Clothing Time: The Stories Behind 4 Famous Uniforms

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This marks the first time we've lumped together priests, soldiers and Playboy bunnies in one article. Common element: they all dress for success.

1. School Uniforms

If you were stuck in pleated plaid skirts or ugly neckties throughout your school days, you probably want to know which direction to launch your spitballs. In this case, the British seem to be the main culprits. Just like today, economics, safety, and prestige were the main justifications for the school uniform.

The first school uniforms appeared in England during the sixteenth century at charity schools. Apprentices and children in charity schools were often dressed in blue because it was the cheapest available dye for clothing. (The aristocracy tended to shun the color for the same reason.) Children at Christ's Hospital School in Sussex were issued a long blue coat. Still worn by students today, the uniform includes an ankle-length coat, white neckband similar to the ones worn by eighteenth-century clergy, knee breeches, and yellow stockings. (You may want to rethink those complaints about your old dress code right about now.)

By the eighteenth century, uniforms became popular in British public schools for a different reason. Boys from wealthy families showed up to school in their rough-and-tumble clothes and proceeded to play unrestrained versions of rugby, football, and cricket. The games were often dangerous and chaotic, and some families chose to educate their sons at home to avoid the fracas. The institution of uniforms, along with stricter supervision, helped turn the British school system into one of the most prestigious in Europe. Unlike the students in the original Bluecoat uniforms, wealthy boys and girls had several fine versions of dress for different occasions, and the attire soon came to represent school pride.

2. Playboy Bunnies

play-b.jpgNo joke—the famous costumes, now popular in Halloween stores, were the first service uniform to be registered with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. (Trademark number 0762884, for those who want to do more research on the subject.)

When Playboy founder and editor-in-chief Hugh Hefner decided to open up Playboy Clubs in 1959, he intended to call the hostesses "Playmates," like the women in his magazine, and dress them in skimpy lingerie. Ilse Taurins, then girlfriend of Playboy executive Victor Lownes, gets credit for the idea to dress the hostesses like the signature tuxedoed Playboy Bunny character instead. Taurins's mother made the prototype, which resembled a strapless bathing suit complete with fluffy tail and ears, and Taurins modeled the outfit for Hefner. Hef especially loved the tail and instituted a "look but don't touch" policy for his Bunnies. (The penalty for a member touching a Bunny tail was expulsion from the club.)

In 1962, Hefner hired French seamstress Renée Blot to "upgrade" the suit. She added a bowtie and cuffs, cinched the waist, and created a stiff D-cup bust, which the Bunnies stuffed with everything from socks to cottontails. The Playboy clubs closed in the United States in 1988, but the outfits live on.

3. Roman Catholic Priests

priest-collar.jpgReligious uniforms have been around since antiquity to show that holy men are different from everyone else, but, ironically, one of the most recognizable religious uniforms sprang from priests just trying to be trendy. At the end of the sixteenth century, Romans started turning down their collars, and, not wanting to appear unfashionable, the clergy did the same. The clergy also adorned their collars with lace and fancy needlework, which made the cloth difficult to clean. To keep the beautiful collars fresh, a changeable sleeve of white linen protected them from soil.

Unfortunately for the fashion-conscious clergy, Pope Urban VIII saw the lacy collars as frivolous and banned the use of lace entirely, but he did allow the protective sleeve to remain. That sleeve soon became the ubiquitous symbol that a priest was available to perform the sacraments, including baptism, confirmation, Eucharist, marriage, confession, and the last rites.

4. Military Uniforms

army-uni.jpgBefore the age of long-range weaponry, it was essential for standing armies to be able to identify their brethren—including different regiments—easily. (In other words: they didn't want to shoot each other.) Early armies sported superficially similar military dress, but the troops of the Byzantine Empire are the first known army to identify different regiments by costume. In the tenth century CE, each member of the cavalry sported plumes and other items in distinctive colors.

Uniforms grew more lavish over time, with colorful uniforms the norm up until World War I. Amidst the often flamboyant outfits of other countries, the German and the British looked drab. German rifleman wore felgrau (field gray), probably as a symbol of their status as foresters and hunters who were recruited for service, while the British dressed in khaki, a convenience most likely left over from colonialism in Africa and India. Though the uniforms were not designed as camouflage, they soon proved an advantage to the Brits and Germans and other armies began incorporating gray and khaki in their apparel.

After discovering the benefit of blending with the scenery, the Germans took the concept further, to help break up the easily identifiable shape of the human outline. Before the start of World War II, Oberkommando Wehrmacht issued the "splinter pattern" as the first official form of camouflage. Soon every country had a distinctive camouflage uniform that fulfilled both the purposes of concealment and identification. As for those bright colors, they became relegated to ceremonial wear.

This piece was written by Liz Hunt and excerpted from the mental_floss book In the Beginning: The Origins of Everything. You can pick up a copy in our store.

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February 22, 2009 - 7:10pm
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