The Mutability of Uniform

How to Cite

Hackett, L. J., & Coghlan, J. (2023). The Mutability of Uniform. M/C Journal, 26(1). (Original work published March 14, 2023)
Vol. 26 No. 1 (2023): uniform
Published 2023-03-14 — Updated on 2023-03-15

The word ‘uniform’ can be a noun, adjective, or verb. As a noun it relates to prescribed dress, often in occupational settings. As an adjective it relates the sameness between objects and thoughts. As a verb it means to make the same. Underlying each grammatical usage is the concept sameness, to align thoughts, ideas, and physicality. In society where heightened individualism is a key characteristic, the persistence of ‘uniform-ness’ is an intriguing area of research. This issue of M/C Journal embraces the range of meanings that word uniform encompasses, and examines how they present in our culture(s) and how they are represented in the media.

In the opening to their book Uniform: Clothing and Discipline in the Modern World, Jane Tynan and Lisa Godson argue that “as state, society, and nation converged towards the end of the nineteenth century uniform became part of a modern culture increasingly concerned with regulating time, space, and bodies” (Tynan and Godson 6). The modern state demanded uniformity of ideas and thought, underpinned by the rationalism that dominated the enlightenment. To dress in a uniform was to transform the body into that rational, uniform being. At the same time uniformity “suppresses individuality”, controlling social interaction (Joseph and Alex 723-24), and centralising the organisation or state in our social lives.

As an item of dress, uniforms are distinctive. Yet they only become distinctive when they become different from everyday dress, such as spurs on Cavalry officers who have no horses or wigs on lawyers when everyone else has dispensed with them (Hobsbawm 4). Dress in general is governed by unwritten social rules, perhaps none so pervasive as being required to dress to your gender. The history of uniform reveals that occupational dress often demarked the appropriate gender for the job. Early military uniforms were masculine, nanny uniforms feminine. Uniform explicates status of both the wearer and the non-wearer, who then becomes the ‘other’, the outsider or the non-conformer. The dichotomy between wearer and non-wearer is not so clear, however, as the power of the uniform also provides the means through which the non-conformer can subvert its meanings through incorrect wearing of the uniform. Similarly, too, we see others subverting uniform social norms to make their political points or for political gain. As Jennifer Craik states, “there is a constant play between the intended symbolisms of uniforms … and the informal codes of wearing and denoting uniforms” (Craik 7).

As one of “modernity’s practices; [uniforms represent] resistance to tradition and the embrace of rationality” (Tynan and Godson 1-2). Yet, as the twentieth century progressed, we can see uniforms and uniformity of thought being co-opted to create ‘tradition’ and ‘ritual’ particularly around the state (see Cannadine; Hobsbawn). Concurrently, formal occupational dress for many workers entered a decline near the beginning of the twentieth century (Williams-Mitchell 101), yet other forms of uniform arose. A tendency arose towards what Jennifer Craik calls the ‘quasi-uniform’, those “modes of dress that are consensually imposed as appropriate” (17), for example the business suit, a wedding dress or gym wear. This mode of uniform shifts the dynamic from a top-down directive (such as that in an institution or by government) to a more democratic one, where the general populace seemingly consents to, and socially police.

With the advent of film, television, and later the Internet, the access to information has led to what some argue as the homogenisation of culture, albeit one that is dominated by particular western cultures. This too can be seen in international diplomacy. First the League of Nations, and then the United Nations, standardised international dialogue between countries. Uniform processes were put in place, with institutions such as the International Court playing a pivotal role. The English language came to dominate, with over 67 countries counting it as an official language, and many others having it in common use. This was arguably as a result of its primacy in both media and diplomatic communications, creating a uniform language which paradoxically retains its localised character. Although this too may be dissipating as this primacy is being challenged through the reinvigoration of languages from former colonies, from Irish to the Indigenous Australian languages, and the growing populations speaking Spanish and Chinese. Diversity too is being demanded in our media and politics, through more balanced and nuanced representations of people.

Uniforms are often products of their time, and in their physical form can appear as from another era, staying static while fashion swiftly moves on. The butler or the chauffeur can look like a relic from a previous age. So too can uniform ways of thinking. The recent changing of state school uniform polices in Australia from gendered to gender-neutral clothing reflects how uniforms can be slow to catch up to social norms of women wearing trousers and shorts for sport, leisure, and work. This reflects not only the clothing, but the institutional beliefs that underpinned uniform policy.

In reflection of the ways that uniform has changed, for this edition we have chosen to present the feature article followed by the articles in chronological order. The feature article addresses much of the shift in uniforms. This is followed by ten articles which explore several different types of uniform, both physical and metaphysical, revealing how uniforms have changed in society in the last 125 years.

This issue’s feature article takes up the theme of how a dress code has developed into an imposed uniform in parliaments, and how female politicians have challenged the gender norms embedded in these codes. Taking a longitudinal view, “Parliamentary Dress: Gendered Contestation of the Political Uniform” by Jo Coghlan and Lisa J. Hackett first situates the development of parliamentary dress in its historical context that assumes masculine attire. It then highlights how female politicians have used these codes to both signal their adherence to norms and their rejection of the same norms. It further examines the ways that prominent female politicians have subverted the parliamentary uniform to make political statements.

Our first article, “The Inculcative Power of Australian Cadet Corps Uniforms in the 1900s and 1910s” by Nathan Wise and Lisa J. Hackett, takes us to the start of the twentieth century and examines how military uniforms entered the classroom in the years leading up to, and during, the First World War. It notes how cadet programmes were part of a wider social movement that sought to instil middle-class values throughout society. By donning uniforms, it was believed, boys would also ‘wear’ the ideology prescribed within them. It also served as a signifier to wider society of the status of these boys and the future possibility of service to their country.

The experience of the First World War and the mass-uniforming of the population provided a blue-print for the organisation of labour during wartime. Trends that were established during the First World War developed further, perhaps driven by the social and political upheavals of the inter-war years; the Roaring 20s, the Great Depression, the rise of Fascism. Among this was the continuation of the idea that schoolboys undertake Army cadet programmes as part of their education. Some schools had continued this after the First World War, whilst others would introduce it at the start of the war. Liam Barnsdale’s article “Trooping the (School) Colour: Australian School Cadet Uniforms and Masculine Identities during the Second World War” examines how the cadet programmes within schools increased in popularity during the war period. Central to this was the debate over uniforming boys in appropriate uniforms. As Barnsdale points out, Australia had no official uniform for use by cadets. Instead, individual schools designed their own uniforms, which often revealed the ideology of the school rather than the armed forces. The result was that in Australia cadet uniforms were diverse in their offerings.

Founded in the dying days of the Second World War, uniformity of political ideals was encapsulated in the fledging United Nations. Replacing the League of Nations which was founded to maintain world peace, the United Nations has proven to be more effective and long-lasting than its predecessor. The central mission of peacekeeping brought about a new form of military uniform, the distinctive blue berets worn by the United Nations Peace Keepers. Simone Strungaru’s article “The Blue Beret: Representations and Symbolism of UN Peacekeeper’s Uniforms” examines the history of the distinctive uniform. Here Strungaru reveals the rich symbolism that the blue beret leverages in forging a distinctive identity for the men and women who wear it.

The centrality of military uniforms in historical state events, such as wars, have meant that their iconography has often been linked to the grand ceremonies of state. David Cannadine argued in 1983 that ceremonies surrounding the British royal family have become “so well stage managed” that the British (and arguably Australians) believe they are good at tradition and ritual (Cannadine 160). The next article in our volume examines the careful management of a royal visit to an Australian beach.

Donna Lee Brien’s article “Planning Queen Elizabeth II’s Visit to Bondi Beach in 1954: An Object-Inspired History” examines the material remnants of uniform and how it provides a gateway to historical knowledge. Brien’s examination starts with a commemorative medal handed out to school children as part of the royal visit to Bondi Beach. This medal deliberately ties the school uniform to royalty through the use of a signifier usually worn as a military achievement. This tangible connection allows the organisers to assign royalist identities to the school uniform. Brien’s article further extrapolates how other uniforms, such as those worn by Surf Life Savers, Nurses, and a Pipe Band were used in a carefully orchestrated display of royal pageantry at the beach. A pageantry that was uniquely Imperial and Australian all at once.

Xiang Gao’s article “A ‘Uniform’ for all States? International Norm Diffusion and Localisation” takes up how norms within different countries have evolved, arguing that such norms become a type of ‘national uniform’. While states adhere to international norms such as those enshrined in the United Nations, they also have to negotiate with domestic actors and the ideals held by them. Thus, norms have to adapt to local sensibilities. The ability of a state to define its own norms on the international stage is affected by its relative positioning in international relations and diplomacy. Gao argues that more powerful states have increased capacity to define and challenge normative behaviour than smaller powers. The results of this can be seen through international treaties: for example, climate change negotiations.

Uniformness and uniforms are not just the apparatus of the state, they also exist to identify members of groups that hold themselves apart from society. From subcultural uniforms to religious cults denoting their affiliation to a power beyond the mortal realm, uniforms have been utilised to exclude both the wearer from society and outsiders from the group. In their article “The Clothes Maketh the Cult: The Myth of the Cult and Pop Culture”, Huw Nolan, Jenny Wise, and Lesley McLean examine how the cult ‘uniform’ is used in popular culture as a device to denote cults as ‘the other’.

Pope Francis uses his uniform as a way of challenging international norms when it comes to environmental issues, as argued in Aidan Moir’s article: “The Pope’s New Clothes: The Brand Politics of the Papal Uniform in Popular Culture”. Pope Francis, Moir argues, has deliberately chosen modest religious vestments to signify his environmental ethics and his emulation of his namesake, St Francis of Assisi. This uniform also marks a shift away from the more ornate vestments preferred by his predecessor, Pope Benedict. Moir also notes how each pope has personalised their uniform through the use of accessories, noting both John Paul II and Benedict conspicuously wearing accessories from established brand names such as Prada or Rolex. Pope Francis’s aesthetic rejects these items of conspicuous consumption, creating a humbler appearance, reducing the distance between the Catholic leader and his flock.

Uniformity does not necessarily mean homogeneity, but rather, as Fredericks and Bradfield argue, a collective whole that can work together. Their article, “‘Uniting Hearts’: The Uluru Statement from the Heart and the Need for a Uniformed Front for a Constitutionally Enshrined First Nations’ Voice to Parliament” also introduces to our discussion how digital icons, a unique feature of contemporary life, become virtual uniforms, signalling the ideological position of the communicator. The ‘Uluru heart’ icon can be both worn physically and shared online to denote support for the Uluru Statement. The simple use of a recognisable symbol communicates identity and allows for widespread dissemination of support for the Uluru Statement.

Nicholas Hookway continues the discussion on the use of uniform to denote support for social causes in his article “‘I decked myself out in pink’: Examining the Role of the Pink Uniform in a Virtual Sports Charity Event”. This article also demonstrates the mutability of the uniform: by adhering to the colour pink, individuals have a wide scope of clothing choices, accessories, makeup, and hair colour, etc., to choose from. Examining the pink uniform through the concept of embodied philanthropy, Hookway demonstrates how sports participants are able to create their own uniform, creating a community among themselves.

This article also shows how a uniform can be created that allows for high levels of individualisation, a significant change to the reformers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This lack of ‘uniformity’ within the uniform appears to have had little negative effect on the wearer’s sense of purpose or unity. The article also shows how, despite pink’s association with femininity, men were prepared to wear the uniform colour to show their support of the cause. The association of the colour with cancer replaces other sociological meanings in this context.

The final article in this issue offers a look at how attempts to create a social uniform can be foiled through the lack of a distinctive character, despite the availability of distinct iconography. In “Ayo, Bisexual Check: Bi Bobs, Cuffed Jeans, and Prototypes for a Bisexual Uniform on TikTok”, Collin Knopp-Schwyn examines the difficulties of establishing a uniform when the intended audience struggles to understands its meaning. Despite this, the author locates where the online bisexual community have developed a distinct style that promises the become a prototype for a recognisable bisexual uniform.

The articles in this issue provide a comprehensive investigation into various facets of what uniform means both historically and contemporarily. A discernible shift away from highly regimented styles to distinct looks has occurred as society integrates the twin desires of inclusivity and individuality with the long held social need to be part of a recognisable group.


Cannadine, David. "The Context, Performance and Meaning of Ritual: The British Monarchy and the 'Invention of Tradition', c. 1820–1977." The Invention of Tradition. Eds. Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger. Canto ed. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1992. 101-64.

Craik, Jennifer. Uniforms Exposed. Oxford: Berg, 2005.

Hobsbawm, Eric. "Introduction: Inventing Traditions." The Invention of Tradition. Eds. Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger. Canto ed. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1992. 1-14.

Joseph, Nathan, and Nicholas Alex. "The Uniform: A Sociological Perspective." The American Journal of Sociology 77.4 (1972): 719-30.

Tynan, Jane, and Lisa Godson. "Understanding Uniform: An Introduction." Uniform: Clothing and Discipline in the Modern World. Eds. Jane Tynan and Lisa Godson. London and New York: Bloomsbury, 2019.

Williams-Mitchell, Christobel. Dressed for the Job: The Story of Occupational Costume. Poole, Dorset: Blandford Press, 1982.

Author Biographies

Lisa J Hackett, University of New England

Lisa J Hackett is a lecturer at the University of New England, Armidale NSW. Her research interests included popular and material culture, particular pertaining to clothing and uniform, with an emphasis on crime, gender and political representations. She is the founder, alongside Associate Professor Jo Coghlan and Mr Huw Nolan of PopCRN – the Popular Culture Research Network. She is currently working on the women pilot’s uniforms in the Second World War and fashion in crime. Her most recent publication is ‘The Mad Kings of The Royals: Fashioning transgressions in royal popular culture television’ with Jo Coghlan was published in Film Fashion and Consumption 2022 and she is currently guest-editing (with Jo Coghlan and Huw Nolan the International Journal of James Bond Studies).

Contact: Room 143, Building E11, University of New England, NSW 2351

Jo Coghlan, University of New England

Jo Coghlan is an Associate Professor at the University of New England, Armidale, NSW. Her research interests are in popular culture and material culture with an emphasis on gender, political representations, fashion studies and death studies. Her most recent publication is ‘The Mad Kings of The Royals: Fashioning transgressions in royal popular culture television’ with Lisa Hackett, (Film Fashion and Consumption 2022). 

Contact: Room 143, E11, University of New England, Armidale NSW 2351
Jo Coghlan