In the Market Report: Uniformly Speaking

This is a heady time, and there’s a lot of buzz surrounding the fashion world these days, to say the least. Ballots just went out for the CFDA Awards (the results will be announced at Alice Tully Hall on Monday night, June 1st). This coming Monday morning, there will be a press preview for the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute’s new exhibition, “China: Through the Looking Glass” , which promises to be bigger than ever (“Twice the size of anything we’ve ever done before” in the words of Andrew Bolton, curator at the Costume Institute). Later on that evening, there will be the attending Met Ball, which has got to be THE ultimate ‘costume party’. But as fun and wonderful as fantastically dressing up may be, let’s face it; most of us don’t live in costumes but rather, rely on great wardrobe basics to get us through our daily paces.

Ralph Rucci wearing his uniform of a crisp white  shirt, black jeans,
crocodile jacket and Elsa Peretti belt

There’s no question that given the way in which fashion comes at us at a breakneck speed 24/7 (and the busy lives we lead), affecting a ‘uniform’ of sorts, makes so much sense on so many levels. While we all want to look good, we don’t necessarily want to worry about the way we look, and once you’ve found that magic formula that works, it’s very freeing (if you can stick with it). The late great Geoffrey Beene, a designer who defined ‘modern’, was a strong proponent of the ‘uniform’, and he even called his spring 2003 collection, ‘Uniforms’. But he was not proposing the uniform of a man’s stiff suit, a garage mechanic, or a flight attendant, but rather a chic wearable modern uniform that flatters a woman (one of the proponents could easily be the versatile jersey jumpsuit that he loved so much and that so often served as the foundation of a day to evening look).

Regardless, there are many ways to think of a uniform and it can mean different things to different people, particularly notable fashion figures and tastemakers (designers and editors) for whom uniform dressing is perfectly suited (they earn their livings working with fashion so it makes sense that they treat clothes as uniforms, wearing variations of the same designs on a daily basis).

Diana Vreeland

Diana Vreeland’s daily uniform consisted of the pairing of a simple sweater or blouse with a perfectly cut skirt or pants; always punctuated with matching Verdura cuffs, her beloved KJL ivory tooth necklace, and fabulous footwear (often in red). Architectural Digest’s editor in chief Margaret Russell relies on simple black sheath dresses. Alexander Wang always dresses in head to toe black. Alber Elbaz always adds an oversized bowtie to whatever suit he happens to be wearing.

Vera Wang in a white tank and black leggings

For Vera Wang, it’s all about a legging and some sort of t-shirt or boy’s tank (played out in a palette of gray, black, white). This is the basis of her signature foundation to which she then adds knee-highs or hosiery, a “crazy belt”, or one of her “incredible jackets, outerwear and tunics” which bring the “fashion part to her uniform”.

Rick Owens

Rick Owens, who bragged that it takes him only ”minutes to dress”, admitted (during the course of an interview that ran in Harper’s Bazaar a few years ago) that he wears the same all black outfit  every day (“like a priest, or a prisoner” he observed). “It’s very attractive when someone knows himself like that”, he offered. To that end, he stockpiles crisp black shorts, soft black t shirts, and black cashmere turtlenecks, and instead of carrying a bag, he uses his pockets. As he put it, “I like sticking with a decision. I can’t imagine having to choose something that I might sour on later in the day.

Geoffrey Beene jumpsuit

It makes perfect sense to me, though, from my point of view, the ultimate uniform is one that is built around the monochromatic pairing of black and white. And for obvious reasons. It’s timeless, fail proof, and fool proof as you cannot make a mistake, you can literally get dressed in the dark, and everything goes with everything. In addition, it’s seasonless and works for both day and night, (even in its informality, there’s a certain formality to it). That being said, while I invariably go back to this formula myself, I admit to having to ‘cheat’ every now and then, in order to get my ‘fix’ of more fanciful flourishes (“Variety is the spice of life”).

Tonne Goodman

I’m not as disciplined as say, Tonne Goodman, Vogue’s fashion director, who has mastered the art of dressing in a black and white uniform. She happens to be on my mind because she, along with her two sisters, (Wendy, who I worked with at Harper’s Bazaar, and Stacy) was the focus of Holly Brubach’s article, “Sister Act”, in this month’s W Magazine.

Reading about her rigorously edited rules for life and fashion, I was reminded about the marvelous way she pulls herself together, adhering to a strict, pared down, minimal uniform which is unwavering. Wendy hailed her as being really “disciplined in her modernity, so it’s all black and white”, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute’s Harold Koda, (who worked with her in the Vreeland years), pointed out, “She was almost exactly then as she is now”. She wore a uniform “that said everything about her: sporty, chic, confident informality.”

Regardless of the season, the time of day, or the occasion; whether she is here in New York, or traveling, she wears only black and white, and her go to look consists of pristine crisp white jeans, a black turtleneck (or button down shirt), a natty Charvet scarf tied at the neck for pattern, and flats (boots, smoking slippers, driving moccasins, sandals, etc.). She will add a black jacket or black coat depending on the occasion and the weather. It’s a look that can best be described as quintessentially American, unapologetically un fashiony, and one that transcends the vagaries of fashion’s ins and outs, which is fitting considering her position.

Jackie Kennedy in Capri

There is no question that the paring of something black on top with white on the bottom, is particularly striking, eye catching and chic in its utterly modern simplicity, and it’s probably not coincidental that it was also the favored uniform of Jackie Kennedy (especially when she was in Capri or on the Island of Scorpius). Whenever I see pictures of her, dating back some 50 years, I am always reminded that there are certain things that cannot be improved upon.

Michael Kors in white jeans, black t and black  jacket

Michael Kors, a designer who makes no bones about his ongoing obsession with Jackie and her sister Lee, (he has used both as inspiration for his collections) unsurprisingly has a similar fixation on this fail safe combination, especially as it pertains to his own sartorial choices. As he once put it, “Guys wear white on top and black on the bottom, but if you don’t do it right, you look like a waiter. (FYI, Ralph Rucci and Tom Ford, who almost always wear a uniform of a crisp white shirt with black pants, are two immaculately dressed men who definitely do it right and it doesn’t hurt that they normally add an impeccably tailored jacket, made of the most luxurious fabrics or skins, of their own design).

So, his suggestion? “Try a black jacket and white jeans— suddenly you’re sexy and dangerous.”

– Marilyn Kirschner

Marilyn Kirschner

I am a long time fashion editor with 40+ years of experience. As senior market of Harper's Bazaar for 21 years I met and worked with every major fashion designer in the world and covered all of the collections in Paris, London, Milan and New York. I was responsible for overall content, finding and pulling in the best clothes out there, and for formulating ideas and stories.

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