From its working class roots to its rising popularity among today’s thought leaders, the trajectory of the uniform indicates America’s fluctuating relationship to individuality in the workplace.
Albert Einstein wore variations on the same gray suit every day to avoid wasting brain power in the morning—a practice which, years later, was emulated by Barack Obama for the duration of his eight-year presidency. Mark Zuckerburg is rarely seen absent his grey Brunello Cucinelli t-shirt, whereas fashion icon Karl Lagerfeld favored sleek black suits paired with starched white button downs. Steve Jobs is remembered for his groundbreaking innovations at Apple, but his legend is no doubt enhanced by the ubiquity of his trademark outfit: a black turtleneck, Levi’s 501 jeans, and New Balance sneakers, which he donned at virtually every public appearance until his death in 2011.
The uniform evokes an image of working class America, from the fast food clerk to the postman to the blue collar worker. Once used to denote occupation or corporate allegiance, uniform dressing is now being reclaimed as a symbol of self-optimization by the world’s preeminent thought leaders, cultural icons, and aspiring entrepreneurs. So how did the uniform shift from a signifier of working class status into a cultural style code of Silicon Valley elites?
Dating back to at least the middle ages, the uniform has long been intertwined with work. Its earliest iteration came in the form of badges to denote house membership among messengers, which later evolved into a form of specialized clothing called the livery. Much like the uniforms of today, the livery was used to indicate a status relationship between the symbol and its wearer, but its use wasn’t always reserved for the working class. In 14th century Europe, versions of the livery ranged from distinct colors to specialized insignia to the use of heraldic jewelry like the “livery collar,” a heavy neck chain worn by elites as a sign of fealty to a person or house.
“Uniform dressing normalizes an attitude that privileges productivity before individuality.”
More often than not, the uniform was used to convey a proprietary relationship, establishing the status differential between the livery wearer and its owner (the word derives from the French livrée, literally meaning “dispensed, handed over,” and could also be applied to objects). From about the 16th century onward, the livery was only issued to servants, messengers, and workers, establishing it as a more direct precursor to the uniforms of today. With the rise of textile production, uniforms expanded to a range of occupations, with postman, policeman, and military personnel first among them.
Mandatory uniforms remain ubiquitous to blue and pink collar workers today, while white collar office workers are less buttoned up than previous generations. Business attire is becoming less standardized as office dress codes are re-calibrated, creating increased opportunities for sartorial experimentation. But as the trend towards individual expression in the workplace increases, so does the cognitive bandwidth required to navigate the increasingly amorphous boundaries between personal expression and professional standards.
The fall of the white collar corporate uniform also coincides with the introduction of new technologies to the workplace. From the advent of remote work to the use of social media as a professional network, the age of constant connectivity has given rise to a work environment that is mobile in more ways than one. For millennials, the focus on appropriate presentation has shifted to encompass not only in-person adherence to company standard but online modes of self-representation as well. The dual purpose of social media sites like Twitter, Instagram, Linkedin and Facebook functions to create a powerful, 24/7 incentive to channel one’s personal traits, strengths, thoughts, and opinions into a brand that expresses both their individual identity and professional marketability.
“When asked why he wears the same thing every day, Mark Zuckerburg [said], “‘I really want to clear my life so that I have to make as few decisions as possible about anything except how to best serve this community.’”
“Social media is also a means through which many “knowledge workers” that is, workers who handle, process, or make meaning of information—market and brand themselves,” writes Anne Helen Peterson in her essay on millennial burnout. This drive to perform professional marketability online is especially evident in Twitter’s opinion economy, where journalists and knowledge workers experience pressure to produce 24/7 commentary on current events in order to remain relevant. The opinion economy functions by incentivizing people to capitalize on their own individuality, encouraging millennials to see their own thoughts, strengths and traits as an opportunity for branding. This, coupled with the rise of influencer marketing, has made it more difficult than ever to differentiate between authentic opinion and paid performance.
In a particularly stark example, Amazon recently came under fire for paying fulfillment center employees to post pro-work messaging on their personal accounts — an infraction that reads as particularly chilling in light of the e-giant’s alleged poor treatment of warehouse workers. Even if the tweets didn’t feature a robotic tone and escalating anti-union agenda, the rise of “employee advocacy”—an emergent practice wherein employees are paid to represent an extension of their company’s brand online—further blurs the boundary between personal and professional representation. However, the motivation to enact pro-work sentiment online isn’t exclusively financial—witness the rise of hustle porn, a form of self-styled workaholic rhetoric that champions productivity above all else.
Nowhere is this more evident than in Silicon Valley, where the self help genre has undergone a utilitarian overhaul in the form of the life hack. While an interest in personal development is at an all time high, our use of new terminology indicates a focus on self improvement re-framed in the language of performance optimization. By “hacking” our brains and bodies through a series of technical adjustments, we are able to pursue an apotheosis of efficiency that precludes the emotional implications of “self-help.”
“Once used to denote occupation or corporate allegiance, uniform dressing is now being reclaimed as a symbol of self-optimization by the world’s preeminent thought leaders, cultural icons, and aspiring entrepreneurs.”
For the personal uniform wearer, this distinction between self-improvement and performance optimization appears all but obsolete. When asked why he wears the same thing every day, Mark Zuckerburg cites the increased focus it provides: “I really want to clear my life so that I have to make as few decisions as possible about anything except how to best serve this community.” In a 2012 interview with Vanity Fair, Barack Obama presented a similar justification for his limited clothing choice: “You need to focus your decision-making energy. You need to routinize yourself. You can’t be going through the day distracted by trivia.”
The connection between the uniform and productivity derives from the more recent association of uniform dressing with increased executive function. This idea stems from decision fatigue, the theory that making choices throughout the day requires effort and can deplete cognitive resources. Therefore, adopting a trademark outfit alleviates one more superfluous choice from the wearer’s day and conserves their decision-making power for what really matters: work. But while proponents of uniform dressing espouse the utilitarian benefits of choice reduction, aligning sartorial minimalism with intellectual productivity has the effect of relegating fashion to a hobby of the unambitious, unfocused, and frivolous—adjectives that have been used to undermine women by pitting style against intellect.
The unapologetic utilitarianism of the uniform wearer contains yet another dangerous implication: if its use continues to be leveraged as a symbol of increased focus in highly competitive fields, it follows that those who don’t “self-optimize” in this way could be deemed less professionally committed than their uniform-wearing counterparts. By changing the formula for self-presentation to reflect efficiency as the ultimate priority, uniform dressing normalizes an attitude that privileges productivity before individuality—making the uniform seem less personal after all.