Why the epaulettes must go

From the Salvation Army to Her Majesty's Forces, the uniform is under fire. Ann Treneman reports
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The Independent Culture
I met a man the other day who looked far too important for his own good. His uniform was blue. His epaulettes were stiff. His shoes shiny. I think there was even some gold braid around somewhere. He could have been someone in the police, or the armed services or, if you added an Uzi or two, the dictator of a small and debt-ridden third-world type country. Instead, however, he was the security guard in the wine department of my local supermarket. Not so much a VIP as a VUPE or Very Unimportant Person in Epaulettes.

I mention epaulettes because they seem to be a vital part of the current move by the Salvation Army to update its image. This is the Caring Nineties after all and the Sally Ann - which actually is a caring institution - doesn't like the fact that its loving, giving, sharing image is coloured by its association with brass bands, singing and uniforms. In short, they believe they are at the cutting edge of social change but the rest of us believe they play a lot of trombones and look scary in navy blue.

"The uniform was mentioned a lot in the research we have just done," said Captain Bill Cochrane. "Both its colour and military style suggest perhaps we have a strong hierarchy and this is somewhat off-putting." The new word for the Salvation Army, evidently, is "relevant". In addition, it will be considering changes to "become proactive and project a forward- looking modern image".

If this is the case, then the epaulettes must go. They are so very Eighties (remember Richard Gere in An Officer and a Gentleman?). In those days, everyone wanted to look like an SAS type in drag (thus, the ubiquitous shoulder pads) but now the only people who wear epaulettes are those who really are trained to kill (ie peacekeepers) and those who others want us to think are trained to kill (ie security guards) but who are probably just out of prison themselves. The exceptions are traffic wardens (trained to irritate) and Chelsea pensioners who have earned the right to wear epaulettes with impunity. And, of course, the 43,000 people in the Salvation Army.

Captain Cochrane insists that no decisions have been made. He says reports that his army will be marching on stomachs covered in a fleecy sweatshirts and topped off with baseball hats are incorrect. Nor is it true that the army has decided to call in a designer such as Paul Smith. This can only be good news for the likes of Vivienne Westwood, Jean-Paul Gaultier and Alexander McQueen. Think Chanel or even Chloe (perhaps this could be Stella McCartney's biggest moment).

One man who has designed his share of uniforms lately is Jeff Banks (Barclays, Woolworth, Britannia Building Society). I ring his partners at Incorporatewear (yes, it is all one word) in Birmingham and discover from marketing director Lloyd McCall that uniforms are considered part of a company's "animate presentation" as opposed to things like buildings and logos which are part of the "inanimate projection".

The trend in animate projection is soft. Aer Lingus, for instance, has dumped the epaulettes and regimental-type ties in favour of "softer" sports jacket and slacks. Many others have done so as well and perhaps the softest of them all is Lauder Air whose staff romp around in 501s, polo shirts and baseball hats.

There is something rather spooky about the current trend for uniforms or "career wear" as it is called. Evidently companies like to "brand" their staff and build team spirit by making them all dress the same. The British Clothing Industry Association says companies are spending pounds 400m a year on staff attire. If this is so, then perhaps some should check out whether they are getting their money's worth. Every bank counter is populated by women in blouses with tiny prints and men in weird ties. This does not do much for customer spirits but, then again, who asked us?

And more is to come. Relevancy is all the rage. Barristers may lose their wigs and postmen are already in short trousers. Icons are tumbling.

"Jeff Banks is redesigning one of the icons of Britain now - the Butlin's Redcoat. It's a monstrously big task," said Lloyd McCall.

"The Salvation Army uniform is another icon. They dropped the bonnets a few years ago and they do have a really strong image but is it relevant to today? In the end, they are selling a product like anybody else. I'd love to do it but it would not be an easy one. It still needs to have authenticity."

But can you be relevant, authentic and carry authority while, at the same time, thinking soft?

This is the big question facing Captain Cochrane, who is adamant that the one thing he will not be wearing to work is a baseball cap. "Today I'm wearing black shoes, navy trousers, white short-sleeved shirt with epaulettes with red trimmings. I probably look like a traffic warden or a security guard. But I'll never wear a baseball cap. We've all been trying to picture each other in baseball caps all day and it's just laughable."

Maybe so, but the epaulettes will have to go.