The Language of Uniforms

Words by
Caterina Ellis
Images by
Hayley West
| October 22, 2014

We wear uniforms to blend in to, or stand out from, a crowd of people. What we wear signifies for us sometimes in very subtle ways, before we even know what we are trying to say about ourselves. 

Clothes and combinations of clothes tell so much. We read uniforms like we might read fairly detailed road signs. People, perhaps some people more than others, have a visual literacy that allows the complexity of identity to be understood quickly. Of course the entirety of our identities cannot ever be represented by a dress, a shoe, a lipstick, a haircut. None of us are that easy to define.

And yet we have clothes that fit us like second skins and which we are most comfortable in. We have clothes that make us feel confident. We have clothes that sometimes have to do the talking for us when we don’t have the words.

One of my first self-selected uniforms was stretch black jeans, an inside out, torn and too big black tee shirt plus blue boots. This uniform said exactly what I wanted to say; I’m interesting, now go away.

Uniforms speak of power, ability, intention and aspiration; all of which begin to express identity. I have always started with the building of a uniform when I’ve been unsure. Starting a new job, learning a new skill, meeting an important person; these all required correct uniforms, as protective as amour.

Very recently, I suffered a kind of crisis of confidence. I wanted to fully resume a meaningful art practice and wondered how to trust the experimental process without freaking the hell out about being a fraud. The answer was in the building of a uniform. I decided to make a very specific uniform, not to wear while I was being an artist, but as a vehicle to get there.

So here we have it ladies and gentlemen, I built my uniform from modifications made to an original 1940s overalls pattern, printed by hand using a wood block carved for me by my dear friend Luke W. Walker.

The making of this uniform reminded me of how much I truly delight in collaboration and how we need to support each other in expression. It proved how satisfying it is to persevere with a difficult task, and see it work out well.

Above all, this uniform is the manifestation of the idea that making art is vital, that we need reasons to create even if the reasons are self-imposed. I believe that confident mark making, in any medium, is the way forward. Go ahead, make something for no good reason, and wear something worthy of such a significant undertaking while you’re at it.