F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” is a novel fixated on how the wealthy differentiate themselves from social aspirants, who mistakenly believe that wealth is all they need to cement a position in high society. A crucial component of the novel is the love affair between the social upstart Jimmy Gatz (later Jay Gatsby) and Daisy Fay. Jimmy is a penniless man wearing a uniform that obscures his lack of resources, while highlighting his youth and beauty. His uniform gives him access to Daisy’s house and affections. But, the uniform also sends him to war.
The Museum at FIT’s exhibition “Uniformity” explores the relationship between the traditionally feminine world of high society and its fashions—which Daisy leads—and the masculine world of sailors, soldiers, and schoolboys. Uniforms were a familiar presence for Fitzgerald who was educated at Princeton and briefly served in the Army. Indeed, the exhibition includes a blazer from Princeton in the ‘20s that may not have been that different from what Fitzgerald would have seen everywhere on campus including his wardrobe.
The exhibition also includes a U.S. Army World War I service uniform like the one that was crucial in Gatsby’s seduction of Daisy. The uniform with a row of gleaming brass buttons, epaulets, and oversized pockets—with brass buttons that draw attention to the chest—that endow the wearer with a vigorous sense of masculine vitality. The male mannequin stands a step behind a female mannequin wearing a Comme des Garçons olive drab ensemble. The jacket has been adapted for the feminine silhouette with the addition of matching pleated skirt and a belt to cinch in the waist. The sleeves have been ripped off and the edges frayed in a statement of individuality expressed through intentional imperfection.
Fashion has similarly repurposed camouflage, finding ways to recontextualize it. Designers have made it new by rendering it in vibrant colors or using it on a slinky slit evening gown. A sexy one-shouldered Dior camo gown designed by John Galliano kept the muted muddy colors of traditional camouflage, but the high slit laced to the mid-thigh transformed drab to daring. A Michael Kors suit used cobalt blue, stark white, and shades of black and gray to transform the print into something boldly eye catching. The printed pleated pants and matching zip up jacket balanced sophisticated and sporty with a silky sheen. Menswear designer John Bartlett chose to use bright orange, bright pink, and a mauve-y taupe to create a matching shirt, tie, and Bermuda shorts in a camouflage print. When you looked closer the print was made up of different sized dogs in different colors. A vibrant orange blazer broke up the print, but it didn’t make the outfit any quieter.
Camouflage’s boldly sophisticated French cousin the Breton stripe held court on the opposite wall. Oscar de la Renta drenched a low-cut Breton shirt in sequins, added a filmy white sailor collar with a tiered ruby bow draped over a sequined pencil skirt. It was gamine and ladylike. Label of-the- moment Sacai made sailor stripes more feminine by adding flirty panels of guipure lace. A Jean Paul Gaultier menswear rendering of the sailor uniform was more faithful yet fetishistic. Gaultier faithfully paired the marinière (Breton shirt) with corduroy sailor pants and a sailor hat. The sailor uniform symbolizes a potent sexuality at least judging by Gaultier fragrance advertising. Gaultier’s fragrance advertising is as subtle as a shirtless sailor on a floating ship that breaks through a women’s balcony as he leans in for a kiss (which he off course gets). A video installation footage from a Jean Paul Gaultier runway show were included in the exhibition. In the show, marinières were turned into sexy womenswear. One model sauntered down the runway in a marinière wrapped around her body and tied in the back as if she had tied her sailor’s shirt around her as she left his pied-a- terre.
The star of the video installations however was Thom Browne who opened the exhibition with a video interview where he talked about the role that uniforms played in his work and side- by-side videos of his Spring Summer 2014 menswear show and his Spring Summer 2016 womenswear show. Thom Browne is fixated on the idea of uniforms and how they change the psychology of people. One standout from Browne’s menswear show was a double breasted black leather overcoat with a train that was several yards long. The train called to mind a bride and the models that carried the train were part aide-de- camp and part bridesmaids. The symbolic tension between bride and battlefield got at the exhibitions focus on the intersection of menswear and womenswear.
Womenswear has often borrowed from male uniforms. Karl Lagerfeld’s fall/winter 2015/26 ready-to- wear show for Chanel took place in a fictional French bistro called the Bistro Gabrielle for Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel. The show was played on a loop during the exhibition and a black and white ensemble from the show was exhibited. The ensemble turned a brasserie waiter’s uniform of short black jacket, bowtie, and long white apron. The apron was transformed into a tiered skirt littered with small white bows. The look was quintessentially Chanel in the sense that Coco Chanel was one of the first designers to appropriate elements of male dress for the female. Karl Lagerfeld’s take on the bistro waiter’s uniform points to the fact that a uniform can give its wearer status and dignity while allowing them to look sharply dressed. Indeed, many of the designer iterations of classic uniforms throughout the exhibition didn’t make the uniforms look cheaper or more pedestrian, but rather pointed to the power of uniforms to endow their wearer’s with status through sharp tailoring and well-constructed clothing. The one notable exception was the McDonald’s uniform designed by Stan Herman and the Moschino ensemble that played with McDonalds iconography. The Stan Herman uniform was an unfortunate Terra Cotta brown polyester affair with white stripes that weren’t groovy or dignified. The Moschino spin on the classic McDonalds logo may make for a pointed and astute critique of the fashion industry, but ketchup red and mustard yellow don’t look chic together even in cashmere.