his Baskin Robbins uniform.
that looks like a sports shirt
designed by Tommy Hilfiger
There's no catwalk, just a spic-and-spanned linoleum floor. It's not runway music, but a faint, watered-down muzak that's pumping through the sound system. And that sound is not the click of cameras, but the crackle of bacon on the grill. But make no mistake, this is still a place of serious style, because behind every fast food uniform, there's a clothing designer.
Fast food uniforms, with their stiff dark pants and visors, are not the most obvious example of fashion design around. If anything, they seem to suggest a kind of anti-fashion statement; clothes you literally have to pay people to wear. But every stripe, every crest, every poly-cotton blend, is chosen by a designer working carefully to construct outfits that are functional for both employee and corporation. And considering that 26.5 million Americans wear them every day, uniform design is serious business. Just don't call them "uniforms."
Uniform designers want a little respect.
"Instead of looking at them as uniforms, I look at them as clothes." said Marcia Hirschke, a senior designer at Uniforms to You, which manufactures "career apparel." Hirschke spent eight years designing sports wear in New York City. She favors the casual look of polo shirts, slacks and vests for the uniforms she produces for companies such as Arby's, Budget and TCBY. For her, the difference between what someone would wear on the weekend and what they wear to work is an apron or visor.
Hirschke isn't the only designer who aims to create uniforms people will forget they're wearing. "I like it when I ask 'How'd you like the uniforms?' and people say 'Gee, I didn't notice,'" said Stan Herman, president of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, and uniform designer since 1969. "It's the same thing as good clothing. It should not shout from the hills."
It still may be hard to convince a fast food employee that their work clothes created by professional designers, but uniforms today are more stylish than they were forty years ago, when inspiration didn't come from the streets, but the military.
"Career apparel is a long way away from the original concept of uniforms," said Peter Dervis, costume historian and archivist for the National Association of Uniform Manufacturers and Designers.
According to Dervis, items like the white caps worn by the soda jerks who served milk shakes in old fashioned pharmacies in the 1930s and 1940s were taken directly from military apparel, to create a sense of authority and indicated clearly to customers who was in charge.
Uniforms of the 90s...casual and colorful.
But as the fashion industry itself becomes more casual, so has fast food uniforms. Today, companies want their employees to be recognizable, but not so glaringly different that they seem unapproachable.
Why the fuss over shirts and smocks? Image. like a good commercial jingle, a distinctive, attractive image can make a priceless imprint on customers and help a company stand out from the competitive pack of fast food restaurants. And in the service industry, a uniform can be the most important part of a company image.
"Your employees are your brand," said Gayle Christensen, managing director of corporate marketing for FedEx, who worked with Stan Herman on his award-winning designs for the company. Like a logo on the front of a box, the person who serves your food represents the company.
in old fashioned soda shops.
Their uniforms were inspired
by military fashions.
a more casual uniform
at Pita Express.
wouldn't wear her uniform
anywhere but work.
But do customers really pay attention to uniforms, the special weave of a golf shirt, the teal hues of a tie? OK, maybe not. But they would notice grouchy workers who find their daily uniforms unconfortable, ill-fitting, or downright embarassing.
"When I get up in the morning, I shower, I put on something comfortable and modern and I feel good the whole day," said Christensen. "Anything we can do to make our employees feel better, we do it."
This means throwing out the idea of uniform-as-costume. "Even if somebody asked me to design a chicken suit for a chicken restaurant, I wouldn't do that," said Karen Magenta, chair of the Career Apparel Institute. "It leaves people open to criticism."
Employers and designers must think about what teenagers want to wear.
Feeling good about a uniform is particularly important to the age group that dominate fast food employees: teenagers. Employers and designers know that a spiffy uniform helps recruit and retain employees. Young employees won't work for a company if they're going to feel ashamed when friends come in for a burger, or see them en route to work afer school. "With all the (quick serve restaurants) on the same block, all paying the same amount of money, uniforms could be the deciding factor," said Macek.
Uniform designers therefore check-out what's hip and fashionable. Designers and employers often survey employees to find out what they want to wear and look to the same places teenagers look for style. These days, Karen Macek, head of design at Crest Uniforms, a program coordinating firm cruises the ready-to-wear trade shows in Europe and the U.S. Hirschke uses New York fashion services that predict upcoming trends and colors. Magenta watches Elsa Klensch's fashion reports on CNN.
The result: colors tend to be brighter. Styles tend to be casual and sporty. At the moment, McDonald's uniforms have large blocks of color on the shirts, Macek's reinterpretation of the athletic look popularized by mainstream designers like Ralph Lauren Polo and Tommy Hilfiger.
Still, there's just so much you can do with a uniform. Material still has to look good after chocolate milk spills. Clothing has to endure long work days without becoming crumpled and shabby. Knowing that they must be worn often and replaced frequently, designers often keep the uniforms plain, and use less expensive accessories such as ties to reflect trendy colors and styles. And a designer always has to remember what the uniforms are used for: serving fast food.
"There are colors that you would never put in a food environment," said Magenta. "They would make you nauseous. This job could not be done by a color blind person."
And of course, there's the small issue of pleasing the company, which has logos, colors and a corporate image they want their uniforms to reflect.
At times, it isn't easy. "I've been in corporations where they get the president's wife to come in and say 'No, I don't like that color,'" said Herman.
Still, something seems to get lost in the shuffle. A quick survey of fast food employees in the Washington DC area suggests that even with thoughtful designers behind the threads, people just don't seem that thrilled to put uniforms on. And if anything, employees seemed the least impressed with designers' efforts to imitate the athletic wear that's popular today.
"The shirt is too colorful," said Angela, 16, an employee at Popeye's Famous Fried Chicken, peering down at the thick red, blue and yellow stripes running down her golf shirt. "I just don't want to walk out on the street like this."
"I'd prefer to wear fashionable clothes, designer clothes," said Derack, 20, who works at Subway. Apparently, if the bold purple and yellow golf shirt is meant to remind him of his favorite designer, Tommy Hilfiger, it's lost on him.
"It's meant to identify you with the organization," he said. "It's good for the person you're working for."
Not exactly a glowing response, but designers don't seem to mind that their work often goes unnoticed or unappreciated. As far as they are concerned, when it comes to uniforms, American teens are simply cut from the wrong cloth.
"Individualism is the key word." said Angela. "It's not a uniform country."