NLA Publishing, 2017, 141 p & notes $44.99 RRP
It’s a paradox that even though a uniform is supposed to mark its wearer out from the general population, we often become so inured to them that they become invisible. Craig Wilcox’s book Badge Boot Button brings the uniform to our focus as an expression of institutional intent. Covering 200 years of Australian history, from convicts to Olympic Games volunteers, Wilcox casts a wide net in his analysis of uniforms, describing their design and manufacture and probing the purposes for which they were prescribed.
On the basis of his association with the War Memorial, and through his work on the Boer War, it’s not surprising that military uniforms appear multiple times during Wilcox’s chronological account. Wilcox has written several books based on military themes and he mounted a spirited , and I think completely appropriate, challenge to the historically anachronistic attempts to ‘pardon’ Breaker Morant. However, in this book he ranges further to discuss school uniforms, airhostesses, nurses and sportsmen.
As Wilcox explains in his introduction:
Uniforms are authority’s signature, its sartorial sound bite, speaking to a local community, a city or state, sometimes the entire world. And like any language, they reveal origins, status, aspirations and insecurities…. But there are always two voices speaking at once- that of authority, naturally, but also that of the individual. Unofficial variations in uniforms, or simply the angle at which a hat is worn, hint at personal attitudes to school, to an employer, to work, to life itself. (p.1)
The book is structured chronologically. The first chapter ‘The Age of Livery’ starts with the military red coat that constituted authority in convict-era Australia but which, as he points out, was often not worn on a day-to-day basis. There were, after all, no army inspectors to enforce dress standards, and soldiers themselves began to modify their costume. Nonetheless, when governors and troops needed a display of authority, they donned their red coats and gold epaulets. Think, for example, of the picture of Governor Bligh being hauled out from under the bed by three members of the NSW Corps in full dress. Bligh was in his ceremonial outfit too, although as he himself admitted, he had put it on just before his arrest. “Just before I was arrested, on learning [of] the approach of the regiment, I called for my uniform”. Think too of Bungaree, Governor Macquarie’s go-betweeen with the Kurringgai people, in his red army coat. Convicts wore a uniform too, the degrading motley of the ‘magpie’ convict uniform of grey and yellow. The red coated soldiers were there at Eureka too, that conflict between uniformed upholders of the established order and their un-uniformed challengers. Meanwhile, naval officers wore blue (think James Cook), and this was adopted by the mounted police seconded from the military garrison as a type of cavalry and the military pensioners who were used for civil policing on the goldfields.
In Chapter 2 ‘Civic Authority & National Identity’ Wilcox traces through the adoption of uniforms by civilians. The ‘Volunteers’ local citizen army, part of a world-wide movement in English-speaking countries during the 1860s, adopted the grey uniform chosen by their English counterparts. A civic blue uniform was worn by police and railway staff, and increasingly by post-men and firemen. When NSW sent a military contingent to the Sudan in 1885, their red coats were quickly substituted with the empire-wide khaki by their British army quartermasters. The khaki was not enthusiastically adopted by all and the slouch hat seemed alien at first, with some describing it as “the worst and ugliest” military costume, strongly resisted by citizen soldiers in the cities. However, during WWI it became visual shorthand for the AIF and it took on “some of the aura of an athlete’s laurel wreath” (p. 65). The AIF was disbanded after the war “but there seemed no question of the militia wearing anything other than the uniform that had just toured the world” (p. 69). But uniforms extended beyond the military. Sporting teams adopted uniforms: footballers wore caps and coloured jerseys and guernseys (including Melbourne Football Club in their startling magenta) ;and cricketers’ whites were enlivened by a sash around the waist and necktie. Nurses wore veils evoking the nunnery, and adopted the British red cape or tippet- much to the resentment of British nurses. Australian maid-servants – always a more contingent and undisciplined class than in Britain- resisted wearing the mob-cap because it was perceived as a sign of servility.
Ch. 3 ‘Loosening up’ notes the waning of the authority of the policeman, priest and school master as uniforms became more practical. Sports gear changed as footballers adopted shorts, women began playing tennis, and bathers became common. However, khaki maintained its sway, although during WWII it shifted towards camouflage gear for fighting men. Groups like Boy Scouts and even the Girl Guides wore khaki between the war, and during WWII women in the Australian Land Army were dressed in masculine army attire above the waist. Early air-hostess and pilot uniforms had a military influence at first. Although nurses’ uniforms remained uncomfortable and in need of careful ironing (itself a form of discipline), school uniforms and the uniforms of transport workers became less formal. Although the liberalization of uniforms may have moved slowly, the image of Sir Robert Menzies receiving his gong as Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports highlighted how antiquated the naval outfit with its tail coat, cocked hat and ceremonial sword had become.
In Ch. 4 ‘Promotion, Protection and Equality’, Wilcox moves to the second half of the twentieth century and the rise of designer-created corporate livery. Now extended to commercial costume – think airhostesses, banks, hotels- he attributes the spread of corporate uniform to several factors. First, publicity units began driving changes in organizations. Second the clothing industry wanted industry contracts and, especially with trade liberalization and the flight of the TCF sector to Asian countries, was happy to make the Australian-made uniform a marker of patriotism. Third, commercial emulation meant that if one company adopted a corporate uniform, others were sure to follow. Fourth, taxation law made the cost of providing and laundering uniforms a deduction for companies and employees. Fifth, the idea had the imprimatur of overseas practice and here I think of fast food companies. Finally, a corporate uniform was ‘sold’ to employees as a ‘wardrobe’ from which employees could ‘choose’. Sportspeople have become a virtual working billboard for their sponsors. After a trend towards abolition, school uniforms have again become a marker of educational earnestness, supported by Julia Gillard’s statement that “Part of a high-quality uniform is learning how to present yourself to the world and that’s what a school uniform is all about”(p 133). Meanwhile, when authority figures want to exert a frisson of menace, they turn to dark uniforms- and here I think of the Border Force uniforms and Victoria Police’s eschewal of the pale blue shirt for a dark blue one evoking New York coppers (both choices that I find sinister). While even judges’ costumes (I think they’d baulk at the term ‘uniforms’) have liberalized, they still remain set apart. His discussion of the semiotics of the vestments worn by Bishop Barbara Darling at her consecration was instructive.
The book is generously leavened with photographs and illustrations, with ‘break out’ displays every couple of pages that gave the feeling of looking at an exhibition rather than reading a book. While they lightened the reading experience, I did find that they disrupted the reading of the narrative. Sometimes I’d stop and read the break-out then and there; other times I’d follow the narrative and then go back and read the break-outs later. I suppose that it’s a book design that mirrors hypertext, but I found it disruptive. The book concludes with an encouraging list of further reading, references and sources for illustrations.
However, I was rather non-plussed by the ending of the book, which seemed abrupt and overwhelmed by break-outs- almost as if the author had been shunted out of the room by examples. It was a pity- I’d enjoyed the presence of Craig Wilcox as a friendly and informed guide, and I felt that the end of the narrative deserved better. My awareness of the uniforms depicted in historical images and around me in everyday life has been piqued by this book as another way of ‘reading’ history and society more generally.
Source: Review copy Quikmark media