FIT Matches Uniformity with Nonconformity

Detail from British Royal Rifle Corps “Mess Dress” Jacket (1900), a possible inspiration for Ralph Lauren

Detail from British Royal Rifle Corps “Mess Dress” Jacket (1900), a possible inspiration for Ralph Lauren?

Whether you pass a flight attendant in the airport, see an EMS pro at work on the street, watch a referee on TV, or place an order with the counterperson at your favorite fast-food chain, you may not immediately see the individual who is wearing the uniform. You just perceive that a professional is at work.

But how does the uniform design create your perception? And who designed the uniform? What signal does it send?

Conversely, how do designers take inspiration from uniforms and design looks that make us think that the wearer is a rule-breaker, a nonconformist, or chic, stylish person?

The Museum at FIT provides the answers on its website and in its first-floor show Uniformity through November 19, an illuminating tribute to history and fashion that shows how conformity and troubled times can serve as springboards for creativity, expression, and whimsy in the larger cultural landscape.

Michael Kors camouflage (2013)

Michael Kors camouflage (2013)

The introductory video features Thom Browne explaining how he took inspiration from executive and schoolboy uniforms for his groundbreaking Milan show in 2009.

The show then unfolds by juxtaposing high fashion with uniforms from FIT’s collection, organized into neat themes – military, domestic, sport, work, and school. Here’s our Flickr album of our favorites from these themes.

Right up front, the curators provide a visual backstory to the evolution of the US/European military uniforms with two galleries and an iPad that show what British and US soldiers wore over the last 240 years. The experience makes you think about who put the navy into Navy (it was adopted in 1802) and shows that ladies and kids wearing “sailor suits” is a 100-plus-year tradition in fashion.

Mainbocher’s well-cut 1942 uniform for the U.S. Navy W.A.V.E.S. (1942) and Chanel’s chic military-inspired ensemble (1960)

Mainbocher’s well-cut 1942 U.S. Navy W.A.V.E.S. uniform and Chanel’s chic military-inspired ensemble (1960)

Although the 21st-century gown by Galliano and the in-you-face statement by Kors demonstrates how transgressive camouflage can look on the runway, Claire McCardell’s little boxy 1947 jacket reminds us how Ike’s WWII U.S. Army Air Corps look kept going for nearly a decade as an icon in the booming US ready-to-wear sportswear market. Both guys and gals had to sport that neat, pulled together look atop their rompers, sport shorts, and khakis.

The hot pink Fiorucci jumpsuit that telegraphed hipness in NYC disco fashion in the Seventies is right at home next to the 1970s Coast Guard flight suit in fire-resistant orange synthetic. As these two electric pieces fight for attention, the curators leaves us to ponder their genesis in the 1940s olive wool Air Force flight suit.

A nearby juxtaposition switches to uniforms as muted, minimalist understatement – the soothing side-by-side designs for worn by WWI and WWII nurses with the barely-there Nineties work coat adopted by the seamstresses and magic-makers at Martin Margiela’s deconstructivist atelier.

1993 Vivienne Westwood baseball cap

1993 Vivienne Westwood baseball cap

Gernreich channels schoolgirls, Vivienne Westwood mimics logo-branded baseball caps, and Ungaro reinterprets collegiate-sports jerseys right across from vintage Princeton blazers from the Twenties and Forties.

The creative takes on all the different types of uniforms screams whimsy and fun for the fashion forward.

One of the show’s highlights, however, is a philosophical look back by the designer who made so many of America’s most familiar uniforms happen — Avis, TWA, FedEx, and McDonalds. Listen as FIT sits down with Stan Herman to talk about his work, life, and the uniforms he created and wore:

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