July 26, 2009
The Uniform Makes the Mind
So, James Fallows is talking about the Department of Homeland Security, and one of his readers writes in to suggest a very simple improvement:
Yes, the name “Homeland Security” is simply horrible, but the clothes may be the real problem. This may sound frivolous, but I don’t think it is. The issue is boots. Combat boots. Boots with pants tucked in and “bloused.” Black boots with thick soles. Swat teams wear them, and now Border Patrol folks routinely do. Coast Guard folks wear them, when they used not to. I believe that wearing military-type boots instead of shoes tends to make the wearer feel more military and therefore more aggressive. Customs agents used not to take undocumented people off ferries that don’t cross international borders, but they took people off internal Washington State ferries last year. Coast Guard personnel used to be regarded as people who helped boaters, but now they wear boots and talk like fighters.
One great way to civilize Homeland Security would be to confiscate the boots and reissue shoes.
The boots! (Emphasis mine.)
This got me thinking: To what degree do all kinds of uniforms affect the behavior of their wearers in all sorts of ways? Yesterday, Molly Young came at it from a different direction:
The nurse’s uniform of scrubs has always appeared materially and figuratively ill-fitting to me. I know there are practical considerations to factor in, but there are also psychic ones. Our uniforms dictate how we move and act, after all.
Police wear broad-shouldered mono-colored tool-belted outfits because it is practical but also because it lends swagger and enlarges their stature. Doctors are no longer required to wear white coats, but I trust a doctor more when he does.
Why, then, do nurses wear pajamas? Wouldn’t they feel more efficient in crisp pant-and-blouse combos? Wouldn’t their movements be more assured? It is hard not to shuffle in scrubs. It is also hard not to slouch.
(Emphasis mine again.)
We can extend it even further. Think of the “uniforms” of New York and Silicon Valley: suits vs. sandals. How do those divergent skins affect the way you think about yourself and your work? When you put on a uniform, official or otherwise, you’re not just putting on a pair of pants. You’re putting on an arsenal of signals and assumptions—many of them hard-won over decades or centuries by other wearers of the same duds.
When you put on a uniform, you’re summoning some of that spirit to your side! Jeez, it’s like a pagan ritual if you think about it that way. “O great god of hipster awesomeness, aid me this day. Lend me thy credibility. I constrict my thighs in thy name.” Scrrrunch.
Is there a good history of clothing out there? Clothing is technology, after all—one of our very first. And if you think about it that way, we’ve been cyborgs for a long time: the boundary between body and technology blurred. And I like the idea that, like any body part, clothing doesn’t just do our bidding, but provides feedback, too—it has imperatives of its own.
And now we’ve got people working on smart clothes laced with conductive thread. (There’s a diagram in the book on the other side of that link that explains how to turn a button into, uh, a button. You know, for turning things on and off. Cool.) In decades, or a century, are we going to think, jeez, how could those people stand to lurch around in sheaths of dumb fiber? The whole point of clothes is that they connect you to everything around you. My shirt is my iPhone.
But I’m getting a bit off-track, here. Even today, our clothes are anything but dumb. They actually communicate a lot more, and a lot more effectively, than most of us do on our own. And, just as importantly, they deeply influence our behavior along the way.
This is all to say: I’m on board with Fallows’ correspondent. Let’s get those guards out of boots.