Wearing and looking at clothes just aren’t enough.
Clothes are just one of the basic necessities of man to live normally in a society. Comfortable clothes provide us physical protection from the burning heat of the sun, while silky fabrics act as barrier between the cold rain and our warm-blooded bodies.
Wearing clothes is not only that simple, though. It also has become an art and business in the form of fashion and trends that are ever-changing. In contrast to that, any particular culture has its own say on what the natives have to sport. How these different cultural clothes are made is dictated by the customs of their people. Heavy and multi-layered garments, covering people from neck to feet, may be more commonly found to be worn in the countries with chilly winters. Lightly dyed and thin clothes are sufficient for the people in the tropics. No matter how similar the conditions are between different nations, their traditional clothes have distinct patterns and overall look—which are still recognizable even if they were to be slightly modernized. Hence, we can say that these traditional clothes, even if they are not widely worn by the majority of citizens in a country, are a part of their national identity.
The same is true for any set of clothes that are standardized for certain group of people to follow. This type of clothes, which we call ‘uniforms’, are worn by persons who have similar attributes but the most deciding attribute is the place where these people gather together. Be it a working place, a learning institution, or a volunteer organization.
Just what are uniforms?
We can’t help it but link a group of people wearing similar clothes with the same organization. It is because the uniforms represent their identity with that organization, whether it is a small hobby-based club or an association that revolves around a specific cause. Wearing the uniform of whichever institution one belongs to gives him a sense of distinctiveness from others who are not wearing that clothing.
In my high school days, I was a member of the basketball girls’ team of our batch. I would always receive a set of jerseys each year. And those jerseys feel so special since only a few of us get to wear it and bring it on the court while playing our hearts out.
It was mysterious that we felt more empowered to give it our best on the court when we were wearing our special jerseys. It was as if the team’s morale was stronger when we saw our teammates in the same clothes. I could tell that much, because when we were just first-years, we had no time to prepare our jerseys. We somehow felt inferior to our seniors who fought us, wearing their team jerseys on. From that time on, our team felt the need to wear our identities in the next years that would come. Jerseys were another thing that we really looked forward to each year. It was not just because they were brand-new or pretty. Wearing them made us experience a sort of rebirth. A refreshed drive would be born in each of us. Before we knew it, we were more eager to win each match.
Hinata Shouyou (Haikyuu!!), ecstatic after receiving their first team jacket, with the name of their team at the back identifying him as one of the members. And when he, along with his fellow freshmen applicants, finally wears the jacket, he isn’t a total stranger to his senpai anymore. To rookie members, the jacket (and jerseys, by extension) is the material symbol of being acknowledged by their seniors.
It looks like I’ve been praising uniforms, so let me highlight some truths on the other side of the coin, which are evident especially when there are modifications among different and within the same set of uniforms.
For within the same set of uniforms that we see in anime set in schools, there are subtle touches that distinguish the students from each other. For example: blue ribbons/ necktie/ tracksuits/ indoor shoes for first years; red for second years; and green for the third years.
Just from looking at these (parts of) the uniform, one can subconsciously anticipate how to treat another student. It’s an unspoken rule to always respect the elders and look after the young ones, although strangers would always just ignore each other. But we cannot deny the fact that an invisible hierarchy is present in such setting. Needless to say, distance would separate these groups from freely interacting.
Though Kill la Kill exaggerates the subject, its setup makes for a good example of the how this negative aspect of uniforms can be taken to such an extreme–complete dominion over lower-ranking students, harsh and immediate punishment to non-conformists of the established system, discrimination, abuse or power, bullying.
NagiAsu is a good series that tackles racism. Within its universe, there are two groups of humans: the land-dwellers (Oshiooshi residents) and the sea-dwellers (Shioshishio residents).
In the opening scene, Sakishima Hikari scolds Mukaido Manaka for wearing Mihama Middle’s uniform. For Hikari, Manaka just betrayed him (or the group) for not wearing their own school’s (Namiji’s) uniform, even though this wasn’t her intention. From this dialogue alone, the viewer is informed of the rough relationship between the two races of humans in NagiAsu.
As we go further in the first episode, we see that these Hikaru and friends didn’t have prior interactions with the people on the surface. It was initially only from the hearsays that Hikari strongly developed contempt towards the other group. The land dwellers were also hostile towards the sea dwellers. Both groups were wary of each other’s existence.
NagiAsu depicts real-world discrimination, even among small groups of people despite the lack of actual interactions. I for one am guilty of having my own prejudicial labels on students who belong to a particular school, that I’ve always seen them as elitists. And I acknowledge the fact that I haven’t interacted much with these people and it’s too unreasonable for me to look at them that way. Isn’t it the same for others? You can only judge a person until you get to know him better. And the process in between that makes that possible is communication, as shown by NagiAsu in the entire series.
I’m not saying that the color coding of the ribbons, the entirely distinct uniform designs, or what have you, that is responsible for the division, but the uniforms make people’s tendency to interact with similarly grouped individuals more apparent. It’s rare to see two persons, belonging to different institutions and initially being strangers, to easily get together and be comfortable with each other. It usually takes one or more common factor to have them become interested in the other’s existence–same height? same food? same bag? same phone strap? a common friend? The possibilities are endless in such a chance meeting.
Human society is not easy to define, but by looking at uniforms, we can have more than just one glimpse of how we behave, especially within and among groups. Uniforms may make a group of people appear to have the same principles, goals, and motivations. But it is important to note that outside our associations we lead different lives. Such things can reflect a tiny but significant side of our lives. For us to know each other better, we need to look at one another in nakedness, free from the disguise and brands of uniforms and clothes. We need to look at one another eye to eye.
However, uniforms may very well be a human attempt on achieving flawlessness (by ‘covering’ our flaws) in the midst of disorder. But since they are a product of mundane intentions, such things can never really be perfect. As humans are imperfect yet beautiful, uniforms are also beautiful in their own way.
Still, one question remains in my mind: Does a uniform make the person? or does the person make the uniform?