Uniform. One word. An adjective. A noun.
It’s a throwback to school uniforms. Stiff shirt collars, unforgivable colour combinations, starched blazers, pinafore dresses and knickerbockers.
Work uniform. Nurse, police, lollipop man, concierge, chef.
And then the other meaning. Sameness, conformity, unchanging. Make it even, make it match.
A uniform by its definition aligns a group of individuals to one purpose, function, institution. It’s essential for identity too, if you need help in a crowded place, your mind’s eye is trained to seek a uniform as an authority figure. You are also more likely to follow direct calls to action. Read the excerpt below from a paper on the Berkeley Science Review:
In order to test the power of the police uniform, Leonard Bickman had a research assistant stand in the street and asked passersby to pick up a paper bag, give a dime to a stranger, or move away from a bus stop. The research assistant wore either civilian clothes, a milkman uniform, or a guard’s uniform. Across situations, 19% obeyed the civilian, 14% the milkman, and 38% the guard. That is, twice as many people obeyed the research assistant when he was wearing a guard’s uniform, as obeyed him when he was simply in casual clothes. Furthermore, in a second variation of the experiment, Bickman found that people continued to obey the “guard” even if he walked away after making the request, suggesting that they complied not out of coercion but because they believed in the legitimacy of his power.
Power, influence, authority — it’s extraordinary how a word such as ‘(a) uniform’ works its way into our vernacular; the cultural associations, the social cues and often stigmas too.
Over time these word associations, especially when it comes to how we dress or perceive others, make us rebel in some way. We fight the system, the school uniforms always tweaked here and there — the shortened tie, the hemline of a skirt tacked up. And then the relief when the uniform is no longer, and out we go into the world. We decide who we are. Right? We want to be individuals, we dress how we choose to, whether we care ‘a little’ or ‘a lot’. And any uniforms that we don for work, we appropriate chameleon-like, returning again to ‘ourselves’ once the day is over.
But have we missed something?
Uniform has a long history of being a core signifier of identity beyond pure function. On both a group and individual level. Updating and enlarging our view of what a uniform constitutes is essential in a world where we have greater choice than ever in how we present ourselves, and perceive others.
Bring to your mind a recent occasion when you have a entered a room, full of people; a meeting you join mid way, a cocktail event of a good business associate, your first day on a new job. There is that split second where words are yet to escape your mouth. But one part of you is already speaking, unabashedly, unequivocally, about who you are. The clothes hanging off your body. Literally.
This is the uniform of the everyday that is a powerful tool but is often overlooked. An active interest in how we look and dress is seen as superficial. But this is where a liberated view of uniform for today’s world is essential. We need to take the conversation of how we dress into the realm of identity creation, rather than of surface tokenism. It’s a set of markers that you consciously and consistently apply to how you dress, set pieces of your style, and more importantly a shorthand preview of the person you are.
There are many that sit in the camp of a simple t-shirt, a pair of pants and sneakers (Mark Zuckerberg), or the other of a suit and tie (Barack Obama), religiously attended, the same regimen everyday. And this is powerful stuff. The comfort and safety in seeing Obama suited day in and day out is essential in his role as President of the USA. It also sits firmly in the camp of corporate America — Obama is always ready to ‘get down to business’.
In contrast, Mark Zuckerberg is a ‘regular’ guy, unassuming in his dress, a man of the people, connecting the world through a small set-up known as Facebook. He is the face of business in the twenty-first century. And even if it seems an unthinking choice Zuckerberg makes, he has actually honed perfectly his personal uniform. It’s unthinking, but not unconsidered.
Finding a language that fluently expresses your role in the world is a tall order. But once we start to even consider for a moment its significance, it seems rather short-sighted (pun intended) to ignore it.
The trick is to cultivate an everyday uniform that is specific to you. This is beyond fashion, trends, seasons, what’s in and what’s out. It’s about having a great degree of self-awareness, understanding who you are, what you possess as your singular strengths, and using all the tools you have to bring them to life. Once you have mastered this, it becomes a seamless yet powerful part of your artillery.
As Robert Cialdini writes in detail in his seminal work Influence, great power lies in consistency. Those around you, whether at work or socially, will unconsciously attach greater value to your words through the workings of consistency bias. Sticking to your words, the ideas and values you have, regardless of a situation, over and over again, builds trust which provides you with greater influence. The unconscious but very powerful coupling of how you dress further amplifies this.
Research conducted in Texas, for instance, arranged for a thirty one year old man to violate the law by crossing the street against the traffic light on a variety of occasions. In half of the cases, he was dressed in a freshly pressed business suit and tie; on the other occasions, he wore a work shirt and trousers. The researchers watched from a distance and counted the number of pedestrians waiting at the corner who followed the man across the street. Like the children of Hamelin who crowded after the Pied Piper, three and a half times as many people swept into traffic behind the suited jaywalker. In this case, though, the magic came not from his pipe but his pinstripes (p. 227)
Of course no one person can express all they are in what they wear, but the mind is alert to hundreds of subconscious signals that we’re doing ourselves a disservice by assuming we’re not programmed to judge a book by it’s cover.
Learning to cultivate a visual calling card specific to oneself gives us even greater autonomy in navigating our personal journey. Be uniform to your own individuality. If you have a penchant for cowboy plaid shirts (a la VC Chris Sacca) go for it. Embrace the elements of your character that deeply reflect your individuality, and then 10x the impact in your day to day style. Be the one to cultivate your first impression, not others. Have it so the first impression is the presence people feel in the room as you enter. Not the entrance that whimpers and fades, as you seek refuge amongst people who look like you. The ones who live by the old uniformity, even if they don’t know it. And then reinforce the message, through consistency, confidence and a genuine disregard for the judgements of others. As there will be judgement, always. The price to pay for caring will always be derision from the ones who seek camouflage. Remember the story about the fish?
‘There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys, how’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes,
“What the hell is water?”’
(David Foster Wallace, ‘This is Water’)