Uniform comes from the latin word uniformis, from uni-, which means one, and -formis, meaning form (Merriam Webster). The word can be used either as a noun, verb, or adjective, but its verb form is the least common in the English language (Oxford English Dictionary). Its first usage-in its adjective form-can be dated back to the 15th century, where it was mostly utilized to describe consistency in conduct or opinion as it pertains to the interpretation of law or conforming to a general procedure (Oxford English Dictionary). In a 1681 publication by Peter Heylyn, The Historical and Miscellaneous Tracts of Peter Heylyn, the myriad references to the Christian faith emphasize conformity and the prevalence of the religion. The function of the word in relaying that, “for the protector and thereft of the Kings council being fully bent for a Reformation, thought it expedient that one uniform, quiet and godly Order should be had throughout the Realm, for Officiating God’s divine service,” affirms its function for religious conformity and order (Heylyn, 15). Although this definition is now obsolete, the word was originally defined in this time as describing a single or concerted body of individuals. These would eventually become the two main representations of the word uniform for its relevance to collective faith (Oxford English Dictionary).
Its function as a noun, first used circa 1748, began to gain traction and shift in meaning. The definition of the word was expanded by the imposition of a military dress code. The year 1800 saw a steady incline in usage due to its wartime prevalence. Its main use was to describe the distinctive dress of similar cut, materials, and color worn by all members of a military force. A popular military term, the United States Navy Department emphasized the word as a noun. In an 1841 book, the body is codified as a way to detect status. In order to be identified, “Uniform is to be worn by all officers who may be attached to any vessel, navy yard, station, recruiting service, or hospital, for duty, unless absent from the station” (United States Navy Department, 12). The uniform was the identifiable garb that revealed an officer’s position, and one’s employment. To be seen within a field was just as important as one’s status. Its assertion as a signifier of status also pervades other usages because, “The Adjutant is to wear the uniform of his rank,” (Keppel, 87) as stated by William Coutts Keppel, Earl of Albemarle in 1860. Rank is the keyword in this quotation in that it denotes status. Eventually, this word would become prevalent again during World War II, but becomes more political as identity politics come to the fore.
A colloquial understanding of the word uniform reveals a 21st century sentiment around its function. On September 12, 2003, @grr posted on Urban Dictionary that a uniform is, “Something a catholic school forces student to wear to become one under god’s eyes or some bullshit like that,” and went on to use the example of, “Here comes the uniform nazis again”. This contemporary perspective on the word is representative of how the word uniform has shifted in relevance. @grr’s definition reflects the duality of the word as denoting status and conformity, whether that refers to a military or other local institution; and although the word has lost its prevalence, it can still provide a contemporary basis in establishing a corporeal relationship that is ranked in the workplace, educational spaces, or armed forces.
In a 21st century context, uniform is mostly attached to various politicized connotations of the body. Keeping in line with the tradition of rank in military uniforms to denote status, it can also be said that a dress code exists depending on one’s gender, race, or socioeconomic status. This dress code is not explicitly codified such as that of military uniform laws; rather it is a felt and lived dress code. In Nirmal Puwar’s book, Space Invaders, she utilizes the landscape of gender that is present in the English Parliament to display an extreme binary between male and female MP’s. In her example, she emphasizes that style is inextricably tied into gender in that the Parliament is a, “place where corporeal styles have become sedimented into a binary relationship between reified forms of femininity and masculinity…A ‘lady-like feminine’ image plays a central role in the struggle to be seen as an acceptable form of ‘woman’ in a male outfit in a male space” (Puwar, 97). The female body is layered with various definitions and associations before she even puts clothes on. The environment of maleness affects how the female body is perceived and her treatment because the way people present their bodies is seen before any action is complete. Therefore, the style that female-bodied individuals are expected to have in the workplace is unclearly defined, but acts as a uniform for the identity that is imposed on the female body.
The impact that uniform has in the workplace is reflective of societal modes of status. The implicit lines of a dress code for female-bodied women in the workplace further emphasizes the expectation of dressing for the role of being a woman. Male style in the workplace has had a long history and has shifted in various ways according to the time period. Female-bodied people do not have a, “set style of dress,” and are required to work at being, “‘appropriately’ dressed, something which has to be negotiated within the confines of gendered norms of dress,” (Puwar, 96). The notion of being appropriately dressed instantiates the lack of specifications that accompany female style in the workplace. The body is not definitively mentioned but is what fills the clothing itself, making it more present. The workplace uniform for a female-bodied individual takes on the significance of following the guidelines that society imposes on the body. Thus, a uniform has become more complicated than denoting military rank because it has penetrated a social gaze. This shift is instrumental in how the word is perceived today as emphasized through its colloquial usage, and historical precedence.
The implication of the word has transformed from describing creed to codified rules up to the 20th century. Now, it is representative of implicit modes of imposing societal norms. It defines and delineates social status. The word stresses and emphasizes separation that is framed by conformity. Its corporeal association shifts it toward a politicized significance. This dynamic has layered the word with more significance in this century. Its usage has begun to decline, implying that its implicit function has been more relevant to the present-day than its original and literal functions. Nevertheless, its history and transformation is what gives the word a new politicized context. The word Uniform has a contentious and complicated history, and will continue to be layered with more context.
Albemarle, William Coutts Keppel. Suggestions for an Uniform Code of
Standing Orders on the Organization and Interior Economy of
Volunteer Corps ... J.W. Parker & Son, 1860, Google Books.
Heylyn, Peter. The Historical and Miscellaneous Tracts of Peter
Heylyn. Harper, 1681.
grr. “Uniform.” Urban Dictionary, 12 Sept. 2003,
“Performative Rites: Ill-Fitting Suits.” Space Invaders: Race,
Gender and Bodies out of Place, by Nirmal Puwar, Berg, 2004,
“Uniform.” Merriam-Webster, Merriam-Webster,
"uniform, adj." OED Online, Oxford University Press, December 2018,
www.oed.com/view/Entry/214371. Accessed 11 February 2019.
"uniform, n." OED Online, Oxford University Press, December 2018,
www.oed.com/view/Entry/214370. Accessed 11 February 2019.
"uniform, v." OED Online, Oxford University Press, December 2018,
www.oed.com/view/Entry/214372. Accessed 11 February 2019.
United States Navy Department. Regulations for the Uniform and Dress
of the Navy of the United States, 1841. J.&G.S. Gideon,
Printers, 1841, Google Books.