The Blog

Uniformly Impressive

I recently found myself in the situation of being lectured to by a stubborn, white-clad general hospital doctor who explained how wrong I was in wanting my father transferred to a clinic specialising in the treatment of his condition.

I recently found myself in the situation of being lectured to by a stubborn, white-clad general hospital doctor who explained how wrong I was in wanting my father transferred to a clinic specialising in the treatment of his condition.

The experience caused me to reflect on one of the most notable quotes attributed to the celebrated American author and humorist Mark Twain. He once remarked that "clothes make the man" and, as often, he was correct.

We tend to ascribe to individuals who dress in a certain way particular characteristics, be they positive or negative. If we don't agree with what we're told by someone wearing a uniform that implies knowledge or status, it is not uncommon for us to feel a little inhibited, intimidated and unable to answer back as we would to others.

The fact is that society tends to regard those individuals who, say, work in fast food restaurants in an entirely different manner to those who form part of our emergency services or military. That isn't necessarily a reflection of their actual abilities. The respect - or lack of it - which they command is largely down to what they wear.

As a noun, 'uniform', means a distinctive style of clothing but as an adjective can be taken to imply consistency. Whenever we are confronted with uniforms worn by medical staff, police or fire service personnel or barristers, most of us - rightly or wrongly - believe that they all have authority and knowledge. In short, they have our trust.

More than merely creating a strong first impression, it is incredible to think that something as straightforward as apparel can condition our behaviour too. No matter how confident people may be in their private or professional lives, such is the psychological impact of some uniforms that they can be left feeling slightly awestruck and even inferior.

In some cases, it is only a short step from admiration to different types of emotion. The slushy Hollywood fantasies created by Tom Cruise, Richard Gere and others have fuelled a surge in dating websites for uniform wearers and their admirers. The big-screen has also played its part in reminding us that uniforms - whether donned by actual historical villains or their histrionic, fictional counterparts - can inspire real fear too.

Uniforms don't only affect the observer but those wearing them too. They signify a common bond or purpose, something as obvious from battlegrounds or sports grounds as from airline staff or traffic wardens. They can indicate rank or status and seniority, making instantly clear those who have succeeded in their given career.

However, there are those individuals - such as the doctor I had to speak to - who regard their uniform as not only deserving respect but as meaning they are above criticism.

Organisations are constantly trying to balance the benefits of tone, consistency and style of appearance with function. They recognise the customer relations potential which the right cut can have on perceptions of how they operate.

Police have swapped their helmets for baseball caps to appear more contemporary and judges have removed their wigs to seem less intimidating (and more up-to-date). Even the Brownies and McDonalds employees have had makeovers at the hands of the designers Jeff Banks and Bruce Oldfield.

It's not something which is necessarily a new phenomenon (even the Third Reich had its uniforms made by Hugo Boss) but in these brand and image-conscious days, companies are increasingly eager to find something visual to give them an edge over their competitors, build a personality and reinforce their being professional.

But is it right that we might allow one person's abilities to be subsumed in corporate colours or that we could overlook an individual's poor standards because of what they wear?

If clothes really do make the man, the combination of a person's function and behaviour towards others is certainly more important than their uniform alone.

Thankfully for myself and my father, I saw through the 'God in White' effect as merely a facade - one of the benefits of looking beyond a person's outward appearance for my job.

However, as I left the hospital, I wondered how many others might have not accepted an unreasonable viewpoint merely because of being confronted with a starched, white uniform.