Eyeing Bright Brass Buttons-A Regimented Look at Uniforms

Uniforms: Why We Are What We Wear , by Paul Fussell. Houghton Mifflin, 204 pages, $22.

How Paul Fussell managed to pound out an entire book on the subject of uniforms without once addressingthe Catholic-schoolgirl issue is utterlybeyondthisreviewer-but he has. If the girleens in plaid kilts and knee socks who prowl the Upper East Side leave him inappropriately quivering, as they do so many other full-grown men, he’s not telling. He also remains curiously unmoved by nurses (dispatched in one measly chapter), cheerleaders (just five paragraphs!), and French maids ( rien ). The topic teems with perv potential-even the U.P.S. man, has recently been anointed a benign national sex object-but Mr. Fussell’s not fussed. The only thing that gets turgid here, alas, is the prose.

What does get Mr. Fussell excited-in a totally unerotic way-is military uniforms. Just how much they interest him dawns on the dismayed reader at around page 50, when the author veers briefly from a discussion of General Patton and gilt buttons (“they seem to appeal especially to boys and the boyish”) to a strange, non sequitur digression about blue jeans (“carefully worn by women, the tight seam in front could delineate, even through the thick fabric, the labia majora and similar attractions”). A couple of pages later, he returns abruptly to a drab disquisition on the “loathsome” olive fatigues worn by American soldiers. He is clearly relieved to be back on this familiar turf, but you are not (unless you happen to be a war buff). The book demonstrates more zeal for numbing taxonomies of chevrons, helmet liners, epaulets-and the “weirdos” who obsess over them-than the interesting sociological issues uniforms raise in the civilian world, such as the recent vogue among privileged young men for vintage gas-station-attendant shirts and T.W.A. flight-attendant bags. (By the way, when Mr. Fussell-a World War II veteran who, in the 70’s, wrote a brilliant cultural history of World War I-uses the word weirdo , it sounds like a synonym for “draft-dodging coward.”)

And so we learn-in a scattershot way-about Italian officers’ propensity for silly feathers on their helmets, the Nazis’ fondness for double-breasted jackets, and the Russians’ use of musculature-enhancing shoulder boards. My guess is that Mr. Fussell yearned to write a more specialized, esoteric but perhaps less salable volume about war garb, that some agent or editor urged him to pad it out and dumb it down for the popular market, and that he did so with less than 100 percent enthusiasm.

When he does venture out of the barracks, what you get is an occasionally diverting hodgepodge of musings about different groups of people who are required to wear livery by some outside authority (pilots, police, doormen and so on). Even people in menial jobs like their uniforms, claims the author-who has clearly never had to don a chicken suit and hand out flyers at a mall-for they lend the wearer a sense of place, of belonging. Then there are the groups who agree to dress alike for political or religious purposes, like the Ku Klux Klan or the Hare Krishna. And then there are some pretty woolly theories about exactly when and how certain garments-like the dark suits favored by U.S. Senators, or the white dresses worn by brides, or the aforementioned blue jeans-become so popular or socially mandatory that they themselves constitute a kind of tacit “uniform.”

These are interesting questions, but the material is indifferently and confusingly organized: no index, no footnotes. More baffling for a book that purports to be about clothing, there are no pictures .

At the outset, Mr. Fussell apologizes for the book’s “unrelenting masculinity.” (“I have worn many a trousered uniform and buckled many a cartridge belt, but I have never worn a dress or fastened a garter belt.”) And indeed, when he starts to grapple with “feminine” ideas of trend and fashion, he often simply folds, as though the subject were simply too flighty to engage his interest. Mr. Fussell dismisses fashion journalists as “a despicable breed,” but if he had paid the better ones some passing attention, he wouldn’t have written such a cursory chapter about “Japan as a Uniform Culture”; the truth is, young Japanese citizens are doing some of the most experimental and rebellious things in design and fashion right now. Stan Herman, who does uniforms for McDonald’s and FedEx, is cited as a “well-known New York fashion designer”-actually, I’ve never heard of him, despite dutiful reading of WWD , and would’ve appreciated an illustrated chapter. Somehow Mr. Fussell also missed the interesting recent trend of luxury designers (Prada, Gucci, etc.) outfitting hospitality staff.

It’s not that Uniforms suffers from a lack of scholarship, but there’s a fusty, unaired quality to its secondary sources. Mr. Fussell, who taught literature at the University of Pennsylvania for a long time, quotes liberally from the British modernists (Joyce, Woolf, Orwell, Lawrence) but doesn’t mention the Village People until page 187, and then only gingerly, as if it had been suggested to him by a research assistant. The book could’ve benefited from references to uniforms in popular culture-the pink outfits worn by the waitresses on Alice , say. “A letter carrier finished with his or her daily round may not, in uniform, pause at a bar on the way home,” states Mr. Fussell.

Oh, yeah? What about Cliff in Cheers ?

Mr. Fussell’s avowed “thing about uniforms” is essentially conservative, square, dry: He dreams of a long-ago time when people knew their role in society and dressed for it; there’s a palpable nostalgia for the ice man, the sailor suit the author’s mother used to dress him in, Nelson Eddy dressed up as a Canadian Mountie. Unfortunately, this isn’t the sustained cultural study the subtitle promises-it’s more like an indifferently curated curio cabinet of uniform trivia, a starched salute of a book. Would that Mary Katherine Gallagher, the hysteric Catholic schoolgirl played by Molly Shannon on Saturday Night Live , had scissor-kicked her way into its pages.

Alexandra Jacobs writes The Eight-Day Week.