Style as Armour

The fall fashion issues are out and I’ve been devouring them! Even though I love summer and would prefer to forget that icy sidewalks were ever a part of my life, I’m always excited for the September issues (of Elle and Vogue, in particular). There’s something about coats, long sleeved sweaters and boots in black, navy, and other rich colours that feels exciting. After 3 months of bare legs and hot pink (which strangely turned out to be my preferred colour for the summer), I must admit to missing the feeling of zipping up a tall boot over jeans and wrapping my neck in a fuzzy scarf.

Janelle Monáe and I in our black and white uniforms (Bust Aug/September 2013)

Janelle Monáe and I in our black and white uniforms (Bust Aug/September 2013)

And speaking of fall issues, I greatly enjoyed reading the interview with Janelle Monáe in the latest Bust magazine in which she talks about how she consciously decided on her look. In the interview, she says she disagreed with music industry expectations for female artists. Even though she likes wearing skirts and heels and letting her hair down, she decided on zippy little tuxedos and a towering pompadour for her public appearances. It’s a sort of Elvis-meets-Sinatra uniform that she says allowed her to prove that women in music don’t have to be decorated in ever more outrageous skin-baring outfits in order to gain popularity [I’d like to salute Adele here, as well]. And, I would argue, by trusting her own sense of style and making deliberate choices about her image, she’s created a Janelle Monáe brand that speaks not only to inspired soulful tunes, but also to a kind of cool sexiness that is truly her own.

I like this idea of the uniform as a source of empowerment. Those who wear uniforms professionally often express a sense of pride regarding what it means to be allowed to wear those clothes; they signal inclusion, as well as a standard of excellence. But what of the unofficial uniforms we create for ourselves?

This year's Fall military trends have a nautical flavour (Calvin Klein 2013 collection in Elle)

This year’s Fall military trends have a nautical flavour (Calvin Klein 2013 collection in Elle)

In high school, my uniform was made up of black jeans, black t-shirt (the sleeves of which I altered to reduce their boxiness — this was the 90s, baby Ts hadn’t yet been invented), black combat boots, and rust coloured cardigan. The whole thing was topped with a vintage German army coat. At that awkward age, I needed the shroud of all black in order to feel comfortable in my skin, and I also liked the feeling of borrowing elements of military power in a way that I thought, at the time, were anti-establishment. In fact, one fashion trend that almost never goes out of style and is continuously reinterpreted is military inspired attire, coats and boots especially. There must be something about being laced-in and protected by structured clothes that makes women feel more secure in a world in which we’re told there’s a predator around every corner.

This summer, I’ve inadvertently developed a work uniform based on a) need, b) ease, and c) personal style.
A- It’s freezing in my office so I’m wearing pants even though it’s hot outside
B- I don’t like to spend much time planning outfits seeing as I’m a slow starter in the mornings
C- I just love bright bold colours
So I’ve been wearing red or coral pants paired with a dark t-shirt or tank-top, plus a black blazer or cardigan on top (see previous mention of the arctic conditions in my workplace). I feel this uniform has a good effort : style : professionalism ratio.

Librarian selfie

Librarian selfie

I wonder, though, when a uniform stops empowering the wearer and becomes a crutch. Part of having a personal style necessitates evolving. I’m not talking about just adapting fashion trends to stay current; I think that, as we grow and mature, we should want to project differently to the world. I will always love wearing all black! I enjoy the visual impact of head to toe black and the contrast with my skin. Slim black pants, sleek boots, a blazer that comes in at the waist, and a good amount of black eyeliner — these are my go-to elements for when I need to look good, yet feel comfortable and confident. It’s perfect for a night out on the town or a rainy day at work when I’d rather be hiding from the world. But I don’t need the black like I did in high school. I’m no longer hiding behind the uniform; nevertheless, the uniform still has tremendous appeal.

Essentially, the uniform is something with which we identify and that creates an emotional connection for us. If a person feels marginalized and they choose to signal their difference to the world through clothing and bodily decoration, that’s their way of turning a weakness into a strength. In fact, punk started out mainly as a fashion statement created by Vivienne Westwood and sold by Malcolm McLaren in their London boutique. British youth were disaffected and it came out through clothes first, then in the music. The same goes for people who dress very plainly — that dude in the striped polo shirt and kakis just wants to fit in. He wants to be mainstream, part of the dominant culture; that’s what makes him feel good right now.

Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood

Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood

I should write an entire post on makeup, but I just want to mention it quickly here. For me, makeup is definitely part of my armour. It helps me to be better drawn; it defines me, literally. My face is quite soft and perhaps too vulnerable looking, and I want to be able to select those who get to see that in me. Everyone else experiences a Brenda that is at least a little artificial, i.e. created through art.

Do you have a uniform? How does it make you feel?

*** Little shout out to my colleague and mentor whose uniform of chinos and blue shirt compliments his Tom Stoppard hair perfectly


  1. It’s funny how you mention uniforms … I realize that when I go to work, I hardly dress differently than when I go out somewhere else. If I am meeting a friend, I still kinda dress up but maybe have a more casual edge. I guess what I’m saying here is that the only time I don’t dress up is obviously when I know I’m staying home or I am going fishing! Otherwise, I LOVE dressing in cool clothes no matter where I go for the day. It feels great! It is rare that I leave the house without SOME kind of makeup.

    • I agree, it feels good to be put together! I do think my non-work clothes are sometimes too revealing for work, which would be the main difference for me.


  1. […] Of course, it’s all relative. In seven month from now when spring makes its long awaited return, our heavy coverings will feel somber and oppressive. Yet, at present, there’s something soothing about slipping back into our protective winter uniforms. […]

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