SIGNS OF THE TIMES
Byline: Nandini D’Souza
NEW YORK — Try free-associating with the word “uniform,” and you might get more than you bargained for: World War II fatigues, Catholic-school pinafores, Richard Gere’s naval whites, Chairman Mao’s mandarin-collared jackets, fashion editors’ denim jackets. The term means something different to everyone, and that’s exactly the point of “Uniform: Order and Disorder,” a new book edited by Stefano Tonchi, Francesco Bonami and Marie Luisa Frisa, which combines 14 essays with hundreds of images on the subject from stylists, photographers and artists around the world. Straight-forward, humorous and at times sarcastic, the book chronicles how and why cargo pants, leather boots and epaulettes went from the trenches to the streets to the catwalks — how the fashion industry appropriated both the functionality and political meaning of the uniform.
Tonchi, creative director of Esquire, who conceived the project, sees the uniform in two ways. “The first is its concept of utility, multifunction, usefulness,” he explains. “The nylon, the pockets, the Prada Sport way of thinking.” Then there’s the iconography of it, “about showing off with parades, buttons, epaulettes,” he says, adding that the function of the latter, to protect soldiers’ shoulders from sword attacks, disappeared nearly 100 years ago.
Among the contributors are the New York Times Magazine’s Amy Spindler, English journalist James Sherwood and Vogue Homme’s Richard Buckley. Spindler’s “The Power of the Uniform” is an anecdotal look at the way everyone, sooner or later, ends up in a version of one, from the legions of fashion editors who all wear a certain designer’s looks each season, to the “big creative brains” like Alexander Liberman and Giorgio Armani, who created signature looks for themselves. On a similarly humorous note, Sherwood blames the death of high fashion on the utility movement. “Born on the battlefield,” he rants, “the combat pocket looks as inappropriate on the Versace runway as Che Guevara at a cocktail party.”
Others take a more didactic route — Dutch magazine editor Rebecca Voight, for example, in “Emancipation and Uniform,” a timeline that takes women from corsets to camouflage. Co-editor Bonami, curator at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art, discusses the political significance of uniforms and militarywear and how it’s expressed through art and fashion. “Their initial meaning has been changed by society,” he says. “What was extreme about it is lost and it becomes more functional, and the fashion world dives into that.”
To illustrate everything that’s absurd, whimsical, ugly and horrific about the uniform, the editors have culled images from art installations, fashion spreads and ad campaigns by the likes of Vanessa Beecroft, Paul McCarthy and Mike Kelley, Carter Smith, Jeff Wall, Hiroshi Sugimoto, Ines Van Lamsweerde and Vinoodh Matadin and recent Turner Prize-winner Wolfgang Tillmans. The result is a study in contrasts: pictures of a decked-out, gilded Michael Jackson alongside one of Muammar el-Qaddafi in a military parade; images of urban clashes in Milan next to old Ellesse ads. The book is published by Charta in association with Pitti Immagine, who are sponsoring an exhibition of “Uniform: Order and Disorder” at the Leopolda Station in Florence, which runs till Feb. 18.