In uniform, we can maintain our individuality but become part of something bigger.
TO FULLY APPRECIATE the complexities of a uniform, to glimpse its origins and the frenzied mind of the human tasked with translating a Freudian back story into something utilitarian and distinct, consider some of history’s most ridiculous uniforms.
Exhibit 1: the hard-core bling of North Korea’s military uniforms, which pack more medals than a Boy Scout sash does badges, with precisely aligned rows that drip down from thigh-high jackets onto the pants below. The very embodiment of trying too hard, they perfectly capture the desperate swagger and grandiose delusions of North Korea’s Supreme Leader, Kim Jong Un.
Next up: the fancy, feathered headwear of the Bersaglieri, an Italian Army corps created to serve the Kingdom of Sardinia in 1836. The black feather, which still is worn on modern combat helmets, feels more talisman than tradition, as if its very presence summons the warrior spirit of those who wore it previously.
Then there are the confectionary colors and overblown hats of a certain hot-dog chain, the red-and-white stripes that hearken to 1950s-era diners and the unfortunate blazers worn by agents of a certain real estate company that insists on calling mustard “gold.”
Seattle tends toward the subtle and utilitarian when it comes to uniforms. Think of Starbucks, where behind-the-counter employees look like tradespeople with their green or black aprons.
Even storied Dick’s Drive-In has gone the way of T-shirts and caps, except for managers who still wear tiny paper hats and white dress to remind you that these guys have been around a while and your order is probably going to taste just as it did when you ate there 40 years ago.
Above all, uniforms are about context. They place people, tell you something about them: how they spend their days, what their passions might be. It’s a pragmatic shorthand, and for some, an identity, a way of finding a place in the world and identifying with a tribe.
The uniform tells its own story, but if you stop there, you’ll miss the more interesting one: the journey of how people came to wear it, and how it transforms them.
“I’m 6 feet 5 and 220 pounds, which is pretty intimidating,’’ says King County lifeguard Alvin Barnes, 35. “I’m rarely approached by people unless it’s a social setting.”
Yet when Barnes puts on the familiar red shorts and lifeguard T-shirt, suddenly people want to chat with him, like the 93-year-old woman who recently approached him to talk about gardening. There’s something about the uniform, he says, that assures people, “This is someone I should talk to, or that it’s OK to talk with me.”
Sometimes, he runs into people outside work, and they can’t quite place him. When they finally put him in the context of the lifeguard, their face will light up as they tell him, “Oh, it’s you! I didn’t recognize you with your clothes on.”
VINCENT RIVERA was a 25-year-old cook working in Santa Fe, N.M., when he got a wild hair to visit his brother in Seattle. With a waitress from Connecticut riding shotgun, he drove his motorcycle north for three days. The waitress flew home. He hasn’t looked back.
From Duke’s Chowder House to Ray’s Boathouse, The Other Place, the Four Seasons, the Rainier Club, Szmania’s and Dimitriou’s Jazz Alley, to name a few, Rivera worked his way up from cook to sous chef to chef for the famous, the infamous and the average Seattleite looking for a memorable meal.
Rivera has cooked so many dishes — for Bobby Flay, Taj Mahal, Dr. John, Arturo Sandoval, Leo Kottke, Tower of Power, even Julia Child — that he has a hard time remembering what he cooked for whom. Except for one: singer/songwriter Bettye LaVette. He made her frog legs.
Cooking in kitchens around Seattle, Rivera dresses as in wedding attire, topped off with an apron.
“In an open kitchen, people see you with your hands on their food,’’ he says. “It’s about how you present yourself.”
He also knows the uniform’s power over a sour diner.
“A sense of humor always helps,’’ he says. “Playfully, I might ask, ‘Who’s the one with the problem here?’ I might create something just for her, and maybe even serve it to her personally. I’m going to put them in my pocket, and it’s a beautiful thing when they leave happy.”
By night’s end, before he climbs on his motorcycle for the ride home, Rivera’s apron might appear as if he’s been in a food fight. And why not?
Cooking, he says, is a contact sport.
DARRELL DANIELS was bummed.
He’d been playing flag football for two years, and desperately wanted to play tackle football for a city-league team in Pittsburg, Calif. But his mom was having none of it.
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So when she put him in the car one day when he was 7, and drove him to a football field, he was floored to learn she had signed him up for the Trojans, a tackle team. He cried when they handed him the green and yellow uniform.
“It was a beautiful moment,’’ says Daniels. The first time he wore it, he put it on backward. At home, he head-butted the mirror as if playing an opponent. He stared at himself in the mirror. A lot, he says, laughing.
These days, Daniels, 21, spends most of his life in uniform, whether it’s purple and white workout gear or the full game-day uniform he wears as a tight end for the University of Washington Huskies.
“You can be anyone you want when you put on a uniform,’’ he says. “I become just a beast, some angry person who wants to play football.”
Part of it is the ritual, he says: socks and pants first, then a warm-up. Next are shoulder pads, jersey and helmet.
“Once you put the helmet on, you are whatever you become,’’ he says. You can see it and feel it in the locker room, he says. Guys steal glances at themselves in the mirror, or take selfies. In uniform, they’re part of something bigger, he says, and they want to do right by their number.
Daniels started as number 99 and worked his way down to 56, then 54, then 5, which he wore through high school. As a Husky, he’s number 15.
“All the people who wore it before, I feel like I have to be the best 15 that I can be,’’ he says.
Chef/entrepreneur AVALON ZANONI has worked in restaurants long enough to know the power of a uniform, how it serves as a statement about a restaurant’s aspirations and the perceptions of the people working there.
“I remember being in a meeting where the general manager (of a restaurant) literally talked about jeans or khakis in the frame of reference of how everybody’s asses are going to look for the customers,’’ she says.
So when Zanoni, 32, set about designing uniforms for the Please Maid Cafe — her latest culinary adventure — she was intentional about creating a uniform that would convey a message of luxury and comfort without turning the wait staff into objects to be consumed along with the fine dining.
“It’s the difference between a cute outfit versus a revealing outfit,” she says. “One is about the clothes you’re wearing. The other is about the lack of.”
The Please Maid uniform is stylish and iconic, but also modest and flattering to a variety of body types. That’s no accident.
Zanoni, who was raised in New Brunswick, N.J., has been active in social-justice causes since high school, and served as an anti-oppression, anti-racism trainer for the Unitarian Universalist Church while attending Rutgers University. As a transgender woman, she is often on the receiving end of unwanted attention.
At Please Maid, which is expected to open a permanent location this fall, Zanoni is putting the focus on her twin passions: Japanese anime and cooking.
“My expectations from the customers are that they want to relax and have a nice meal, and that they want someone to take care of them, and talk anime with,’’ she says. “Having cute fashion there is a bonus.”
AALIA RASHEED vowed to join a roller-derby team in third grade after watching the coming-of-age derby movie “Whip It.”
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Drawn by the skaters’ fierce attitudes and their body-hugging uniforms and torn fishnets, she joined the Seattle Derby Brats organization as soon as she was able.
Now a 14-year-old freshman at The Nova Project who studies physics and skates for a full-contact team, Rasheed is more about the sport than the uniform, which has evolved toward athletic wear.
“It’s more about how you’re playing than how you’re looking,’’ she says. “I get more into an athletic mindset because I’m dressing for that.”
Meanwhile, her sister, SUNNAH RASHEED, wears an iconic uniform that is instantly recognizable and little-changed over the decades.
A cheer-squad captain at Shorecrest High School, Sunnah, 18, says she hesitated to join the squad as a freshman because of the stereotypes associated with the uniform.
Sunnah, an honors student who started a Feminism Club at Shorecrest to educate classmates about feminism, says she “didn’t want people to think I was shallow or super girly. I wanted to come off as an individual.”
Happily, “It didn’t end up that way at all,’’ she says. “It’s a big part of my life. I feel like I’ve been able to keep my individuality throughout.”
MICHELLE “SHELLY” HARRISON is dancing in the rain during rush hour, dressed like the Statue of Liberty.
She sings at the top of her voice, pirouetting around an advertising sign for Liberty Tax, her employer just down the street at 12th Avenue South and South Jackson Street.
“I love this job,’’ she yells over the traffic. “It makes me so happy.”
Harrison, 51, arrived in Seattle from Colorado just before last Thanksgiving, expecting to start a promised job that evaporated by the time she arrived. Having previously supervised a team of “sign spinners” for Liberty Tax in Colorado, she landed a job here, spinning in the International District over tax season.
A one-time bass player for the heavy metal band Nightmare, Harrison says she developed stage fright later in her career. Dressed as Lady Liberty, she has no such inhibitions.
“Most days, I’m out there singing and dancing,’’ says Harrison. “If I put the outfit on onstage, I could rock heavy metal again. It gives me the ability to act any way I want without fear of reprisal. There’s no one saying, ‘Oh, look what she’s doing!’ ”
Jamming to everything from Michael Jackson to Five Finger Death Punch, Harrison owns the street corners when she’s there, a magnificent party of one.
MELISSA WOOLSEY was in second grade when a fire broke out in the mobile home next door to hers in SeaTac. When the fire department arrived, she and a friend pulled up lawn chairs for a wide-eyed view of the action.
“The excitement of the whole thing got to me,’’ she says. She turned to her friend and said, “I’m going to be a fireman.” Her friend told her, “You’re a girl. You can’t.” Even at age 7, that was not a button to push with Woolsey.
She approached a firefighter at the scene: “Are girls allowed to be firefighters?”
“Absolutely!” he said, before giving her a tour of the engine. The encounter set Woolsey on a course that would eventually lead to a position as a lieutenant in the Seattle Fire Department.
For the past 14 years, she’s worn two uniforms: a midnight blue station uniform, and yellow “bunker gear” when she’s at the scene of a fire.
Woolsey, 39, says her uniform is a physical manifestation of her long-held desire to be a role model.
“People think, based on your uniform, that they know something about you,” she says.
The uniform might tell you she’s brave, compassionate and physically fit, but it doesn’t tell you her journey, she says, “and that’s the interesting part.”
“I don’t feel different whether I’m in uniform or not,’’ she says. “It’s a part of me.”
Besides having a great name, KENNY MONTANA also has a pretty great life.
The Montana native — no joke, although he lived in about a dozen places before graduating from mechanics school in Phoenix — finds pleasure and challenge in his work as a mechanic for King County Metro. He also finds it at the end of the day, when he drops his striped gray and indigo uniform into a wash bin, and plans for his next foray into the frigid waters of Puget Sound.
The uniforms for his dual passions — mechanics and scuba diving — couldn’t be more different: One is, by its very nature, disposable; the other must be preserved at all costs so that Montana can continue to walk the Earth — and the seafloor.
Yet the intersection of the two can tell you quite a bit about him.
Montana, 45, says the uniforms put him in a mindset to tackle what’s ahead. At work, his coveralls are a “super cape,” protection for the self-described “clean freak” as he dives into the grease and dirt of the mechanical world to troubleshoot problems with Metro buses and equipment.
The scuba equipment, which he layers methodically on his body, reminds him that his life is in the balance the minute he goes under the water. It sharpens his senses and focuses his attention, he says.
“You are entering another world,’’ he says, “and it’s a world where you’re not the alpha predator.”