Uniforms should be classic not cool - Monocolumn | Monocle


A daily bulletin of news & opinion

30 March 2012

Recently, the British public has seen a flurry of unveilings. Last week, Stella McCartney introduced her designs for Team GB’s Olympic kit. The Union-jack clad, aerodynamic kit even graced the catwalks. 

Earlier this month, the Royal Navy revealed its new uniform – a new blue outfit, known as Number 4 dress, is designed to be worn during combat duties. Number 4 includes Velcro fasteners, a relaxed utilitarian-chic cotton shift overall and, wait for it; a baseball cap. The Ministry of Defence said the uniform was “cool and more modern” and has been designed to be “easy to wear”.

Meanwhile, staff on the Heathrow Express, the fast train link that whisks travellers from the airport to Paddington station in London, showed off their bright citrus green jackets its staff designed by Nicholas Oakwell.

Rail chat forums – yes, there are such things – have been alive with comments since. “They’re on acid,” says one. “A little more ‘Welcome to the Emerald City,’ rather than ‘Welcome to the Olympic city,’” says another. 

And indeed, the non-iron, piercing tones of the uniform look rather like to the aesthetic of the low-cost airlines some of the passengers will just have fled. 
 Make no mistake, I do like, even love, uniforms. But efforts to update and make them “cool and modern” can so easily go badly awry in the wrong hands. I spent my teenage years as the victim of a wishy-washy rebranding after my left-leaning rather-too-boho compressive school relegated its blazers and chose a Chinese-made polo shirt and sweater instead. I admit begrudgingly, that the girls at the nearby convent looked much better in their woollen blazers.

And I fear the Heathrow express has made a similar mistake. Updating is often a necessity but if any institution is facing a rebrand it should be keen to be top quality. It should not pander to being cool and modern. Overall the design should be classic, chic and fit for purpose. 

It’s no coincidence that one of my favourite uniforms is worn by the stylish Italian Carabinieri – designed by the Italian fashion house Valentino. 

Uniforms represent a kind of democratisation of style. When they are made well they make people feel proud. In Rome even the traffic wardens in starchy white shirts and long capes seem to relish their job with more pride than any of their London equivalents in “hi-vis” vests. 

Of course, some people could do with a rebrand. The Pontifical Swiss Guards that stand watch outside St Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican sport the same clobber their 15th century predecessors wore when they were hired by Pope Sixtus IV 1471. And the gangs of robed clerics that swoop around the Holy See in impractical acres of maroon cloth should possibly get Valentino in to give them some outfits fit for the 21st century. 

As for the green regalia showcased by the Heathrow Express; they are cheerful enough. But I agree with one prolific rail blogger who championed a station master in South Devon who still wears sharp, wonderful quality navy suit and still had his pocket watch and slick hat.

The high-speed rail chiefs should draw their inspiration from the golden era of travel and take a trip down to Savile Row and have their staff measured up. Now that would make an impression.


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