Everyone loves a good uniform

The Navy is keeping bell bottoms. There's a lesson here for civvy street, says Jonathan Glancey
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The Independent Online
Every girl (and many a boy) loves a sailor. Quite why, I do not know. It could, of course, be the natty, flared trousers. After all, they do have a habit of flapping back into fashion every few years, and young girls will develop seasonal crushes on them. Though that still doesn't explain the boys.

Sailors began wearing flares in 1854 and enjoyed cutting and sewing their own in a number of fetching styles until 1914 when standard issue bell bottoms became the order of the day. Only this week, the first review of Royal Navy dress in 25 years found in favour of bell bottoms. The new-look flares will not be quite as wide as they were in days of yore, but, as Commander David Hobbs who conducted the review pointed out, "the slight flare looked just right. So we decided to keep some of the old tradition."

Like other examples of traditional dress, sailors' bell bottoms have, or had, a purpose; they were easy to roll up when Jack Tar had to climb rope rigging. They are also highly distinctive and this, in part, is why the Navy should be patted on the back (nothing more familiar than that, mind you) for retaining a form of dress by which we can spot one of Her Majesty's sailors a league away.

Uniforms - ceremonial uniforms in particular - ought to be distinctive. Such a uniform encourages a sense of belonging in the mind of the wearer and allows the public to distinguish between services, ranks and roles. In today's cities, homogeneous uniforms are proliferating; private traffic wardens, deregulated bus drivers, shopping mall and supermarket security guards, even postmen, all sport a banal American-style mall uniform. It makes them look sloppy, silly and unprofessional: the uniforms they wear bear little or no relation to British tradition nor to the work they do. It is hard to tell them apart.

The right uniform - well designed, distinctive and practical - should be something to be proud of, not because uniforms have a fetishistic value (although they do), but because, at their best, they reflect the value of the skill or job of the wearer.

Today, the British fail to design uniforms or, in many instances, do not like wearing them (even though each social tribe, from Sloane Rangers to Toon Army rankers can be recognised by the "uniform" it wears). The old adage that the Germans lost the Second World War, but had the best uniforms, holds true: British soldiers, no matter how dutiful or brave, were often made to look foolish, as family albums prove.

Even when decent uniforms have been provided (London bus drivers until the mid-Sixties), engine drivers (until British Rail replaced British Railways), they have often been replaced by designs from couturiers wading out of their depth. The new-look British Rail uniforms of 1964 were much ridiculed by cartoonists, and rightly so. At a stroke, they belittled the dignity of those who wore them.

This made a kind of perverse sense, for just when the role of engine driver was reduced from that of craftsman to machine-tending worker, so his new-age uniform diminished him. The same was true of London bus drivers. In the Thirties, these highly trained knights of the road were (along with top-flight engine drivers) among the best paid workers in Britain. Today's deregulated bus companies pay peanuts to their drivers, a minority of whom hurl bus-loads of pensioners, tots and shoppers around corners at uncaring speeds. They dress in a guise that reflects theirreduced status and, it often appears, skill.

Air stewards ("Hi, I'm Jason, let me know if I can help you") and stewardesses ("any drink or hot beverage at all for you sir?") are also dressed in dowdy building society uniforms that lack the grace and undoubted sex appeal of cabin crews from the era of the Lockheed Constellation and Boeing Stratocruiser.

The only ostensibly smart civilian uniforms we see day to day are those worn in fast-food joints, holiday camps and theme parks. These are not well-designed uniforms - far from it - yet they are washed, cleaned, pressed and worn with a hint of pride.

Years ago, civilian uniforms took their cue from the military. Perhaps it is time they did so again. For if bell bottoms help every girl (and many a boy) to love a sailor, think what a stylish uniform could do for the driver of a Number 68 bus.