- Hardcover: 224 pages
- Publisher: Houghton Mifflin (Trade) (1 Nov 2002)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0618067469
- ISBN-13: 978-0618067466
- Product Dimensions: 23.7 x 14.7 x 2.2 cm
- Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,219,834 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
Unfortunately, I found the book very disappointing. Fussell has reached a point in his life and work where he can write about whatever he damn well pleases, and there are points in this book that remind us why. His basic thesis, that uniforms represent the eternal dilemma between individualism and belonging, is interesting, and he does a good job of pointing out the irony of people wearing a uniform to emphasize their uniqueness.
Those strengths do not overcome the books weaknesses, which begin with some glaring factual errors. On page 64, Fussell concludes his chapter on the U.S. Army's uniforms and the "Battle of the Berets" by claiming that the battle ended with the Rangers in possession of their traditional [not really] berets and the rest of the Army wearing khaki models. This is a complete reversal of the true outcome and could lead air travelers to believe that the elite Rangers, rather than the National Guard, are now guarding airports. It may seem like a minor error, but it obscures the point that the outcome could not have been otherwise. Uniforms are an expression of authority, and the Army Chief of Staff could never have given in on such a trivial matter, nor could his superiors have overruled him, without precipitating a much more serious crisis in confidence. From the moment General Shinseki said "you will," the matter was decided for better or for worse. Fussell does not really examine this element of "uniformity" as much as he probably should, choosing rather to focus on the individual's desire to be in a uniform.
There are a couple of other errors, both glaring and probable. Fussell claims (page 59) that the campaign hat is no longer worn in the military except by Marine drill instructors. Not so; male Army drill sergeants also wear the "Smoky Bear" hat, while their female counterparts wear an abominable green contraption with a turned-up Aussie style brim. Nobody knows why. I do not have the time to find it right now (more on that shortly), but I believe Fussell also refers to the Army's World War II service cap at one point as the "service or overseas cap." I defer to his own experience-perhaps the terminology has changed-but both before and after World War II, the service and overseas caps were different things. On page 36 Fussell claims that George Patton's grandson, Robert H. Patton "knew him about as well as anyone" but Robert's father George was only born in 1923, making him 22 at the time of the great general's death, and Robert writes that he, "came of age in...the 1960s." That makes it highly unlikely that the grandson knew his grandfather at all.
Two other issues of interpretation bear mentioning. Fussell's description of the National Park Service attitude toward uniforms does not ring true to me. During my own short stint with the Park Service, I never found rangers to be slobs, but neither were they particularly concerned with or proud of their uniforms. This may be a difference of geography, as is my other quibble. Fussell's description of student attire fits me and my friends to a tee. However, it bears little resemblance to the undergraduates I encountered while attending graduate school at a large western land grant university. I come from a traditional academic background very similar to Fussell's Ivy League experience at Penn, but I found students at Colorado State were more likely to wear baggy jeans and tie-dyes (no less uniform of course) than khakis.
My own favorite uniform item is the hat. In particular, I am fascinated by the tendency to select this most useful of clothing items based on appearance rather than function. Fussell is under no obligation to fulfill my idiosyncrasies, but I think he could have done more here. More generally, the lack of notes or an index makes it virtually impossible to use the book for serious scholarship or even to find items like "service cap" to cite in criticism.
Fussell has essentially written an extended essay on a subject that amuses and interests him. His careless use of evidence (I have cited only the most concrete instances here) obscures some trenchant observations about uniforms and their uses. On the positive side, it is a quick read and may generate some ideas for those who wish to pursue them more seriously. If you too have a "thing about uniforms," borrow this book from the library.
MAJ James W. Vizzard
Department of English, USMA
One of the advantages that a uniform affords its wearer is the ability to skimp on "the work of remaking one's external character all the time." That, of course, is one of a uniform's many advantages, but the flip side is a concurrent loss of individuality. Sometimes, as in the case of Levi's blue jeans, an effort to rebel and stand out gets adopted by so many, that it becomes the new uniform.
As would be expected, Uniforms talks about all manner of military attire and even the general military attitude (many a generalization here!) of a nation's people.
Besides military uniforms, Fussell also briefly points out uniforms in many other codes of dress. A nuptial dress, which is usually white, religious uniforms, and Boy Scout uniforms are but some of the examples outlined in the book. Long baggy boys' shorts and pants, we learn, are derived from prison wear as an act of rebellion against parents. Then of course there is the cute UPS truck driver in his cool brown uniform classified as "delivery chic."
In his book, Fussell points out the overwhelming masculinity of the subject (women came to uniforms pretty late). He also says that: "Dressing approximately like others is to don armor against contempt." Any woman who has tried buying her guy a purple shirt can attest to the verity of both of those statements....