Photo: SAS Museum, Gardermoen. "SAS, Uniforms, Air hostess uniform designed by Christian Dior, 1971-1983." by SAS Museet, used under CC BY-SA 2.0 / Cropped, resized and edited from the original. Thumbnail: Cropped and resized from same source.
The History of Corporate Uniforms
What do a British Army Colonel and a McDonald’s employee have in common? It’s not a trick question. In fact, the answer is quite simple: they are both required to wear a uniform.
Sure, it’s an example that uses two vastly different professions (even if McDonalds are at the ‘frontline’ of fast food) but the principle is clear — uniforms are at the heart of establishments, institutions and organisations and they have been for centuries. They are a means by which employees and consumers can identify with an organisation and each other.
Most people could describe what an aeroplane pilot wears off the top of their head. Everyone knows what a delivery person for the Royal Mail wears on shift whilst they’re pushing ‘sorry we missed you’ cards through your letterbox. If you’ve ever set foot in a hospital, then you know the nurses and doctors aren’t dressed in jeans or a ball gown.
A uniform is a powerful and practical tool for workplaces, and its history is interesting and diverse. Yet, it is through the uniform of the past that we can see what’s behind many uniforms all around us today.
What is classed as uniform?
In its noun form, the word ‘uniform’ is defined by the Oxford Dictionary as “distinctive clothing worn by members of the same organisation or body or by children attending certain schools”. As an adjective, ‘uniform’ means “of a similar form or character to another or others”. As a whole, the concept of uniform comes down the one thing: unity. A united sense of togetherness.
In a business, one of the purposes of corporate uniform is to unite members of staff. This makes them feel part of something great, but also makes them easily distinguishable to consumers who need to address them. Uniform can signify specific roles, not only between sectors or companies, but also within the structure of a team. For example, warehouse operatives might need to wear functional workwear, while office personnel may be expected to wear more formal attire.
But how did the concept of uniform begin? Let’s take a look at some examples of uniform through the ages.
A truly old-school uniform
The first recorded uses of school uniforms in England are rumoured to date back as far as 1222. However, it wasn’t until the 16th century that school uniform similar to the modern design of today was recorded in history books.
Christ’s Hospital school in Sussex is notorious for its distinctive uniform that has remained virtually unchanged for 460 years. It’s considered to be the oldest uniform still in use today, and its students don’t want to see it change.
The blue and yellow colours are striking and easily recognisable. The reason the uniform was created in those colours almost half a millennium ago was to clearly distinguish its students from other schools; and because blue and yellow were among the cheapest dyes at the time.
This iconic attire is a great example of the powerful impact a consistent uniform can have. It also demonstrates how it can evolve over time without losing its heritage — in 1987 many pupils started wearing classic Dr Martens shoes, creating a bizarre yet effective combination of Tudor and modern.
The significance of badges
The first examples of workplace uniforms are liveries. These were handed out to servants in European courts during the early modern period (1500–1800). The colours, form and decorations of the uniform connoted what house the servant belonged to. This uniform also functioned as signs of rank and distinction. Most importantly, the servant's livery presented the social rank, ambitions, and financial means of the master.
The coat of arms of the household also appeared on the livery, usually in the style of a badge. Badges very quickly became a form of, or addition to, uniform as it gave clear indication of status, affiliation or occupation.
During the sixteenth century, messengers (old timey postal folk) had not yet had the inspiration or means to create a uniform, so they worked in regular travelling coats. They carried a badge on their chest or cap with the coat of arms of the city or noble court they served.
The significance of badges has not been lost in the modern world. They are an indication of affiliations — sports teams, school name, department or division of public services — and identity. In many supermarkets and other customer-facing roles, employees are required to place a name to their otherwise anonymous face with a name badge on their chest. This encouragement of familiarity is considered a positive for both employee and customer.
The military is also reliant on its uniform as a symbol and device. Its individual uniform colours are easily recognisable, and the well-known khaki fatigues are renowned for their camouflage effectiveness on the field of duty. Yet, they are just as symbolic as the perfectly polished and sleek commander uniform. The everlasting power of the badge is key to the military’s ranking system worldwide and makes each individual identifiable.
Keeping UPS with the times
In 1925, UPS released their iconic brown uniform — an Eisenhower-style jacket and a police style cap. For almost fifty years the uniform stayed that way. Short sleeves were introduced around 1968 and baseball caps at roughly the same time. Then in 1991, they added shorts as part of the uniform, which was a welcome shift by those serving in UPS’ expanding business in warmer regions.
The iconic brown of the UPS style has stayed the same, its importance to the company unchanged over time. This is a great example of how sometimes ‘old is gold’ in keeping a brand true to its roots.
Up in the air
A lot of thought goes into creating uniforms that reflect both the company and the needs of the employees that work for them. A strict uniform that many are familiar with is that of the flight attendant or travel advisor. Polished, clean and trying not to grimace when you forget to properly adjust your tray-table, these staff wear a uniform that embodies many of the points we’ve already discussed.
In the 1880s, the first Thomas Cook staff, called Interpreters, wore long dark blue coats with peaked black hats while working in train stations across the UK, Europe, Alexandria, Beirut and New York. Over time, the uniform adapted to be more closely tied to Thomas Cook’s business colours, but the smart style was not forgone. In the late 1980s, members of staff even wore little red dickie bows while discussing the importance of ATOL.
Flight attendants, often previously referred to as flight stewardesses, have been at the centre of a very diverse uniform evolution. During the 30s and 40s, flight attendants wore military-inspired skirt suits that came in bland colours and thick fabrics. In fact, at this time flight attendants had to be qualified nurses, and the uniform of the 1940s almost looked like the older nurse uniforms.
In the 1950s and 1960s, glamour and femininity paved the way for pillbox hats, the exceptional bouffant and other funky new looks. The 1970s, like its wider societal setting, was a period of bright colours, far-out-man patterns and go-go boots. The 80s and 90s welcomed oversized accoutrements, all of which were part a brand new era. No longer was aviation uniform made a certain way because of the fabric available at the time.
The flight attendant uniform became a focus of world-renowned designers. Christian Lacroix, Pierre Cardin and Dior have all created uniforms for Air France. Ralph Lauren created a uniform for TWA in the 70s, and today Vivienne Westwood designs Virgin Atlantic’s corporate clothing.
This attention to detail and high-level focus on the design truly displays how importantly airlines hold the appearance of their employees. Passengers on a flight have expectations of those that will be providing them with a service during their journey, and an efficient but aesthetic uniform is what works.
After all, the customer-employee relationship that is created in the business world is unavoidable. That’s why it is so essential that the first impression of a uniform is that its ethos and branding is clear. It needs to convey the right message to those that see it.
Clinical but practical
Until the late 19th century, doctors most commonly wore formal black. This colour (with its morbid connotations) was used because most people that got ill at the time were frankly going to suffer and die as a result of their ailments. However, as medication progressed and attitudes changed, 20th century doctors and surgeons started to wear the iconic white lab coats. These displayed the sterile purity and cleanliness that the medical profession is well acquainted with.
Then the uniform took another step, and doctors (who also wear specific outfits during practice for hygiene reasons) adopted casual scrubs or smarter attire that made them more relatable and less intimidating to patients. This clear distinction can be comforting in a stressful hospital environment, and it’s also important to be able to quickly distinguish medical workers from patients and visitors.
Many uniforms now used in hospitals have unique colourways dependent on the department that a nurse or doctor works within. Nurse’s scrubs and tunics dating back to World War 2 were defined by their colour and design, and represented their different fields of expertise.
Cooking up a look
In a similar way to the white jacket of a doctor, the white chef’s coat was made to convey hygiene, power and rank in the kitchen environment. With its revered food status, it’s only right that the first hint of imagery of the traditional chef uniform was in France in the early 1800s. It didn’t become trendy until 1878, decades after Marie-Antoine Carême’s 1822 famous sketch of two chefs in traditional white coats.
However, the chef’s uniform has been developed with practical considerations in mind too. The merit of a double-breasted design was so the flaps could be folded over if the clothing was soiled, concealing the dirty material. This meant the chef could wear a supposedly unsoiled jacket for twice as long. Furthermore, it provided two layers of defence from splashes, spills, steam and heat.
Initially, the choice of white might seem strange but its use has prevailed for a few reasons. Firstly, white is great at deflecting heat, which offers the chef added protection from stoves, open fires and other heat sources in the kitchen. Many chefs also believe that white is the best colour for blocking the appearance of stains. Some chefs also wear checked or houndstooth pants in the hopes of camouflaging unfortunate food stains.
The chef’s uniform is a clear display of how practicality to the environment of a specific occupation blends well with aesthetic design — how colour can symbolise a status but also maintain a function.
Suited and booted
Another form of uniform that conveys status is smart corporatewear. The imagery of a suit instantly promotes professionalism and class. Lawyers and other professional businesspeople often dress in a certain way to represent status and expertise, and earn respect by doing so.
In the 1900s, the suit became more prominent in fashion-conscious cities such as Paris and London. Evolutions in tailoring ensured suits were fitted perfectly to the individual. This made the wearer more comfortable and elevated the professional look with the good fit.
The roaring 1920s were all about showing off your wealth, which meant elaborate, heavily embellished suits. As previously mentioned, availability of materials can impact choices of uniform, and richer more luxurious fabrics would have displayed affluence.
Suits worn by gangsters in the 1950s, and popular media icons through the following decades, continued to imply the power the suit had. Smart, good-looking and almost easy in its wearability, the business suit is favoured all over the world in practices where respect is desired and appearance is important.
How has uniform changed?
Uniforms develop over time and reflect the social trends of the period, as well as evolving regulations, attitudes, industries and garment technologies.
For example, corporate uniform in industrial sectors today often incorporates PPE which must meet current safety standards and legislation. At the beginning of the 20th century, many people neglected industrial safety issues. During this time the laws on compensation were enacted. Before this period, replacing an injured worker was cheaper and faster than introducing safety measures. These days the market is full of affordable products that can keep employees safe at work.
There is also greater awareness of workers’ personal needs and expectations. Most employers today understand the importance of catering for requirements relating to gender, religion, disabilities and other physical needs. A classic example of this is the move towards improved availability of fit-for-purpose women’s workwear and PPE.
New fabric technologies have allowed for improved functionality and durability, including specialist features such as UV protection, greatly improved waterproof and breathable properties, moisture-wicking fabric and stab and bullet-proof garments.
Uniform is now more than simply a dress code or a means of differentiating staff. Corporate clothing has developed into a powerful brand tool – a very personal means of portraying an organisation’s culture and image, complementing their other mediums of branding and advertising. A good uniform also helps ensure the whole team is engaged and united, and working towards a common goal.
If this article has given you inspiration for your own corporate uniform, why not get in touch with us to discuss your ideas?
You may also want to read about other companies that have developed fascinating new uniforms for their staff, such as the high profile John Lewis Partnership rebrand.
Don’t forget to read our four-part guide to the power of uniform, which covers the many benefits that carefully chosen staff clothing can bring to your organisation.