All together now: Look sharp!

We never outgrow the desire to dress up and look alike

Paul Fussell has been described as "a bull in the china shop of American letters," and his latest book, "Uniforms: Why We Are What We Wear," shows why the label fits. Choosing an offbeat topic and tossing it together like a last-minute salad, he has produced an amusing and curious coda to his brilliant career.

"Human beings," Fussell writes, "are the only species with minds complicated enough to trap themselves in the paradox of uniforms." That paradox consists of our desire to dress uniformly and recognizably versus the wish to declare our own individuality. Forced to select between these opposing impulses, Fussell claims, nearly all of us vie for sartorial sameness, for a gutless group-speak in our attire.

Citing experts including clothes historian Anne Hollander and "Dress for Success" author John T. Molloy, Fussell argues, "Dressing approximately like others is to don armor against contempt. Better to be not noticed at all than noticed and targeted as odd."

This seems like a rather obvious observation, which it is. "Uniforms," clever though it may be, is short on insight and long on irreverent, roving observations.

It's a trifle compared to the author's opus, "The Great War and Modern Memory," which shows how World War I shaped 20th-century sensibilities. Yet it indicates the same willingness to discern a pattern in seemingly unconnected threads.

Fussell covers the waterfront: war reenactors, who simulate everything but the true nature of battle; Ernest Hemingway and his "military Munchausenism"; the Klan, Nazis, chefs, "doorpersons." He ponders cultures other than his own - "There are no casual Fridays in Japan," he writes, "and virtually no casual anything" - but focuses more attention on wardrobing in America, where people pride themselves on their independence but are strict conformists in matters of dress.

Take that symbol of the youth culture, blue jeans, he says. Elders with pot bellies and bifocals wear them, showing that they don't feel that old, after all. Nearly all of us dress in a way that signals the group we identify with (including Fussell himself, who favors a navy blazer and khakis).

Meanwhile, an estimated 10 percent of the American workforce wears a uniform, and happily, it appears. For the wearers, official uniforms add to their sense of stature; for the rest of us, they are both practical and psychologically comforting. Fussell recalls his disappointment at arriving for a medical appointment and being greeted by a doctor wearing street clothes instead of the traditional white lab coat.

"I felt both uncertain of the roles we were playing and a bit annoyed at being cheated," he writes.

As the book makes clear, Fussell's attachment to his subject can't be separated from his formative experience as a combat soldier in World War II. He revels in memories of how the leaders of that era created an impression by what they wore: Eisenhower in his short, boxy jacket, inspiring a style that still bears his name; MacArthur sans medals in an open-collared shirt; George Patton with a penchant for theater and the habit of changing his clothes as often as 10 times a day. "I have to exude confidence I don't feel every minute," he explained.

The writer is a bit defensive about his choice of topic, quoting Umberto Eco, who wrote that "no everyday experience is too base for the thinking man." This may or may not be true, but "Uniforms" feels too thin and self-indulgent to measure up to Fussell's comparable work, most notably "Class: A Guide Through the American Status System."

Ellen Emry Heltzel is a writer and reviewer who lives in Portland, Ore.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.