Uniform is the twenty-first code word in the phonetic alphabet for many international organisations, including NATO, the Civil Aviation Organization and the International Maritime Organization. And CB radio enthusiasts.
But the uniforms I have in mind are of the more traditional variety from the Latin uniformis meaning “one shape” and associated with the military, emergency services, school children and paramilitary organisations.
Although we think of ancient warriors, such as the Spartans, Terracotta Army and the Roman Legions, being dressed uniformly, there were variations in detail within units to suggest that the concept of standardised dress and armour was more custom than deliberate practice.
Uniform dress became the norm with the adoption of regimental systems, initially by the French army in the mid 17th century, like the photo above that I took (through glass) at the Museum of the Manchester Regiment in Ashton-under-Lyne.
Some items of uniform appear to be more decorative than practical, but they did serve a purpose, like the Grenadier “wings” shown right.
Grenadiers were chosen for their strength and size and would lead the charge in battle. The “wings” would further emphasise their shoulders to make them appear even more formidable to the enemy.
Sometimes uniform had to be adapted to suit the conditions in which they used, like the pith helmet on the left. These lightweight cloth-covered helmets were made of cork or pith and were designed to shade the wearer’s head and face from the sun.
Memorably they were worn by soldiers during the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879 and commemorated in oils and on film.
Originally covered in white cloth, the troops dyed theirs with tea, mud or other makeshift means of camouflage. Subsequently khaki-coloured pith helmets became standard issue for active tropical service.
But history lingers on. Right is a reconstruction of where a squaddie would have hung his uniform at Ladysmith Barracks, headquarters of the Manchester Regiment until 1958.
It was built in 1843 but renamed Ladysmith following the Boer War to commemorate the siege of that small, but strategically important South African township during the Second Boer War.