There is a new uniform revolution going on in America’s corporate culture. Employees not required to wear company uniforms are taking it upon themselves to create personal uniforms. They decide what they are going to wear, then they wear the same thing to work every day. Lest you think company and personal uniforms are the same thing, they are not. There is an enormous difference between the two.

Understand that personal uniforms are not compulsory. They are a matter of individual choice, born from a variety of reasons. Some people create a personal uniform so that they do not have to spend time in the morning figuring out what they are going to wear. Others believe a personal uniform makes them feel and appear more professional. There are as many reasons as there are people who create their own uniforms.

So what is the big difference? Compulsory company uniforms are about representing a brand. Personal uniforms are about presenting yourself in whatever way you feel you need to be presented. Company uniforms are about the company; personal uniforms are about the individual.

The Uniforms of Old

History suggests that workplace uniforms could date back centuries. What we consider the modern workplace uniform dates back to sometime between the 14th and 16th centuries. Work uniforms in those days were normally reserved for common household laborers to designate both the jobs they did and the employers they worked for.

Work uniforms expanded greatly once textile production met the industrial age. With the ability to make textiles more cheaply and efficiently, uniforms began appearing among a variety of occupations ranging from postal carriers to police officers. Something else happened about this time as well: uniforms became a means of branding.

Such branding capabilities are still widely recognized today. Just pay a visit to your local airport and check out the uniforms that airline staff are wearing. You will see branding on full display. The simple truth is that the uniform is one of the most effective ways to promote a brand while going about one’s daily work.

The Rise of Personal Uniforms

Employer uniforms date back hundreds of years. However, the personal uniform is a relatively new thing. It has been suggested that the modern personal uniform trend started with the likes of Carl Lagerfeld and Albert Einstein. Lagerfeld’s uniform was basic black with a white button-down that he wore as a means of defining his image. Einstein preferred a plain gray suit that he could wear every day without having to think about fashion.

In the modern era, we think of people like Mark Zuckerberg and Steve Jobs when the topic of personal uniforms comes up. Zuckerberg rarely goes out without his gray T-shirt and jeans. Jobs always appeared in public in a black turtleneck, Levi’s, and a pair of New Balance sneakers.

For most of us, the personal uniforms these two men are known for are actually inseparable from the images we have of them. Be honest with yourself. How often have you seen pictures of Zuckerberg or Jobs wearing anything other than their signature uniforms?

Alsco, the Utah company that pioneered uniform rental back in the 1800s, explains that personal uniforms can still be excellent branding tools as long as companies set some standards. The question is, should they? Is it appropriate for employers to set uniform guidelines even though they don’t mandate a specific kind of uniform?

That is for employers and their employees to decide. At any rate, it’s hard to deny that there is a big difference between compulsory company uniforms and voluntary personal uniforms.

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