Uniforms Edition! 5 Stories About the Work of Getting Dressed For Work

1950s photo of 4 women in waitress uniforms

For our fall After Party we’re talking about getting dressed for work. Most jobs have a some kind of expectations about dress, even if they’re not explicitly spelled out. Uniforms can make it easier to navigate work culture, make you feel like part of a special club, and inspire solidarity among workers. They can also be a tool for ensuring that employees become de-individualized proxies for a brand or corporate image. In this edition, we’re all thinking especially about times we’ve spent in service industries like food, retail, and reception and remembering the good, the bad and all the polyester.

Anna Bernstein: The 24-Hour Convenience Store Clerk

A box of glow in the dark bandaids work uniforms after party
Way less obtrusive than an eyebrow piercing.

When you work the overnight shift (or every shift, sometimes consecutively) at the gas station convenience store down the road from the community college, it’s very important to look professional. That’s why you must never sit on the counter or flip off the security camera. You have to set your cigarette down and go in if a customer goes in. You definitely need to wear your ill-fitting polo shirt tucked in while you clean up god-knows-what after that customer was in the bathroom for a suspiciously long time. But most importantly, you should never, ever have visible tattoos, piercings, or anything else that might identify you as an individual. 

The uniform was definitely designed specifically to make the employees feel less human. Mine was probably two sizes too big, but I don’t know if they made them to fit anyone. It was polo-style, and made from a special blend of polyester, cotton and capitalism that somehow remains stiff and itchy no matter how often you wash it. And somehow, the mustard yellow, muted red, and tiny checked black never faded. 

I wasn’t even old enough to buy the beers I always, without fail, carded everyone for. I bent the hell out of the rules, but I never broke them. When I got my eyebrow pierced, the manager was upset. This was in Portland, OR, but in the early 2000’s, before tattoos and piercings were quite so everywhere. 

I told them I couldn’t take it out, since it was new and still healing, so they decided I needed to cover it with a band-aid while I was working. I complied, but chose the brightest, most attention-grabbing band-aids I could find. Probably the ones that say things like “Rad!” and “Tubular!” in neon comic book font, or possibly Scooby-Doo. I was great at customer service, and the customers all liked me. So most of them were very concerned. They wanted to know who beat me up, and why. I had a coworker who wore a wrist brace every day to cover a tiny tattoo. I guess this was pretty common, but it never made sense to me. 

The uniforms, hideous as they were, served a purpose. They marked us as a part of this corporation. Or, less flatteringly, as property. Minimum wage employees are not meant to be viewed as individuals. Tattoos and piercings, then, represent an individuality that can’t be taken away so easily, especially for a barely-adult still trying to figure out who they are. I guess that’s something of a threat to a corporation that would prefer not to take notice of their impact on individuals. Maybe it felt safer to keep these little identifiers out of their view, and that of the consumers. Maybe my piercing made me just a little too human. And maybe that’s why I was nothing but relieved when I was fired a few months later, for something I didn’t do. 

Fiona Kang: The Hollister “Floor Model”

A page from an Abercrombie and Fitch manual. (Via Pinterest)

I was sucked in right from the first day at my new job as a so-called “model” (ie, sales associate) at Hollister.

It was immediately clear the moment I stepped into the store that I looked nothing like the other employees. Besides being a good 15 lbs heavier than all the other girls, I was the only one who didn’t look like I participated in organized sports (I was an alto in the school choir) or had spent all summer frolicking on the beach. I was also one of the three non-white people in a store of over 30 employees, an observation whispering to me that I didn’t belong here.

Whirlwind of dated training videos and employee handbooks aside, I was also struck by this world I was transported into, filled with its own carefully constructed language and conventions. A printed sheet pasted in the stock room presented me with suitable ways to greet customers (side note: as I eventually learned the ropes, “Hey, what’s up” and “Hey, how’s it going” were deemed the perfect mix of friendly and casual, while the more adventurous among us could theoretically try a “Hey, welcome to the pier!”. God rest your soul if you attempted to ask “How are you doing today?”). Employees who worked in the stockroom were called Impact, and unlike the “models”, were never to be seen out on the floor unless necessary. 

Sketches of appropriate and inappropriate hairstyles were included under the “Look Policy” section of the handbook, clarifying that “highlights should appear as if the hair is naturally highlighted by the sun and not manipulated by unnatural bleaching methods.” UNACCEPTABLE, the handbook declared over examples of highlights that apparently offended Hollister to its very core. “Fingernails,” it continued primly, “should not extend more than 1/4 inch beyond the tip of the finger,” with any color of polish not approved by managers to be removed immediately prior to the start of the shift. I was also warned that the faintest whisper of eyeliner, if worn at all, had to be an invisible and unobtrusive shade of soft brown. 

After a pinched once-over at my clothes, lips pursed, my manager shoved a catalogue into my hands. “This is the latest Triple AAAs. We usually like for our models to be wearing this season’s clothes from Hollister.” She went on to explain that while we weren’t required to purchase Triple AAAs each season, it certainly wouldn’t make sense to schedule shifts for people who “didn’t represent the Hollister look”. After all, we were models. Besides listing out the season’s clothes that we were allowed to buy for our uniform, the catalogue went into painstaking detail on how each item was to be styled. The cuff on your skinny jeans should be no more than 3⁄4 of an inch, and if you bought the button up (which must be worn with the lace tank top underneath) it should be tucked ever-so-slightly with the sleeves casually pushed up. And flip flops were to be worn year-round, freezing temperatures be damned. I left my first shift slightly dazed, dressed in foreign clothes, and inexplicably sixty dollars poorer than before I started. 

Instead of giving the finger and quitting, I remember feeling a hunger to conform to the exacting standards, to accept the proverbial invitation to sit at the cool kids’ table. If I wore the clothes and did my hair and makeup as was prescribed, I could be one step closer to looking like I belonged to an exclusive club of elite, beautiful people. Somehow, Hollister had managed to set up a culture where the more rules it imposed on us, the more exclusive we felt. And so, despite the many, many problematic aspects I rationally recognized, I continued to work there for over a year, buying clothes I never wore outside of my shifts and greeting every customer with the same script. I eventually grew out of the misplaced belief that I could be like the other seemingly effortless and popular girls at work, turning in my long overdue two weeks. It seems obvious now that the impressionable teen demographic their previous “high school clique” strategy focused on perfectly aligned with the age range of their employees, sweeping me and countless others up with promises of attaining “coolness”.  Luckily, Hollister no longer exists as I once knew it. None of the work uniforms I’ve had to wear since has ever affected me quite as strongly, and frankly speaking, good riddance.  

Sara Bernstein: The Family Restaurant Hostess/Retirement Home Receptionist

Interior of a diner with booths and a pie case.
The interior of the Black Forest in Grants Pass, Oregon (now closed). It’s just like stepping into a German fairy tale! (Via TripAdvisor)

The first actual uniform I had to wear consisted of a polyester ruffled peasant blouse, navy blue wraparound skirt (one size, held together with safety pins), and pantyhose. I was 16 and had gotten a job as a hostess at a loosely German-themed family restaurant called The Black Forest. It wasn’t a bad job, really. The boss was a creep but the staff was great and the servers always tipped out even the shittiest hostesses (meaning me). I might not have hated it so much if it weren’t for the uniform and I might not have hated the uniform so much if I could’ve worn it with black tights instead of pantyhose. 

I was a theater kid, so wearing a costume was not a problem for me. And I didn’t have any special aversion to uniforms. In second grade, my favorite outfit was a corduroy blazer, white shirt, string tie, and a plaid skirt. This was working-class Southern Oregon in the 1980s — I only knew about private schools from movies and books and The Facts of Life, but I liked dressing up in the uniform that represented wealth and stability and a certain kind of girls-only culture.

I think what I hated about the Black Forest uniform was its imperative that I perform a version of servile femininity imagined by the restaurant’s owner and purchased for the lowest possible price. I was hired because I was a reasonably attractive girl (all the hostesses were). The servers were all seasoned pros, but I had no qualifications beyond youth and gender. I not only had to get people water and menus and bus tables and work the register, and SMILE (I was so bad at that part) I had to do it in cut-rate, unsexy St. Pauli girl Aryan cosplay — down to the mandatory “nude” pantyhose. Which felt weird because I was also one of, like, five Jews in my town. 

Even that might not have bothered me if the uniforms weren’t the cheapest polyester; permanently stained and smelling of someone else’s grease and sweat (if we’d been assigned actual dirndls, I might have stuck around longer!). I quit after just a couple of months, and I really think polyester and nylons were the main reasons why.

I’ve been thinking a lot about that experience because, for the first time in 30 years, I recently found myself battling another cheap polyester uniform. Like a lot of adjunct professors, summers are really scary for me financially. Until this year, I’ve managed to overwork myself enough during the school year that I was able to save money for the inevitable underwork that happens from June through August. This year, our rent went up — a lot — and so did everything else from health insurance to student loan payments. The only thing that didn’t go up much was my pay, and despite some last minute lucky gigs, by August I was broke. 

That’s only part of the reason I decided to take a one-day-a-week job as a receptionist at a retirement/nursing home, though. It genuinely seemed like an interesting side gig (on the side of what, I’m not sure. My career is all appetizers. There is no entree.) It came with access to a gym and pool, a super bus pass discount and I’d get to chat with old people. And all of that turned out to be true, but it was also just a pendulum that would swing every shift between incredibly stressful and deadly dull. It was absurd responsibility and lack of training paired with a constant barrage of infantilizing emails and instructions and worksheets and HR training modules that didn’t tell you how to do your actual job, but made sure you knew that water can be slippery. 

But the thing that finally tipped the scale for me was their insistence that I order a uniform from their catalogue. The least offensive choice was a navy blue acrylic cardigan, and I just couldn’t do it. The receptionists at that place work their butts off. They learn to recognize hundreds of residents and staff on sight, manage two switchboards in addition to checking in and out a constant flow of visitors, and they direct every emergency from fire alarms to 911 calls. They also never leave the front desk. The uniform in this case serves no function whatsoever, except to de-individualize them and make them bodily represent a medical facility masquerading as a Radisson. 

And acrylic. Ick. I just couldn’t.

Dawn Lee Tu: The Department Store Associate

A navy blue blazer on a hanger
Not the blazer I wore, but very close to it.

I thought it would be the best job ever. In between high school and my first year of college in the early 1990s, I got a job at the West Coast flagship Macy’s store in downtown San Francisco. I was trying to earn some money for college so this job was perfect because work wasn’t all day and not at a desk. I started out in men’s furnishings and loved talking to customers. I was good at my job and never really had to sell anything to people. I just got them talking and next thing, I was running their credit card for a pair of suspenders. However, I came to despise the dress shirts display. Customers had no way of really seeing what these shirts looked like so they would pull apart the pressed, perfectly folded, pinned down, dress shirts sealed in loud and crinkly plastic sleeves. Once I heard the distinct crinkly sound, I would run over and try to catch a customer to give them “help,” hoping to prevent them from tearing apart the package. The super crappy part of the job was closing shifts because I had to figure out how to re-fold all the men’s dress shirts for the opening shift. I so hated these shirts because it took me away from talking to people, which was what I enjoyed most. I especially hated putting back the tiny, thin pins that held the folds together, shirt darts that would always fall out from the collars, pieces of thin cardboard that gave the collar that freshly-pressed-look, and the absolutely useless tissue paper that lined the inside of the folded shirts. All this could take another 30 minutes of work at the end of a particularly busy shopping day. I also suffered if I worked after an asshole sales associate who left me with the mess or on a shift I decided to procrastinate the shirt folding and just talk to customers. I never understood the point of that packaging. After several months, I schemed a way to do something else that required less folding and more talking to interesting strangers who came into the store. 

Men’s furnishings was located right at the front entrance of the Men’s Building. The entrance was secured by a ginormous, floor to ceiling metal rolling door and customers would pour in and out of this space. At the entrance stood a large black plastic podium that listed every department on each floor, backlit in a tasteful 80s off-white light. I got to know the old timer who stood behind the podium, greeting all the customers as they walked in and out of the store. He had a cool job. He would brightly say things like, “Good morning, welcome to Macy’s” or “Have a wonderful day!” and then turn around and say something sarcastic to me. Sometimes when the security system would go off because a sales associate left a security tag on, he always figured out who it was as the throngs of people moved in and out of the entranceway. He had such an awesome job. We often shot the shit during slow periods, and he told me funny stories about the characters he met over the years working as a “customer service specialist.”

My apparent misery must have tipped the old timer off that I was looking for something different to do. One morning, as I crawled in for an exceptionally early opening shift, he greeted me with a big smile and a navy blazer, just like the one he wore al the time. He told me to try it on. The shoulders were a little big and the sleeves a little too long, but the men’s blazer felt absolutely right. From that morning on, I became a customer service specialist just like the old timer. I didn’t have his super power but I spent the rest of the summer enjoying my time greeting and helping people. The best part – I didn’t have to deal with those damn dress shirts ever again. 

Elise Chatelain: The Bartender

A women carrying another woman behind a bar. Work uniforms after party
Elise and co-worker looking fabulous while doing a very hard and messy job.

About ten years ago, when I was working one of the better-paying jobs of my career, I made sure to keep my eye on the Yelp reviews for the music club in which I was bartending. As a relatively new platform, reading these was an excellent method to find tips for improving service (which in the service industry, very often translates to higher earnings). 

I remember one day when a relatively harsh two-star review popped up, written by someone who had a generally not-so-great experience. After a few short paragraphs complaining about things like waiting too long for a drink, everything being too expensive, etc., they wrapped up with  this: “And all the female bartenders had on short, tight dresses, like it was a uniform or something.”

While it wasn’t a compliment, when I read that last sentence I felt a surge of solidarity with my coworkers and pride for our shared love of dressing up for work. The huge, multi-story music club is one of the only places I’ve worked where there was a collective sense of fun in our “uniforms.” Contrary to the reviewer’s experience, we didn’t always wear short, tight dresses. But many of us played with clothes and fashion and dedicated some time to making ourselves feel, well…beautiful while at work. I always looked forward to going into a shift to see what others were wearing, or what new thing someone did with their hair or makeup that night.

Anyone who has done work as a bartender, barista, server, cook, dishwasher, etc., knows that these jobs are incredibly disgusting. Everything is always sticky and greasy and dirty and wet, and it’s often hot and sweaty and can feel like one is completing a mid-level workout for hours at a time. High-volume bartending like what we were doing at this particular job involves a dizzying number of transactions per hour, and the exchange of everything (drinks, money, spit, etc.) creates a level of contact with the general public ripe for a public health horror film. 

For these reasons, during the vast majority of my food and beverage service experience (both before and after this job), my work clothes tended to only have two qualifications: 1) they had to be relatively comfortable; 2) I had to not care if they got ruined. But at this job, I added an important extra element that made what is generally stressful, exhausting, and gross work bearable: a “uniform” of fashionable and flattering clothing that was fun to put together, fun to share with others, and maybe most of all, fun to immediately tear off when coming home at the end of an incredibly long night.

two women in costumes. Elise in a red shirt and crab claw hat. Work uniforms after party
The time Elise dressed like a crab. No short, tight dresses required.

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