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Where Do Uniforms Fit Into Fashion?

The Museum at FIT attempts to figure that out in its latest exhibit.

If you've ever dressed as a sexy nurse for Halloween, lamented the itchy skirt that your Catholic school made you wear, or bought a sailor suit for a themed college party (freshman year, we're guessing), a new exhibition at the Museum at FIT will bring back memories from your sartorial past. For Uniformity, curator Emma McClendon has assembled a collection of uniforms and the high fashion pieces they've inspired.

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Uniformity at FIT

Photo: Courtesy of the Museum at FIT

The show is organized by theme, or type of uniform. The first room features a short video of designers Stan Herman and Thom Browne speaking about their own uniform commissions (Herman crafted an ensemble for McDonald's, at left, in 1976) and why uniforms sometimes inspire high fashion (Browne mentions his desire to reinterpret something classic). Military uniforms fill the second room, while sailor suits and camouflage figure prominently in the third. In the fourth and largest gallery, guests can see mannequins decked out as athletes, nurses, fast food chain employees, police officers, Ivy League prepsters, and TWA workers.

Alongside the real uniforms are examples of fashion designers' reinterpretations: 21st century camouflage suits by Michael Kors and Richard James, mid- to late-20th century womenswear by Perry Ellis and Yves Saint Laurent, and more. There's a great John Bartlett men's ensemble that uses the silhouette of Bartlett's three-legged dog in place of the typical camouflage pattern. If the difference between an army suit and a Rei Kawakubo suit seems vast at first, McClendon explained at the press preview an important similarity: people preserve their old uniforms as they do their couture fashion.

All the clothes in the exhibit come from FIT's collection and museum's former director, Richard Martin, was particularly interested in uniforms. He "was very dedicated to the sociopolitical connotations of fashion, how clothing affects us culturally, as social beings, the meanings behind it, et cetera," McClendon said. "Uniforms are social clothing manifest...Uniforms are designed to make someone recognizable, to make their function [and] their profession immediately known."

The clothing in the show certainly speaks to American gender and socioeconomic politics. Just look at the section of nurse wear, for example: Nursing was one of the first professions available to middle-class women, and the wall text asserts that the "uniform blends elements of a maid's uniform with ecclesiastical garb and a fashionable silhouette to create a look that is purposefully becoming, yet modest." Even though women could work, they still had to appear pure and attractive.

Uniformity at FIT

Photo: Science & Society Picture Library/Getty Images

One of the mannequins in a 1918 American Red Cross nurse uniform wears a habit-esque head covering and appears nun-like. McClendon spoke of women's rebellion against this type of uniform and its connotations later in the 20th century — for better or for worse, now we've got scrubs.

On the other side of the spectrum is a 1976 hot pink Fiorucci jump suit once owned by Lauren Bacall. According to the accompanying text, "the look is also hyper-feminine and sexy, which challenges the uniform's masculine aesthetic." The outfit subverts gender roles and norms, appropriating an article of clothing typically associated with the male sphere. It's alluring on the mannequin — one can only imagine how Bacall looked in it.

McClendon mentioned at the press preview that she herself had worn uniforms as a waitress and as an athlete. "There's always that pressure that comes with how it fits," she said. With uniforms, "you have to master fit in a way you didn't see for a long time in the fashion industry."

The exhibition will give you something to consider the next time you whip out those army pants or order a Blood Mary from a well-dressed flight attendant. It'll make you rethink the outfits — and the people in them — that are overlooked as part of the scenery.

Uniformity is open on Tuesdays through Fridays from 12pm to 8pm and Saturdays from 10am to 5pm through November 19th.

Museum at FIT

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