ow does it feel to wear the same thing every day? Or the same thing as everyone around you? Freeing? Stifling? Comforting? Scary? Does it make weekend dressing a pain or more exciting? In the name of Duality Month, I talked to people who shelve one side of themselves to don a uniform for their job: an unconventional mascot, a flight attendant who loves color, the executive chef of one of New York City’s coolest bagel spots, an artist who works in retail and a firefighter who is also an EMT.
Many career fields and activities require some form of systematic dressing. The range of what can be considered a “uniform” is also pretty incredible. And the lives of the people who wear these uniforms, I discovered, are as captivating as their prescribed outfits are varied.
The New School Narwhal Mascot
I’m a third-year BFA student studying dramatic arts and minoring in screenwriting at The New School. When I was looking at jobs and saw the Gnarls the Narwhal posting, I immediately applied to it. I thought being a mascot would be the most fun job in the world.
The New School is not a sports-centric university at all. The only other universities we play are art schools and no one even keeps score, really. It’s usually intramurals so the sports change every semester. Last semester, it was badminton and soccer. This semester, it’s basketball and soccer. I also do events, fundraisers and things like that.
Wearing the mascot costume is so fun but super hot. I wear as little as possible when I know I’m going to wear it, like a tank top and shorts. I usually have someone help me put it on and I have to put on a shoulder pad suit underneath because I’m small and have to look bigger. I cannot wear the costume for more than 45 minutes otherwise I will overheat. At one event, people kept coming up and wanting pictures for maybe an hour and a half. When I got out of it, I had to go sit down and drink water for 15 minutes. It’s a lot. It’s also requires a lot of you: to run around, jump, take photos, do high-fives, hunch down to hug kids.
I share this job — and therefore the costume — with one other person. There was a time when I wasn’t available for a while and the other person was doing a bunch of events. Afterward, nobody cleaned the costume and it smelled like death. Full disclosure: I almost vomited. I put it on for maybe 15 minutes. Everyone who was working with me was like, “Why didn’t you say something? We wouldn’t have made you put it on!”
When I’m not working I dress casually, but I have a collection of really cool pants I don’t wear because they don’t go with anything. I have moments of boldness. I keep suggesting that we find a different outfit for the Narwhal to wear because he only wears a jersey and basketball shorts, which is not cohesive with The New School at all. We should get him a sweater vest, some corduroy pants and some round-rimmed glasses. We just opened up a contest for some of our design students to give him a new uniform. I’m hoping this dream comes true.
I’ve been wearing a uniform for five years as a flight attendant. We’re given various pieces to work with — so we can wear a skirt or a dress or pants with a top. I change it up depending on the predicted weather. I usually wear the skirt but if I’m going to a colder climate, I’ll wear the pants. It’s all waterproof and it doesn’t pick up every stain, which is nice because we’re working in the galleys and might spill coffee.
I like looking uniform and professional with my co-workers so I’m okay with wearing it. I dress pretty casually on my days off. Sometimes, when I leave the airport and I need go to the store, I have to make sure I’m in full uniform because I’m still representing my airline. I have to be aware that people are still looking at me even though I’m off duty.
The company tries to take input from workers who are going to be subject to wearing the uniform so I signed up for the next round of feedback, to be one of the people who tries it before it’s actually chosen. I like bright colors so I wish it were more colorful, but that’s where the uniformity comes in. Everybody doesn’t look good in the same thing.
I understand the need for a uniform look but no matter how much emphasis is put on looking uniform, people will always find a way to do their own thing or put their own note on whatever it is they’re wearing.
Executive Chef of Black Seed Bagels
Since I started Black Seed, I’ve worn the same uniform I had at other kitchens. On an everyday basis, I typically wear a white shirt. It’s not really a chef’s jacket — you see them on a lot of cooks. It’s a typical, white kitchen shirt. I guess you could call them deli shirts. Nobody really wears those super heavy chef’s jackets anymore unless you’re working at a Michelin-starred restaurant or something. I went to culinary school and they gave us chef jackets but when I got into a real kitchen with the heat, I transitioned to this uniform. Bottom-wise, my boyfriend is a denim designer and tailor so I’m very fortunate to be able to have him make my pants. I’m usually either wearing his jeans or a pair of Wranglers. Then I wear the typical clogs: Danskos.
I usually wear a headscarf, too. I hate wearing baseball hats like everyone else. It’s part of the Department of Health regulation that we have something to cover our hair. I guess from the start of my cooking career, a headscarf has always been my signature theme. I used to run a thrift shop with my best friend in Williamsburg six years ago so I have a plethora of scarves from that time. It’s like Karate Kid: Once my headscarf is on, I’m like, “Okay, my day is ready to go.”
I have really strict, typical Asian immigrant parents. Any time I had a test, they would make me dress up. I was the only kid in my class who always dressed up for tests. Ever since then, there’s been something for me about dressing for success — it’s kind of similar wearing a uniform. It makes me feel more official and there’s a different amount of respect you get, too, when you actually look the part. When you’re trying to lead a staff of all different personalities, I think putting this on gets you respect. If a new employee comes in, they can automatically pick out that I’m the boss from the way I’m dressed. Working in a kitchen is really like being in a battle and you really need to know which person is the general.
I never wear my uniform out of the restaurant. Wearing it puts me in my mental state of being like, “Okay, I’m ready to cook.” It’s funny because if I’m running errands and I have to drop by Black Seed wearing normal clothes, people are like, “Whoa, you’re actually a normal human?” Believe it or not, I wear dresses and look normal.
Firefighter and EMT
I’ve been a firefighter for 10 years and an EMT about for about five years. When you’re wearing a uniform, people look at your differently. What I’ve noticed with being a fireman is that everyone loves a fireman. Young and old, it doesn’t matter. We’re driving by and they’re waving. Kids are chasing us down the street and want us to blow our air horn.
For EMTs, there’s a little bit of a different perception. People don’t realize how much they want an EMT close or how much they value them until they need them. Once you’re on the scene, it’s like, ‘Thank goodness you’re here!’
Our turnout gear (the technical term used for firefighting uniforms and gear) is very heavy. We have what is called our stationwear, which is just the regular shirt. But the turnout gear can weigh up to 60 pounds. The more you weigh, the more your turnout gear is going to weigh because it has to be bigger. The tank alone that we breathe from is about 20 pounds. With our boots, pants, helmet, coat and whatever tools we carry — either a hose or hand tools — things get heavy really quick. There’s nothing light in the fire service.
It shouldn’t take a person more than two minutes to put everything on. Even that’s pushing it. Most of the time, when someone gets burned, it’s because they didn’t have their equipment on properly. The uniforms are fire-resistant, not fireproof. You have 30 seconds of direct flame contact before the gear is in danger. It’s just long enough to know something’s wrong and to get out of the flames.
We respond to other emergencies, too: Elevator calls, medical emergencies and car accidents. We wear the same uniform, however, because we’re exposed to broken glass, car fluids, etc. Some people wear the uniform when they’re grocery shopping, too. Once they’re on the rig, they put the boots and pants on, so when a call comes in, they just have to put the coat and helmet on and go.
Vivienne Westwood Sales Associate and Artist
The uniform requirement we have at Vivienne Westwood is pretty much to wear all current season Vivienne Westwood. At most stores you have to wear current season merchandise. I particularly like to wear some of the stuff that may not sell right away because it’s a little more interesting. I won’t wear the traditional suit.
Most companies give you an allowance so I pick out a couple of outfits and wear them for the entire season and then get to keep them. That’s why a lot of us work in retail. It was the same when I worked at Comme des Garçons. It’s a really good benefit because at the end of the day, we’re like brand ambassadors. They want us to look the part. The first season, I wore a lot of the outfits out to events to promote the new store.
I like wearing this form of uniform because it takes thinking about what I have to wear for work off my mind. It almost feels like a costume. I normally ride my bike to work but then I get to step into these wonderful, super tailored pieces and it just kind of changes my mood and attitude.
I used to dance and now I’m a visual artist. I do illustrations and a lot of ink work. For that, I like to wear some of my pieces from Vivienne Westwood and Comme des Garçons. I like when my stuff gets a little damaged. You may see me after this season with ink spots or acrylic paint on my pants. I like customizing my stuff so I wear it when I’m doing my artwork.
I think working at Vivienne Westwood, Comme des Garçons and all the other companies I’ve worked at has definitely affected the way I dress when I’m not at work. I’m more conscious of fit and tailoring, and stuff like that. It’s trained my eye to see things that I normally wouldn’t see at first. It’s helped me understand my proportions a lot. I’m a super high-and-low person. I like to mix a lot of athletic wear with my Vivienne Westwood trousers or sneakers. That’s the great thing about living in New York: It inspires you to put things together and come up with your own unique style.
Time for your uniform stories below!
lllustrations by Gabrielle Lamontagne.