The uniform is a sign of social distinction towards civilians, towards others. The object modifies the relationship with the body: it hides it, conceals it, suppresses it, sinks it in, forces it, marks it, aestheticizes it. It is this relationship to oneself of the uniform wearer that is to be questioned, the collective relationship of the institution to the subject’s body, the subject’s relationship to his body. The uniform is that object which reflects the conflict between the singular and the collective.
The subjectivity of the subject disappears, covered by the uniform, but it is also covered by it, as protected by the collective, both a reassuring landmark and an oppressive object. Often, the uniform is a geographically marked traditional dress, intersecting the definition of the costume. Moreover, the uniform is the symbol of the monopoly of legitimate violence. He thus makes all the difference between the jacquery, the army, the police, the mercenaries, the terrorists. Let us also end this introduction with a semiotics of the uniform.
The sign is a mark, natural or conventional, designating for someone an object or concept, and intended to be interpreted by a third party. The uniform is a signifier insofar as it is seen, worn, according to three criteria: style, ritual, and fashion. The uniform is a signified insofar as it expresses a collective identity.
Origin of the military uniform
In his study of Indo-European languages, Benveniste demonstrates through linguistics, the original tripartition of social functions within Indo-European societies. These are structured and hierarchical according to three fundamental functions, those of priest, warrior, and farmer. In India these castes are called colours. In Iran, it was also by the colour of their clothes that the three classes were distinguished: white for priests, red for warriors, and finally blue for farmers (men of the people)2. Various flags and very many uniforms are tricoloured. The tripartite division is the oldest known and is the origin of the uniform. In the distant past, colours and uniforms already had classifying and differentiating properties.
Continuing his study, Benveniste also notes in Tacitus, often biased but significant, that the barbarians of Germania were already using the aura of uniforms:
These fierce men, to bid even more on their wild nature, borrow the help of art and time: they blacken their shields, dye their skin, choose to fight the darkest night. The horror alone and the shadow that surrounds this gloomy army spread fear: there is no enemy who supports this new and almost infernal aspect; for in every battle the eyes are the first to be defeated.
This people are the Harii, a term that means Wotan’s army. These barbarians are disguised as soldiers of the army of the dead, the army of the god of war Wotan, which corresponds to Odin for the Scandinavian peoples. Modernity will take back the uniforms representing the divinity to make them rational and rational objects.
The modern military uniform, an instrument of classification and discipline
Men of war differ by particular costumes and settings, they strongly influence the fashion of their time. However, as long as the costume was financially dependent on them and not imposed by a third authority, one can hardly speak of a uniform despite the mimetic phenomena. The Roman legions did not gather simply according to their costumes, but above all on the faith of their standards, since they were equipped on their own pay.
At the beginning of the 17th century, the soldier was first and foremost someone who was recognized from afar. He carries within him natural signs of his vigour and courage, the marks of his pride, his body is the coat of arms of his strength and valour, hence the physical criteria for recruitment long in force. Through uniform and standardization, a corporal rhetoric of honour develops. As described by Foucault, the 17th and 18th centuries were periods of rationalization and reduction of punishment4.
The disciplining of bodies and the mediatization of their treatment finds an effective way in the emergence of the disciplinary device that is the modern uniform. The uniform becomes the symbolic means of breaking with the body and animality. During the second half of the 18th century, the soldier became an object, which is made in the same way as Descartes’ machine body. From the unfit body the machine is produced: the postures gradually straighten up, a calculated stress is imposed on each part of the body. The uniform is the perpetually available body mark, a tool of ubiquity. The hunted peasant was given the air of a soldier by erasing his characteristic features. Power holders through institutions must value the subjection of the soldier to encourage voluntary servitude.
The uniform becomes the condition for the exercise of physical power, its instrument through media coverage. The uniform individualizes the bodies and circulates them in a network of relationships that guarantee the obedience of individuals (rather than a standard and flag bearer for all, there is one uniform per subject). The uniform brings the subject into a hand-to-hand relationship with the institution, from which he had come out symbolically with the abolition of tattoos and other tegumentary markings (Deslandres Yvonne, 2002)
The reasons for the adoption of the uniform are multiple and hypothetical. The simplest is the need for recognition of combatants, as opposed to armed civilians, and enemy troops. Another is the desire for recognition and prestige that comes with parade uniforms. The parade takes up the features of animal behaviour, which simulates the real fight between the two animals. It is a way to avoid singular impulses, and to frighten the enemy. Reflecting the power and tradition of the army, headdresses, decorations, epaulets and bright colours abound.
The symbolic function of the uniform as a collective expression is obvious when it comes to the Air Force: why does it need a separate uniform when pilots do not leave the aircraft, except to forge a collective identity and strengthen the sense of belonging?
The fight against desertion provides an additional argument for the adoption of the uniform. Wearing a special garment with many buttons and trimmings, and made of very colourful fabrics, which is rare at the time, makes any attempt to hide its origin or change its appearance null and void. We must also add the certain appeal of the uniform, at a time when the military situation was even more honourable.