Paul Fussell

Read April 2003

Fussell tackles this intriguing subject and makes less and more of it than you would hope. This is no po-mo critique of social roles: Fussell is quite bluntly on the conservative side of the issue (the subtitle, Why We Are What We Wear, would seem to say it all) and writes in an unapologetically crotchety way, though he doles out punches in all directions. Early on, Fussell makes a clear distinction between uniforms and costumes, but then unwittingly demonstrates the ambiguity of this line by meandering across it several times himself (the ritual attire of businessfolk, brides and professors all arguably being on the other side from uniforms).

Yet Fussell asks the questions many of us have always wondered (Where does the curious vocabulary of air travel originate? From a layering of Air Force traditions atop naval ones.), producing a book filled with interesting facts and sometimes, uh, riveting tales. His pop-psych observations (as on the uniforms of doormen) are usually told with a light touch. Best of all, he covers a broad range of liveries, from military and religion to the professorate and the Klan, and does this with remarkably careful observation (often with hilarious button-counts). It's hard not to be charmed by a book that deconstructs the Salvation Army's heady cocktail of militant religiosity.

The book sadly leaves some territory uncharted. He fails to cover intriguing cases such as Mormons-in-training. He doesn't really link uniforms to the greater story of (corporate) identity and (industrial) design (though Hitler, for whom these issues were paramount, does get covered (sorry, no more puns) quite well). He doesn't address the trend of sports teams to rapidly change uniforms. In this connection, especially, he fails to comment on the increasing effect of female fans on color choices (I think the Charlotte Hornets began this trend; the Arizona Diamondbacks's color scheme is undoubtedly the apotheosis of this identikit approach). Most of all, the book would have benefited greatly from even just a few illustrations, to say nothing of color spreads---but a handy Internet connection can probably compensate.

(Read Anne Hollander's much more erudite review.)