In Praise of Uniform Dressing

Thom Browne is one designer obsessed with uniforms
Photo courtesy The New York Times

The spring 2020 collections are upon us, and yet another fashion cycle is set to begin. Given the way fashion comes at us at a breakneck speed 24/7 (and the busy lives we lead), affecting a “uniform” makes perfect sense. While we all want to look good, we don’t necessarily want to worry about the way we look. Once you’ve found a magic formula that works, it’s very freeing.

A blog on Vogue.com, “Confessions of a Serial Wardrobe Repeater”, August 7th, by Lliana Saperstein caught my attention. It was sandwiched somewhere in between an article on Dakota Johnson’s teeth (the gap which is no longer) and Justin Bieber’s “criminally underrated” street style.

The Vogue.com Fashion Writer explained that she is obsessed with wearing the same thing over and over again (often buying multiples of the same thing) because it makes her feel like her best self. Of course, she is referring to distinctive basics, not over the top statement pieces. She cited members of the Royal family (Meghan Markle and Kate Middleton) as fellow wardrobe repeaters. Yet, she is often self-conscious because the bar is set so high in the fashion industry and she feels like she is the only one in the office who wears something twice a week.

Change is good, but consistency can never be underestimated. You shouldn’t be ashamed or have to apologize if you affect a uniform. If a formula works, stick with it. True style is not about having a closet crammed with new clothes. The people with real style know how to work the clothes they have. They intuitively know how to accessorize, tie a scarf just ‘so,’ or simply roll up the sleeve of a shirt to personalize and add attitude. It’s all about taking something unremarkable and turning it into something remarkable.

I repeat clothes all the time and am a big believer in uniform dressing, which I believe to be the essence of modern. In fact, the older I get, the more appreciative I am; it’s one less thing you have to think about in this over-complicated world. It shows you are confident, you know what looks good on you, and you know how you want to present yourself to the world. It makes perfect sense that notable fashion figures and tastemakers who earn their living working with fashion, treat clothes as uniforms, and wear variations of the same designs daily.

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).

Phoebe Philo in her perfect uniform of black turtleneck, black pants, and Stan Smiths
Photo: vogue.com

Phoebe Philo is one of the most influential designers today (even though she is not designing a collection at the moment). As creative director of Celine, she often proposed highly experimental designs, but her own look remained the essence of minimalist cool. She always took her bows at the end of a show, wearing the same uncomplicated outfit: a black turtleneck, black trousers, and pristine white Stan Smiths. In fact, she could be credited with starting the white sneaker trend.

Claire Waight Keller Givenchy Fall 2018 Ready-to-Wear

Claire Waight Keller might propose feathers and black latex pants for Givenchy, but her own uniform is more likely to be a pair of black pants, a black shirt, a mannish black coat, and white or black shoes.

Vera Wang
Photo: www.zimbio.com

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.”

Rei Kawakubo
Photo: wwd.com

Rei Kawakubo’s art-to-wear designs are innovative, highly conceptual, and museum-worthy. You never see her in anything but a variation on one theme. Rei limits her colors to black, white and red and opts for a leather biker jacket, turtleneck, skirt, ankle boots or sneakers. The legendary designer did not vary this formula when she was the honoree at the Met Gala in 2018.

Iris Apfel
Photo by Neil Rasmus/BFA/REX/Shutterstock (5691132aw)

Under the piles of jewelry and fur accessories, Iris Apfel is known to wear, there is usually a uniform comprised of beautifully cut, classic pieces.

Rick Owens
Photo: Vogue.com

Rick Owens once bragged that it takes him only “minutes to dress” because he has his uniform down pat. 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 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.” Makes perfect sense to me!

DEWAR’S “Browne Bag” Launch hosted by Thom Browne and Euan Rellie

Thom Browne is obsessed with uniforms. His design philosophy is predicated on reimagined wardrobe classics. This applies to his own look as well. You will always see him in a white shirt, a tie, a sweater vest, a pair of cropped trousers or Bermuda shorts, lace-up brogues.

Michael Kors wearing his uniform of black turtleneck, black jacket, crisp white jeans

Michael Kors has an ongoing obsession with Jackie Kennedy and her sister Lee, (he has used both as inspiration for his collections). Michael has a similar fixation on the forever chic combination of black and white. 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. His suggestion? “Try a black jacket and white jeans— suddenly you’re sexy and dangerous.”

Ralph Rucci’s uniform wearing white shirt, black jeans and crocodile jacket

For the record, Ralph Rucci and Tom Ford almost always wear a uniform of a crisp white shirt with black pants, and they are two immaculately dressed men who definitely do it right. It doesn’t hurt that they usually add an impeccably tailored jacket, made of the most luxurious fabrics or skins, of their own design.

The ultimate uniform is built around the monochromatic pairing of black and white. It’s timeless and foolproof. 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.

Tonne Goodman with Marc Jacobs at the launch of her book
Photo: vogue.com

Tonne Goodman, the legendary fashion editor, has mastered the art of dressing in a black and white uniform. She was the longtime fashion director of Vogue until last year when she took on the freelance role of contributing editor. Her book Point of View: Four Decades of Defining Style (Abrams) debuted in April. It features recollections of her childhood, brief modeling career, love life, and family, in addition to images from some of her most memorable photoshoots for the New York Times, Harper’s Bazaar, Calvin Klein, and, of course, Vogue.

Tonne’s sister 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 the fashion’s ins and outs, which is fitting considering her position.

Photo by Bruce Weber 1987
Photo: vogue.com

Goodman was profiled in New York Magazine’s The Cut a few months ago and was asked to name the three photos that best describe her style. One, taken by Bruce Weber in 1987 features a model wearing white jeans and a crisp striped shirt which Tonne described as “quintessential elegance.” It is the perfect basis for a summer uniform, and I was immediately inspired. Some things cannot be improved upon.

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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