Occupational uniforms are nonmilitary civilian uniforms worn by members of certain professional groups during work or at official occasions. Specified and usually handed out by the employer, the uniform is designed in certain colors and carries signs and badges which signal the employee’s function and rank within a professional organization.
The first examples of occupational uniforms are liveries (from the French word livrer, meaning to deliver), which were uniform garments handed out to servants at European courts during the early modern period. Uniform in color, form, and decorations, liveries represented the household for which a servant was working. The coat of arms or initials of his master appeared on the liveries’ buttons, trimmings, or badges. Already during earlier periods, princes, such as the Burgundian dukes, had their court members and servants dress in a single color at festive events in order to present a unified court. The livery proper began to spread during the seventeenth century, when the social status of a prince depended more and more on the splendid appearance of his court and his servants. These early liveries corresponded closely to military uniforms, which developed at the same time and which in the beginning were also called livery (in France, livree; in Germany, liberey or montur). The colors of the military uniforms were usually identical to the liveries belonging to the household of the regiment’s chief who, prior to the establishment of national armies, often owned the regiment.
Just like military uniforms during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, most servant liveries were cut according to contemporary fashion. Their striking colors, heightened by lining and trimmings in contrasting hues corresponded to the colors of the noble household to which the servants belonged but were not necessarily identical with its heraldic colors.
Like military uniforms, the liveries also functioned as signs of rank and distinction. Most important, the servant’s livery presented the social rank, ambitions, and financial means of the master. For this reason the American economic theorist Thorstein Veblen regarded servant liveries as a prime example for his seminal theory of conspicuous and vicarious consumption. The livery also indicated the servant’s rank within a household. For example, the dress of pages, who themselves were members of noble families, were more richly decorated and made of more costly materials than the liveries of other servants. The servant’s nearness to the master also determined the preciousness of his outfit. Since footmen accompanied their master very closely during travels, their dress had to be made of particularly fine materials, even though the footmen’s small salary reflected a low position at court (Mikosch, p. 295). The livery always signaled the rank of the occasion: the more official the occasion, the richer the livery had to be; therefore, most courts provided simple liveries for everyday use and costly ones for festive events.
During the second half of the nineteenth century, when class distinctions became increasingly complex and nobility lost more and more of its privileges, servant clothes had to make up for the loss of status. Some late courts, like the one of the prince of Thurn and Taxis, put on a particularly rich display of servants fitted out with numerous liveries. The servants of Thurn and Taxis had to change clothes several times during the course of the day, even as late as the 1980s (Kliegel, p. 107). In order to project the image of a long aristocratic tradition, the design of the servant liveries tended to be antiquated. The tightly fitted justeaucorps, fashionable during the eighteenth century and decorated with rich gold braids, continued to be employed for formal occasions and tailcoats for less formal events or everyday use.
Early Professional Uniforms
Besides livery servants, postmen and miners were the earliest professional groups clad in uniforms. In the beginning, only certain signs, badges, or accessories symbolized their profession. During the sixteenth century, messengers were not yet dressed in uniforms but in regular traveling coats. They carried a badge on their chest or cap with the coat of arms of the city or noble court they served. Records of the seventeenth century already identify the horn as the sign of postal servants. The first time postal servants and officers were dressed in complete uniform clothes was early in the eighteenth century during celebrations at the Prussian (1703) and Saxon courts (1719). When the Saxon Elector Frederick Augustus and Polish King Augustus I, called Augustus the Strong, married his son Frederick Augustus to the imperial daughter Maria Josepha in 1719, he organized lavish wedding celebrations in Dresden and ordered his postal service and Saxon miners to take part in large numbers. For this occasion uniforms were designed that distinguished between the ranks and functions within a profession for the first time (Mikosch, pp. 315-332). Augustus, who was the head of the postal services and of the mining industries in Saxony, used the uniforms in order to present the image of a modern prosperous country. Consequently, these early occupational uniforms were actually splendid state uniforms mainly used for parading during court festivals. Lacking the necessary funds and the administrative structure, neither the Prussian nor the Saxon ruler succeeded in establishing regular occupational uniforms for their entire country at this time.
Civil Uniforms for State Employees
One of the first serious campaigns that tried to introduce an obligatory everyday uniform for members of one profession can be traced back to Germany in 1785 when the Prussian king Frederick II followed the suggestions of his general postmaster von Werder and decreed that all postal servants had to wear uniforms. He ordered state uniforms and uniforms for daily use. They consisted basically of blue coats with orange-colored collars and cuffs. Accessories, such as epaulets, aiguillettes, hat decorations, and swords distinguished between the ranks of the postmaster, postal secretary, postal attendants, and postilions. Von Werder’s arguments anticipate the coming years when civil uniforms for state employees became more prevalent. He suggested that postal uniforms would help the servants save money, prevent them from wasting money for extravagant outfits, and ensure they dressed in respectable clothes. At the same time the uniforms would make the postal servants more easily recognizable to the general public.
Around 1800, many European countries introduced occupational uniforms for state employees as an important part of extensive administrative reforms that most countries issued as a response to the French Revolution and Napoleonic wars. The new reforms broke down the privileges of the aristocracy and the church, and prepared the ground for the development of a modern bourgeois society. The governmental officers’ uniforms were intended to serve as symbols for the new ideal of a nation state run by an efficient and just administration. Inspired by those of the military, the uniforms’ shape, colors, and decorations signified the function and rank of the officer. The uniforms were intended to work on two levels. From within, they enhanced the new bureaucratic structure and lent new confidence and pride to the state employees. From without, the uniforms were intended to evoke acceptance of the new state and its regulations as well as elicit new respect for its employees as the executors and representatives of the new state. The uniforms’ shape underlined this message. Forcing an upright position the uniforms’ particularly tight cut enhanced the proud and masculine impression of the man in uniform. Gradually most employees of governmental departments were clad in uniforms, no matter if they worked in public or not. This included, among others, the police services, fire departments, postal services, state-run mining and metalworking industries, forestry and transportation departments, as well as the departments of finance, interior, justice, and foreign affairs.
The general form of the occupational uniforms for state employees varied little during the nineteenth century and followed the form of military uniforms, beginning with tailcoats early in the century and adding the more practical, buttoned-down military tunic after the mid-nineteenth century. Most departments demanded state uniforms embroidered with gold and silver thread to be worn by officers at special occasions and simpler ones for everyday use. Smaller states, such as the dukedom of Brunswick, wanted to enhance their political importance by affording a luxurious array of uniforms in different colors and embroidery designs for each department. The large states of Prussia and Bavaria emphasized unity and efficiency by restricting their uniforms to one color. Prussia chose a dark blue (“Prussian blue”), and Bavaria ordered uniforms in a medium blue. Certain trimmings and signs identified different departments and ranks. The Prussian postal services wore their blue uniforms with orange-colored collars, cuffs, and pocket flaps. Bavarian uniforms had small symbols embroidered in silver thread on the tail: small horns stood for the postal service and winged wheels for the department of transportation. Each country had its own buttons showing either the coat of arms of the state or the initials of the ruler. The richness and width of embroidery on the chest, collar, cuff, and pocket flaps were meticulously prescribed and varied according to the rank of the officer within the administrative hierarchy (Hackspiel-Mikosch, pp. 221-287).
If the civil uniform symbolized the new administrational structures of modern states early in the nineteenth century, by the end of the century the civil uniform was regarded as a sign of stultifying and overexpanding bureaucracies supporting conservative governments, which, as in the case of Germany, became increasingly militaristic. At the end of World War I, when the German empire and its local monarchies were abolished, most civil uniforms for state employees disappeared. The Weimar Republic regarded the civil uniforms as a symbol of an outdated authoritarian state. Although, a few decades later, the German Nazi regime indulged in impressive uniforms, it did not revive civil uniforms for state employees. Instead, mass organizations such as the labor service were established. These organizations were structured like military institutions, and employees dressed in uniforms closely reflecting military hierarchies.
After the two world wars, only law-enforcement sections of the government (police, immigration, or prison wards) as well as certain public services (postal services, railways, fire fighters, or foresters) continued to wear uniforms. In Germany, the devastating experience of two world wars that had been supported by widespread militarism triggered a pacifistic countermovement during the 1960s and 1970s that regarded state authority and its uniformed representatives with strong skepticism. Responding to a signature campaign initiated by a young policeman who wanted less military-like and identical modern uniforms for all of Germany, in 1973 the German fashion designer Heinz Oestergaard created a new green-beige police uniform, which, with certain changes, is still worn today. The modern design and friendly colors of Oestergaard’s more casual-looking uniforms were intended to communicate a modern and democratic image of Germany.
Some traditional civil uniforms continue to be worn today. Servants clad in sparkling livery still attend at European courts during important public occasions. Some European diplomats go on dressing in traditional richly embroidered state uniforms at formal occasions, such as New Year’s receptions given by a head of state. Members of the Institut de France, the most elevated academic institution in France, still wear uniforms that were originally introduced in 1801 and are richly embroidered with olive branches in shades of green silk on black cloth. The academician’s uniform is completed with a plumed two-cornered hat and a sword. Each generation tends to adapt the uniform’s basic tailcoat to contemporary fashion. In 1981 Yves Saint-Laurent designed a modern version for Marguerite Yourcenar, who became a member that year.
Modern Occupational Uniforms
Since the second half of the twentieth century, the character of occupational uniforms has changed significantly. Reflecting the democratization of Western society, the uniforms’ military elements, which symbolized the rank and function within a hierarchical organization, have stepped more and more into the background. Instead, professional uniforms have become part of modern concepts of corporate identity and corporate culture. Called corporate wear or corporate fashion, uniform dress at work is designed to communicate the philosophy of an organization or company and thereby is an increasingly important tool of marketing strategies. Investigations show that corporate fashion can significantly raise the image of a company and thereby elevate its stock-market value. Within a company, uniform dress, which is comfortable, fashionable, and clean, has been shown to improve working performance of employees by increasing their motivation and their identification with their company and fellow workers. A good-looking professional uniform attracts new customers and produces the image of trustworthiness and economic achievement. In his study of the ubiquitous civilian uniform in Japan, Brian McVeigh has revealed how much uniforms discipline the mind and body of Japanese office workers and, at the same time, express a particular economic nationalism in Japan.
The style of corporate uniforms changes according to the message a company wants to convey. The new uniforms for the German airline Lufthansa, introduced in January 2002, for example, are rather conservative. According to the company’s public release, Lufthansa wanted their new uniform to convey the values of traditionalism, respectability, service competence, and timeless elegance. Uniforms of national airlines vary in style and are often understood as the business card of an entire nation. In contrast to Lufthansa, the German Railway decided on more innovative and fashionable uniforms intended to create the impression of a modern inventive company. When the German postal services introduced new uniforms in 2002, they kept the traditional blue and yellow colors but chose a more casual design, emphasizing comfort, function, and a young sportive style. The uniform of the American postal services is less concerned with fashionable change. The uniforms of their letter carriers are designed to adjust to the different extreme climates of the United States and to be instantly recognizable by their particular colors. Fast food companies, such as McDonald’s, which cater mainly to young people, frequently dress their employees in cheerful colorful and casual-looking uniforms that correspond to the tastes and lifestyles of children and teenagers.
During the nineteenth century, officers who could afford to had their uniforms made-to-order by tailors who followed the uniforms regulations published by the government. Some prominent uniform suppliers published their own summaries of the regulations and added illustrations and pattern drawings. The widespread need for uniforms during the nineteenth century led to the development of factories that produced ready-to-wear as well as made-to-measure uniforms. Eventually, large department stores offered a whole range of civil uniforms, including very richly embroidered ones.
By the end of the twentieth and the beginning of the twenty-first century, an increasing section of the fashion industry was specializing in the production of corporate wear. According to Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), the National Association of Uniform Manufacturers and Distributors estimates that the American “career apparel” industry is worth at least $6 billion. International companies as large as McDonald’s potentially spend as much as $60 million a year on their uniform programs (Fast Food Fashion).
Today the industry offers a wide variety of clothes ranging from simple standard items, such as T-shirts and sweaters individualized by embroideries and corporate colors, to complete corporate fashion lines. When a large organization decides to introduce new uniforms it usually follows a long procedure. Well-known designers are hired to work very closely with the executive management in order to develop a unique design that communicates the company’s corporate image. Before ordering new uniforms, prudent companies find out their employees’ wishes and expectations and have them test sample garments to determine whether the uniforms can fulfill the requirements of practical function, quality, and comfort.
In times of economic instability the importance of corporate fashion grows as the image of a company can determine its failure or success in an increasingly competitive market. As a result, the British marketing company Up & Down Marketing and Management Consultancy forecasts considerable growth for the corporate wear market, climbing from 168.6 million garments in 2000 to nearly 200 million garments in 2010 in Europe. At the same time, corporate fashion is spreading to more types of companies. Besides airlines, railways, and postal services, which continue a long tradition, a wide variety of service industries make increasing use of corporate wear, such as grocery stores, shopping malls, department stores, entertainment parks, restaurants, hotels, hospitals, and cleaning companies.
The definition of the occupational uniform should not be confused with certain traditional professional garments. The white coats of doctors, and the caps or berets and long gowns of professors, judges, or priests are typical for their profession in some countries. Although these items of clothing communicate symbolic messages and emphasize the special social status and profession of the person, they do not function as uniforms because their shape usually is not precisely prescribed by the employer, nor do the garments necessarily carry badges indicating function or hierarchical status within a larger organization.