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Uniforms and Society

Hanging uniform

Costumes, attires, and social order

Uniforms have long been part of customs and social collectives. These attires establish the commonness of members of an organization, occupation and profession. But uniforms do more than just group people into associations or social strata. In more ways than one, uniforms enable its wearers to wield power, and also to express religiosity.

Uniform and spirituality. Since the beginning of recorded history, people engaged in religious activities have already worn standard costumes and emblems. Native American dancers during powwow dance festivals, for example, used handmade regalia. The garb is considered spiritual, and is highly respected and never touched by celebrants other than the owner.

Until today, officials of dominant religions still don distinguishable uniforms, which are often reminiscent of their religion's traditional costumes but modified to become functional in the modern times.

Jewish rabbis wear standard religious uniforms like the kippah (a skull cap) and tallit (a prayer shawl) during religious services. Catholic priests, on the other hand, are easily identified because of they wear 'clericals,' that is, black shirts with white collars, combined with other pieces of clothing that are usually in the somber tones of black or grey. Like the Jewish, the Catholic clergy also wears skull caps called the zucchetto.

Mullahs regularly wear black turbans (traditional headdresses consisting of long scarves wrapped around the head) in reverence to their Muslim faith, and don Arab Bedouin clothes during special ceremonies. Buddhist monks, on the other hand, attach virtues to their attires. They wear orange, yellow or brown robes as a constant reminder of the importance of not clinging and of letting go - a Buddhist mantra.

Uniform and power. The military regalia not only represent valiance, but also the martial authority that comes with wearing it. Military attires are so designed to reflect the gallantry by which a particular regiment stands for. But the military uniform is not all symbolic; it also serves more practical functions.

In the olden times, military uniforms were so designed so that a clear distinction can be made between soldiers protected by the laws of war and commoners who may be carrying weapons but enjoy no such protection. This was necessary during those days, as regional rebellions were much more common.

During this era, military attires featured many unique metal buttons and colors that they could not be modified into unrecognizable clothing. Military uniforms were designed to be so distinctive so that it becomes impossible for deserters wearing them to avoid detection. Older military uniforms were also made with brightly-colored and high contrast fabrics to make soldiers visible in early battle scenarios, where there was always a lot of smoke and gunpowder.

The construction and material of military apparel have drastically changed over the centuries. It was found in the Crimean War that these bright colors and very distinct ornaments made soldiers easy targets for enemies to shoot even at a distance. The British armies started to change their colors to ones that blended in more with the terrain, for camouflage. Thus, khaki became the dominant military attire. Military uniforms now also come in white for camouflaging in snowy regions, and even in tan for blending in sandy ones.

Uniforms and status. In ancient Iran, garbs represented the profession, race, or social rank of the wearer. A hat or headpiece is particularly important in putting labels on people: closed, open or integrated crowns were worn by kings, and the rest wore the straight caps, turban-like caps, Bashlogh (hoods), and egg-like felt caps, depending on their position and profession. The felt cap was popular among Iranian tribesmen. Ladies used to wear a headscarf reaching to their ankles, covered by a diadem or Basak. In Europe, servants used to have distinctive uniforms called liveries. A livery is a uniform worn by some menservants and chauffeurs for royal families and other opulent personalities in old Europe. Examples of a livery are knee-breeches worn by footmen in grand houses.

Uniforms today. Modern uniforms mostly serve the purpose of identification of people's roles in society. Professionals like doctors, nurses, policemen, firemen, etc. become easily identifiable because of their attire.

But while uniforms still continue to reflect religious beliefs, power, and positions in society, it does so in a subtler, less discriminatory way than the uniforms in the past did. And as the world embraces a more homogenous fashion sense, the social divisions uniforms created are becoming less and less distinct.