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You may find your work uniform a nuisance, or you may find it a privilege to wear. Either way you are part of a long and rich history of workers who were required to wear specific outfits whether they wanted to or not.

Soldiers, sportspeople, hospital staff and many other workers wear uniforms for reasons of practicality and identification. But in a blog on personalised workwear, branding experts Printsome say workplace uniforms can inspire trust from their employees, and help them feel like part of the company.

So whether your employer lets you come to work in ripped jeans, or forces you to dress up as a beloved cartoon character and film studio mascot, let’s take a look back at how modern workplace uniforms came about and how they changed over time.

The first work uniforms - badges

Historical research shows that the first work uniforms date back to at least the middle ages. During this era, some workers would wear badges to indicate their job role and who they worked for. Messengers, for example, would wear a badge with the insignia of the nobility or royalty they served. This would help them prove their legitimacy, and easily indicate to the recipient where the letter had come from, a bit like a return address.

Merchants also wore badges to show customers that they were members of a guild, thereby guaranteeing better quality goods. But not all badges were related to work. One of the most important kinds were pilgrim badges, which were proudly worn like festival wristbands by any Christians who had returned from pilgrimages to Canterbury or Rome.

Though wearing these badges was widespread, as BBC History’s History Extra points out, very few of them survived. But these small badges were just the start of the uniform tradition. Soon uniforms would become more widespread.

Later work uniforms - liveries

Just after the badge era, servants to the court would wear what were known as liveries. Liveries were essentially items of clothing emblazoned with the colours and symbols of the family or country the servants were serving. In this way, we can trace the history of these court liveries all the way through to the brand logo adorned outfits many retail workers wear today.

Liveries were popular throughout the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries, as you can see from this history of Russian court uniform by the V7A museum. Court livery was the dominant work uniform for a long time, as most workers would wear clothes that were more practical than they were pretty. So when did non-governmental jobs get their own identifiable uniforms?

Modern work uniforms

One factor behind the rise in modern work uniform is the growth of certain small industries in which workers already had uniforms.

The traditional chef’s outfit, complete with tall white hat, was first sported in the 1900s, but since there were fewer professional chefs, there were fewer people wearing it. As the restaurant industry grew larger, so too did the prominence of the chef’s uniform.

What we have come to think of as a stereotypical work uniform—brand colours, logo, name tag, possibly a little cap—came about with the rise of new industries such as retail and tourism. British Airways, for example, modeled their staff’s uniforms partially on train guards and partially on air force formal wear. Travel agency Thomas Cook went for an approach that was kind of a regular office outfit from the 1970s but with compulsory colour coordination, leading to these lovely examples.

Around this same time, chain cinemas began to open around the country, and these had employees wear branded uniform to build brand loyalty in customers. It also encouraged them to expect an extra blockbuster sheen from these multiplexes, not dissimilar to the intent behind the guild badges in medieval marketplaces.

Now, brand uniforms are prominent in nearly every chain retail store, chain cinema, chain hotel, travel agency and it all started with little copper buttons and livery outfits. 


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A brief history of work uniforms
Digital Mag

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