In what he bills “a book unashamedly about appearances,” the acerbic literary and social critic (The Anti-Egotist, 1994, etc.) analyzes, with varying degrees of success, what uniforms reveal about class, sex, and the need to belong.
Instead of resentment over the stultifying conformity of uniforms, Fussell finds intense pride—the esprit de corps that realizes uniforms’ attempts to suggest probity, professionalism, courage, and cleanliness, for such people as chefs, nurses, Boy Scouts, police officers, and airline pilots. Sexiness can even be a welcome result for the uniformed ranks, as evidenced by the heart-fluttering generated by many UPS workers. Often Fussell turns up fascinating factoids (Queen Victoria popularized boys’ sailor suits and white dressing gowns), and he can rise to heights of comic exaggeration (Roman Catholic priests’ soutanes contain “the most flagrant exhibition of buttons anywhere in the uniform world”). Unfortunately, much of his material outside the English-speaking world is threadbare, and his invective is occasionally adolescent (he dismisses battle re-enactors as “weirdos”). But when he writes about subjects he’s examined in other books—Boy Scouts, literature, class, and especially the military—he is best at blending incisive commentary with background history. In WWII, the attitudes of the American GI and the SS officer—casual anti-authoritarianism vs. grim intimidation—could be seen immediately by their uniforms, he notes. He reserves his lethal ironic fire for those who tamper with sartorial success, including Admiral Elmo Zumwalt’s attempt to alter the Navy’s suits and Richard Nixon’s order to dress the White House police in outfits suggesting a European comic operetta. Above all, he says, uniforms suggest a profound human contradiction: “Each person senses the psychological imperative to dress uniformly and recognizably like others, while responding at the same time . . . to the impulse to secretly treasure and exhibit occasionally a singular identity or ‘personality.’ ”
Social history that, like certain academics’ clothes, presents an overall handsome, even flashy appearance while looking oddly patched together.