lay of Patagonia Better Sweater and Allbirds
Patagonia Better Sweater and Allbirds
Image is my own / All rights reserved

Politics, similarly, is a field where time and mental bandwidth are at a premium, so it’s no surprise that we usually see politicians wearing some version of the same thing. While it’s fair to assume someone else is making the styling choices for heads of state appearing in public, occasionally you find a more active endorsement of the personal uniform. Barack Obama, for instance, told Vanity Fair back in 2012:

‘You’ll see I wear only gray or blue suits […] I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make.’

Barack Obama
Barack Obama walking in a grey suit
President Barack Obama in once of his go-to suits
Gage Skidmore / CC BY-SA 2.0

Personal uniforms have proven similarly popular among artists and creatives, perhaps taking Flaubert’s advice for an artist to be regular and orderly in life so as to be violent and original in their work. 

American authors Mark Twain and Tom Wolfe were both known for their signature white suits. The director David Lynch mostly wears white shirts buttoned all the way up under black suits and blazers, while Wes Anderson has a more colourful but similarly consistent aesthetic: a country suit in corduroy or tweed, a knit tie, and Wallabees. David Byrne has spent several decades on- and off-stage wearing a simple business suit and dress shirt, and the late fashion photographer Bill Cunningham, who spent his life photographing some of the most elaborate forms of dress, was known to don just a blue chore coat and khakis day after day. 

Even comedy has its share of uniform dressers. Jason Mantzoukas has pared his wardrobe down to a collection of white Oxford shirts, selvedge jeans, and Red Wing boots (there’s still a Tumblr in celebration of this), while Jay Leno famously spends his downtime clad head-to-toe in denim. 

But it’s the world of high fashion where the personal uniform is most widespread, or at least best known. There it’s worn by elite tastemakers and designers whose unchanging aesthetics appear to communicate one thing: ‘I may create trends, but I am myself above them.’ Think of Karl Lagerfeld’s baroque goth look or Anna Wintour’s bob, sunglasses and dresses (the fabric varies but the cut rarely changes). Or consider the similarly consistent but more subdued Thom Browne, Giorgio Armani, and Tom Ford.

Writing for Grazia on the subject of Fran Lebowitz’s clothes, Grace O’Neill sums up the appeal of uniforms as follows:

‘Uniform dressing is, put simply, the sartorial incarnation of Big Dick Energy: the self-assurance that you will be interesting, intelligent, funny, and talented enough to command attention, all on your own. Most of us use clothing as a conduit through which we project our changing relationship with our identity to the rest of the world. To have the self-assurance to offer the same thing, unchanged, day in day out, feels mildly radical.’

Grace O’Neill

These days, it might also feel oddly familiar. In the time of COVID-19, when for so many of us an outfit consists of featureless sweatpants and that shirt you keep on the back of your chair for Zoom calls, narrowing down one’s wardrobe to simple variations on the same theme might not seem as strange as it once did. 

If the voice of Marie Kondo has you wracked with guilt about all of your joyless, unworn clothes, or if you’re looking to clear some mental- and closet space, perhaps this is the solution for you.

I’ve personally always liked picking out clothes to wear — in my case it’s mental real estate that would otherwise be occupied by earworms and futile calorie counting. But if you’re working on the Great American Novel, E = mc2 2.0, or an app that will count my calories for me, might I recommend some 501s and a dozen black turtlenecks?

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