You see them everywhere: polo-style shirts with corporate logos. The electronics superstore clerk, the fast-food cook, the grocery store checker—male or female, they are all sporting one. But it’s not a fashion statement or a product of the Ralph Lauren fashion-industrial complex. What began as one of the most popular forms of menswear has now morphed into the kindler, gentler uniform. First, there was blue collar. Then white collar. Now there’s soft collar.
Blame it on business casual. That hybrid dress code almost destroyed the suit industry even as it freed men from a variety of fashion risks and phobias. Instead of trying to figure out how to dress well in an increasingly informal world, men have only to choose khakis and a polo—a look that works any day of the week and goes from boardroom to work site to after-work drinks.
Throughout history, there have been various outfits, not expressly called uniforms, that signaled the wearer’s rank or status—the Roman general’s purple toga, the Aztec emperor’s quetzal feather cloak, or the pope’s vestments. Certain colors and materials were the exclusive markers of a particular office or group, and to ignore such symbolic propriety (codified or tacit) could lead to ostracism or harsh punishment. This is not simply historical, of course. Witness this spring’s biker shootings in Waco, Texas, an incident sparked by outsider group’s desire to include a certain kind of banner on their gang vests.
As social and economic boundaries have blurred, so have many of the designations that used to clarify those distinctions. The well-known example of blue jeans, once confined to the laboring classes but now a status symbol among the elites, indicates as much about the partial dissolution of traditional class markers as it does about the capriciousness of fashion. Today, clothing is one big mixed signal, a madcap mashup of tradition, trends, and trumpery. What to make of the Silicon Valley executive whose go-to work outfit is a $7000 Brioni blazer, a $20 H&M t-shirt, and $300 Versace jeans?
The corporate uniform presents its own set of mixed signals. In exchange for a paycheck, employees agree to be walking advertisements for their employers. At the same time, the company polo shirt offers a certain measure of security beyond the merely financial. That stranger roaming the office corridors? Not to worry, you can tell by his shirt that he’s the photocopier technician. This sense of security could just as easily make the wearer a target, especially if the shirt carries the logo of a business that deals with moving cash or valuables.
The corporate uniform releases the wearer from the pressures of trendy consumerism or the pitfalls of overconfident self-expression. The individualist however may balk at having to dress like others, especially if the garments involved are some she would never wear otherwise. In this case, the shirt serves as a constant reminder of one’s status as an underling, chipping away at self-esteem or even identity.
Researching this piece, I discovered that business blogs and employee manuals tout the corporate polo shirt as the ideal company uniform: It’s “comfy,” has few buttons to snag on machinery, and is presentable in a variety of environments. These same sources employ a rhetoric of intimacy to ensure that employees appear “clean and neat” and maintain certain levels of hygiene or modesty (fewer buttons show less skin). It is not enough to appeal to employees’ esprit de corps; one must also give the workforce the appearance of being wholesome, germ-free, and chaste. The shirt can also serve a philanthropic function: At the local Department of Motor Vehicles, I noticed employees wearing company polos that were embroidered with the DMV logo as well as that of its organ donation campaign.
In the case of the sports team uniform or the school uniform, the shared sense of solidarity compensates for loss of individuality. The rules governing uniforms (where they may be worn, how they may be worn, on what occasions they may be omitted) clarify a variety of social and professional situations not only for the wearer but also for those out of uniform. In particular, the oft-publicized advantages of school uniforms—improved discipline, reduced costs for clothing, increased confidence and self-esteem—mean that the uniform may be credited, along with teachers, textbooks, and administrators, with improving education and socializing experiences for millions of children. On the other hand, the increasingly militarized uniforms of law enforcement have come under recent scrutiny as commentators examine public perceptions of policing and how we regard those who maintain law and order.
Beyond merely meeting a dress code, the corporate polo shirt presents a unique moment in the history of uniforms. In almost every instance in which uniforms have been worn, the primary impulse is toward conformity for the purpose of separating the wearer from the rest of us. Today’s polo-shirt-wearing employee, however, blends in completely with fellow employees at all levels as well as the population at large. This is further complicated by the fact that most brands of polo shirts bear logos, whether or not they are corporate uniforms. Rather than a uniform of distinction, the polo shirt can actually break down distinctions among different kinds of workers and professions. This is hardly desirable in emergencies when we want to be able to tell the difference between a police officer and an IKEA employee.
Ralph Lauren debuted his Polo shirt in 1972. The shirt has since reached its sartorial apotheosis, going from capital P to lower case p, and becoming a generic term for any short-sleeved knit shirt with a soft collar and three-button placket. (Lauren built on the original piqué pullover introduced in the late 1920s by French tennis star René Lacoste and popularized in America by Izod in the 1950s.) What had once signified the tennis court or the Ivy League campus has since become so pervasive that it has lost its signifying power. In the words of Troy Patterson in The New York Times, the polo shirt has become “the everyman’s everyday everything.”
In one sense, the corporate polo shirt regains what its generic cousin has lost, becoming once again a sign of expertise and discipline. It offers a relatively inexpensive way to dress employees, it is easy to keep clean, and it fits different body shapes. Its unisex appeal ensures that men and women experience a superficial parity that doesn’t occur in, for example, military uniforms.
As was revealed in the 2014 Supreme Court case Sandifer v. United States Steel Corporation, it is surprisingly difficult to define clothing. The Supreme Court engaged in some humorous exchanges about clothing versus gear as they determined whether or not steelworkers should be compensated for the time it takes them to change into protective suits before beginning the work day. While the corporate polo hardly fills the same function as fire-retardant clothing, it does afford the wearer certain protection and benefits. But in the end, the corporate polo shirt is an equivocation. As a uniform, it fails to convey rank or status or specialization. It may come in a medley of colors, but these may have no purpose other than variety. Its ease of wear, its asexual tailoring, its very commonness make the corporate polo shirt insidious, a quasi-democratic statement of professionalism and excellence undermined by ubiquity and banality. The corporate polo shirt may fit the needs of the workforce, but as a branding statement, it is falling apart at the seams.