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Uniforms: Why We Are What We Wear Paperback – 10 Nov 2003

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Product details

  • Paperback: 220 pages
  • Publisher: Mariner Books; Reprint edition (10 Nov. 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0618381880
  • ISBN-13: 978-0618381883
  • Product Dimensions: 12.7 x 1.5 x 22.2 cm
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,110,628 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Presents a series of anecdotes that tell the history and meaning of American uniforms, identifying their cultural significance in term of how uniforms unite and divide people as well as how they vary throughout the world. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Society, which the more I think of it astonishes me the more, is founded upon cloth." Read the first page
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)

Amazon.com: 14 reviews
28 of 33 people found the following review helpful
Disappointing Effort from a Great Social Critic 25 Nov. 2002
By Amazon Customer - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
Hardly a week goes by that I do not reference Paul Fussell's Great War and Modern Memory, so I was thrilled to find he had turned his powers of observation to uniforms. Like Fussell, I must confess to my own odd fascination with uniforms. I too think they carry far more significance than mere convenience or even natty appearance.
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
6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
Needs more padding 10 Jan. 2003
By stackofbooks - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
Uniforms: Why We Are What We Wear is a fun little compendium of facts on an interesting subject. This work, however, lacks the heft of Fussell's earlier works, including The Great War and Modern Memory and Class. Uniforms reads more like a haphazard collection of "scrap material" rather than a detailed analysis of its subject. Fussell also does little to answer the titular question: "why we are what we wear."
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....
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
Excellent overview 15 Jan. 2011
By Saul Boulschett - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
I am VERY surprised by the number of negative reviews here. You'd think most of the unhappy reviewers were PhD students trying to meet a deadline for a paper, and was bummed that this material was not as "academically respectable" as it needs to be for their purposes.

Historically exhaustive? Fastidiously archival? Psychoanalytical? Filled with statistics?

No, this book is NOT that kind of book. Better: it is a TERRIFIC overview of how people - you, me, everyone - are affected by the sight of uniforms. And Fussell gives you plenty of anecdotal examples of how this is so.

A lot of women are turned on by men in uniforms - by men they would give 2 shite to if in jeans. A lot of women apparently have confessed to eagerly waiting for the DHL or the UPS guy to show up, making his daily deliveries.

Who knew that a slight change in design in the Navy uniform would cause such a big fluctuation in enrollment? That the airplane-using industries had to borrow 'nautical' terms for their purposes makes a fascinating story about how the airlines and the Air Force had to design their uniforms.

General Patton was a real fop, and used to change - when time allowed - his uniform 3 times a day. You can be sure HE had a lot to say about, and DID say, how soldiers should look on the battlefield as well!

All in all, a very delightful, funny, thought-provoking introduction to a topic that COULD BE otherwise tedious and too serious, and even "politically-correctional."

Don't be so serious: read this and enjoy your flight. You will look at those flight attendants in a wholly new way, and be surprised by what the flight crew call the male stewards.
4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
Cohesive composition on society's use of uniforms. 19 July 2005
By Andrew J. Degnan - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
Paul Fussell narrates the legacy of society's garments through to their modern inheritance. He analyzes not only the uniforms we commonly associate with blue-collar workers, but also the nature behind dress outside of the workplace. Fussell shows the ways in which human nature leads us to want to fit in - to assume our uniformity - while claiming to maintain individuality. His writing is crisp, refreshing, and cutting - his words convey comical anecdotes, historical accounts, and incisive analysis in a palatable fashion. While tracing uniforms throughout history, Fussell's work primarily focuses on the uniforms in our contemporary society today. Uniforms: Why We Are What We Wear transcends mere history, making probing social commentary and examining deeper meaning of cloth - showing how society might just be made out of cloth. Fussell's work is a treasure and remarkably astonishing - Uniforms tells the reader just how important our clothing is in conveying our place in society, how uniforms speak volumes beyond their superficial appearances, and how uniforms persist even in the absence of official doctrine. This book brings to light many things that we take for granted and demonstrates the significance of our society made of cloth.
5 of 7 people found the following review helpful
Good, fun pop sociology 11 Dec. 2002
By Michael K. Smith - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
Having grown up in an army family, I've always been aware of the subtle distinctions among military uniforms, while at the same time being semi-unaware of them because they were so fundamental to my world. In his urbanely witty but sharply observant way, Fussell identifies much deeper distinctions: The Russian love of large shoulderboards, the 20th century German fascination with black, the Italian thing for plumes, and the different perception and philosophy between British class-conscious khaki and American egalitarian olive drab. And the essential reason army and navy uniforms are so very different: until the Cold War, the army and its uniforms were made up anew for each new major conflict, while the navy continued to exist much the same in peacetime as in wartime. But "uniform" means more than the military -- witness the ubiquity of blue jeans in the United States and, eventually, all over the world. Fussell also asks the questions most of us wouldn't have thought of, like why do British and American cops tend to dark blue uniforms, quite unlike the tradition in Continental countries? Why do commercial airline pilots wear uniforms at all? (The early ones didn't.) Why are UPS men considered sexy while FedEx guys aren't? And what was it with Elmo Zumwalt and Richard Nixon when it came to bizarre uniforms? This isn't a very long book, nor is it scholarly in style, but it's a lot of fun. And you'll find yourself looking at all the uniformed people around you with a new eye.
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