Uniform: Necessity or Opportunity?

If you spent a day walking through your town high street you would almost certainly see dozens of different uniforms being worn. From retail staff wearing branded ordinary clothing to construction workers with hi-vis and safety equipment, the diversity of the uniforms we interact with daily is vast.

Uniforms have a multitude of practical aspects as well as cultural ones. It is a broad term that is very contextual. For instance, a Police uniform is iconic because it stand outs, is synonymous with the organisation it represents, holds numerous psychological connotations and has several functional features. The Police officer’s attire is an example to show just how socially comprehensive a uniform can be to those who wear them, and those who engage with them.

Not all uniforms can share that status and cultural significance. But that does not retract from their importance for most businesses and operations across the country.  At this point it is important to dissect what a uniform is into two key categories; necessity and opportunity. These are not mutually exclusive but in order to understand the value of a uniform it is important to recognise its specific purpose depending on the wearer’s occupation and or role.

Uniform is a necessity:

  • When you have important safety cosiderations such as head and body protection
  • When ordinary clothes are not appropriate, practical considerations
  • When your customers expect it

 For certain sectors, the uniform is an absolute necessity. Take chefs for example. At Tibard we have been manufacturing and supplying the best value chefwear to some of the biggest names in hospitality for almost 40 years. The chef jacket, trousers and hat, often referred to as chef whites, are fundamentally pragmatic. They are manufactured to be a thicker, usually cotton based material to protect from the heat of the kitchen and also from stains and spills from boiling liquids. They have been a staple in kitchens worldwide since the 19th century and as the old adage goes “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”.

But a chef uniform represents much more than that on a social level. Firstly, if you were to enter a restaurant, caterers or hotel kitchen as a customer and saw the chefs wearing ordinary clothes it would imply a lower standard of quality and professionalism than one where the staff wore a chef uniform. Of course, the food is the primary indicator of the chef’s ability, but the uniform carries an undeniable prestige and speaks volumes to your customers.

Secondly, is the phenomenon known as ‘enclothed cognition’. A study was taken in the US where students were given attention based tasks with items of clothing as the variable. The results were startling with the students wearing or in sight of a doctor’s lab coat attaining significantly higher scores than those who were not.[1] Now this may be more pronounced with a doctor’s coat, which shares cultural similarities with the Police uniform, but it nonetheless applies to chefs. A chef who wears a chef jacket, hat, trousers and the correct footwear will almost certainly understand the connotations and heritage of the uniform he or she is wearing. Uniform acts as a psychological stimulant to perform specific tasks in a particular manner. It therefore can be safely assumed that a chef wearing the correct uniform would perform better than one without.

There are numerous uniforms which must be regarded as necessity such as construction workers and healthcare professionals. However, for organisations that do not have the same practical considerations are uniforms are worthwhile expense?

It is here we must understand uniform as an opportunity. Most major businesses, outside of professional services, have a uniform for their customer facing staff. To many of these, uniform is understood as a necessity, as something which is conspicuous only by its absence. But is this viewpoint true in the modern, hyper-competitive world?

On a certain level, absolutely. Although several workplaces have embraced casualisation it is simply not appropriate for sectors such as hospitality, travel, beauty and retail. If you were to enter a restaurant where the serving and bar staff were wearing their ordinary clothes you may feel the culture of that venue was too informal. A few restaurants strive for this relaxed atmosphere but for the majority of customers, eating out is an experience and being treated by smartly presented staff wearing an appropriate uniform is a key part of that. The failure to adopt or invest in a proper uniform can have far more reaching effects than you would expect. Therefore, in this instance uniform should be regarded as a necessity.

But that is one perception, and it’s limiting. The type of products now available to businesses great or small is enormous and with modern technology and a splash of creativity, something truly unique can be designed. The key to a great uniform is not simply branding but incorporating your identity and values into it. A great example of this is Pizza Express.

At face value, their uniform is similar to several other chain restaurants, logo printed t-shirts and aprons in the colouration of their branding. However they understood uniform as an opportunity because they were highly reflective on their market position and the environment they wished their customers to experience. It is relaxed and relatively informal, which is appropriate for a casual dining restaurant. But it infuses the style and aesthetic of an Italian pizzeria whilst also incorporating the local influences of each of their 470 restaurants. They are relaxed and open and that manifests itself in their menu, their highlight visible kitchen staff (all wearing a traditional Italian influenced attire) and their consistent quality. Pizza Express carefully selected a uniform design that reflected their identity perfectly and it shows.

Uniform is an opportunity. It is one of very few variables of business you have direct control over. People tend to view it as something that is necessary, and in many ways it is, but that is not the mind set to get the most out of your uniform. Understand your identity, learn from your customers and reflect on what you want them to experience. Then rather than simply saying “Oh this looks good” think about “what does this say to my customers?”

Uniform is an opportunity:

  • When it incorporates your company's identity and values
  • When it makes your staff either stand out to customers or blend into the environment
  • When it makes your staff feel proud to wear, every day!

A successful uniform has two possible outcomes. Firstly, that it isn’t noticed.  It blends so seamlessly into the environment that it appears like the furniture in a similar fashion to a photo frame. Or secondly, it makes your customers take notice. If you’re receiving comments on their formality or their distinct style you know you have got it spot on.

The final and perhaps most important strand to uniform being an opportunity is to create something your staff are proud to wear. Your employees are your ambassadors, regardless of the business sector. If you give them something of poor quality, bland or just plain ugly they will feel it. Their uniform is almost certainly the apparel they wear most often so they will want to look and feel good wearing it. As we have seen with ‘enclothed cognition’ the role uniform can have on psychology and behaviour is crucial. If your staff are wearing something they detest are they more or less likely to approach and engage your customers with a bright smile? Consult your team to see what they like and match it to your identity and values to create something more than just a set of clothes.

Uniform, as we have seen, is far more pervasive than previously thought. Therefore, you simply have to get it right! You need someone who can consult with your designs, source you the highest quality products at the most competitive prices and have all the facilities to give you what you need, be that laundry or personalisation. You need a partner like Tibard, who can do all of the above plus so much more. After all, we are uniform in our expertise.