My dad is a uniform guy, and has been for longer than I’ve been alive. When I was a kid, I used to show my friends his closet as a gag, joking that it looked like something out of The Twilight Zone. Each drawer contains dozens of the exact same shirt, sweater, and sock; each hanger sports an identical navy Comme des Garçons suit (or one re-created by a tailor in Shanghai; he panicked when the brand stopped making that particular cut). In the 1980s and ’90s, he would add a bowtie to his daily ensemble, always a subtle pattern against the same shade of bordeaux. That last bit, in all its jaunty professorial glory, became a symbol for the man himself. Someone once bought him a needlepoint pillow in the shape of one. At a 2016 reunion for a company he founded, everyone’s name tag featured a bowtie silhouette.
Anyone who has ever worn a prescribed uniform—to school, for a job, to play a sport, or as part of a ceremony—knows that it has its benefits. Proponents of uniforms like to tout their effectiveness at preventing decision fatigue, clearing out space in your mind for more important considerations. They also eliminate any questions about whether what you’re wearing is appropriate for the setting or, in the case of some sports and professions, whether it’s properly functional for the activity at hand. They can be a great equalizer, or they can denote varying degrees of authority. They can also give you a tangible sense of connection to a religious or cultural tradition.
Essentially, uniforms are a form of identity shorthand: You know that a doctor is a doctor because of the white lab coat he or she is wearing. You know that a teenager attends a certain school because of the particular plaid on her skirt, that Mohamed Salah plays for Liverpool because of his red kit. Before Tom Wolfe passed away, anyone could immediately recognize that the slight, elderly man walking down Lexington Avenue was him because of the crisp white suit and cane.
People who invent uniforms for themselves tend to be of a creative, entrepreneurial, or highly efficient sort, lending the habit twin auras of power and eccentricity. Other famous examples include Albert Einstein, who spent the later years of his life in a tobacco-hued leather chore coat; Karl Lagerfeld, in his austere black and white; and Hillary Clinton, whose pantsuits have provoked both light ridicule and earnest admiration. In Silicon Valley, Steve Jobs’s iconic turtleneck has inspired a raft of imitators, among them the infamous Elizabeth Holmes, who adopted his signature garment as her own.
The people depicted in the following portraits have different ways of approaching the concept. (Theo Wenner, who photographed them, is also a child of consistency.) Their ensembles exist on a spectrum: aggressively neutral on one end, loud declarations of self on the other. Some are strict about what they buy, others more experimental. In all cases, they’ve mastered the art of personal style. Unlike prescribed uniforms, which can have the effect of rendering the individuality of the wearer indistinguishable, these enhance it. While the rest of us try on different versions of ourselves every day, the subjects of this story remain firm in their knowledge of who they are—and look all the more interesting for it.
The architect Peter Marino’s signature look—equal parts motorcycle gang member, goth, and dominator—is a master class in personal mythmaking. Marino made the switch from Armani suits to all black leather in the early 2000s, when he started gaining notoriety for his commercial work for the likes of Chanel, Dior, and Louis Vuitton, and subsequently fashioned himself into an icon. On a 2017 episode of 60 Minutes, he coyly referred to his uniform as a “decoy.” I asked him to elaborate: “The outward armor is a good decoy for a rich, fantasy-filled interior expression,” he says. “It’s also living proof of ‘don’t judge a book by its cover.’ ” While his ensembles often get attention for their fetishistic associations, which are particularly notable given the ultra-high-society circles in which he does business, there’s also a practical element involved: He actually wears them to ride motorcycles. He has warm, lined pieces for winter, and “paper thin” summer-weight leathers that are “cooler than cotton.” “It also makes travel really easy,” he notes. “One look fits all.”
“Growing up in Nova Scotia, green was all around me,” says Elizabeth Sweetheart of her favorite hue. “But in 1964, I hitchhiked to New York because I wanted to be an artist and I’d heard you had to come to New York, and I never turned back.” She got her start designing prints for textile manufacturers in the Garment District. Back then, she wore mostly vintage pieces and avoided the color, because “I always thought green should just be in nature,” she says. “As time went on, I really missed it.” Little by little, she started incorporating verdant flashes into her outfits, until it became her signature. Now she dyes all of her clothes herself with custom-mixed pigments, bleaches hearts and patterns into her overalls, paints her shoes, and brushes streaks into her hair with a toothbrush. In Carroll Gardens, the neighborhood where she lives, her monochromatic ensembles have made her a local celebrity: Passersby and Instagram fans lovingly refer to her as the Green Lady of Brooklyn. “I live across the street from a school, and all the children always stop and say, ‘Wow!’ ” she says. “It was just natural to keep it going and to make people happy.”
Carlyne Cerf de Dudzeele
Carlyne Cerf de Dudzeele’s legendary penchant for juxtaposing high and low was cemented when she styled Anna Wintour’s first Vogue cover, in 1988, dressing the model Michaela Bercu in a Christian Lacroix couture top with a pair of Guess jeans. That ease and lack of snobbishness around fashion (she dubs it “CerfStyle”) is reflected in her daily outfits, which she pulls out of what must be an incredibly large closet. “Everything I love, I collect,” she says. “I never get rid of anything, because every piece I own, I love. For me, there is no season, no years. Nothing is ever démodé. It all depends on the way you wear it.” Her trove includes pieces by Louis Vuitton, Chanel, Alaïa, and Hermès; several gold Rolex watches; black Uniqlo jeans; gold St. Tropez sandals; and a vast array of tracksuits by Adidas, Puma, Jeremy Scott, Nike, and Juicy Couture, to name a few. (“Don’t ask me to count how many, because it would take all day,” she says.) She’s often seen wearing heaps of gold jewelry, much of which has sentimental value, like the Chanel pieces that Karl Lagerfeld gave her during fittings in the 1990s, and a diamond ring she had made from a stone that once belonged to her mother, who taught her the one fashion lesson she holds dear: “Style is something you are born with, not something you learn or acquire.”
“I’ve gone through different phases of almost using clothes as costumes for different parts of my life,” says the artist Rashid Johnson. “When I was 19 or 20, I dressed like I was John Shaft—like I was a ’70s icon or something. But as interested as I am in fashion and personal style, it could become quite overwhelming.” Johnson says that when he got sober, seven years ago, he started wearing more or less the same thing every day. “I just needed to make fewer decisions, you know?” His daily uniform is made up of black jeans or Rick Owens trousers, a black T-shirt, a black sweater or sweatshirt, which he often wears tied around his waist, and some jewelry. Shoes are where he’ll switch things up: a pair of Dries Van Noten slippers, Yeezy sneakers, or Rick Owens boots. “Maybe it’s a tad cliché, an artist wearing all black all the time,” he says. “But my studio can get pretty messy, and some of the darker materials I’m often working with, like black soap and wax, they blend in.” Johnson says he’s not super strict about the whole thing; he’ll experiment occasionally and throw on a suit when he needs to. “I will even buy other things sometimes,” he says. “But then I find myself never wearing them.”
“I’ve worn the same thing every day for years,” says the artist Taryn Simon. “The colors change, but that’s about it.” Whether she’s working in her studio, photographing a subject, or attending a gallery opening, you’ll almost always find her in a silk button-up blouse, tucked into an A-line skirt with suspenders and a pocket. The fact that it takes her five minutes to get ready, day or night, means she has more time and mental space for important things. She comes from a long line of self-sufficient women who “quilted, smocked, made patterns, and turned scraps of fabric into magic,” says Simon, who makes most of her own clothing from raw materials she sources from Hong Kong. “My mother made most of my clothing growing up, and now makes my children’s clothing,” the artist says. “Her father died when she was 1, and she and my grandmother had very limited financial resources. Buying quality or stylish clothing was not an option, but they made the most elegant and beautiful clothing themselves between school and jobs. My grandmother taught my mother how to sew. My mother taught me, and she is now teaching my daughter.”
“There’s safety in a uniform,” says Tonne Goodman, “because you know that it works, on all the different levels that are important to you: practicality and acceptability—that you look okay on many occasions.” In the 1990s, when she started working at Vogue, Goodman developed her first daily outfit formula: black turtleneck, dark pencil skirt, fishnet stockings, and kitten heels. Then she made the switch to her current look, which is built around white Levi’s 501 jeans. She had worn blue jeans in her hippie days, but “white jeans had a different look altogether. It didn’t read jeans; it read something else,” she says. She’ll usually pair them with loafers, flat boots, or a kitten heel, depending on how formal she wants to look, and a dark top, a habit that arose out of necessity when she was undergoing treatment for breast cancer. “After my first mastectomy, I was lopsided, to be completely frank. And so I always wore dark on top, which masked it more,” she says. Her penchant for white denim extends to her home: The living room couch and club chairs are slipcovered in it. Does she ever worry about getting them dirty, given the grime of New York City? “No,” she says, since the covers zip right off and are machine washable. As for the jeans: “There’s always another pair in the drawer.”
“I would describe my style as Harlem. I am going to give you a riot of color, of patterns. I’m going to give you va-va-voomness,” Bevy Smith says. “You’re going to know when I enter a room. It will not be quiet, nor demure.” When she was a fashion advertising executive, she stuck to her Harlem sensibility, no matter where she traveled; to her, a uniform means a consistent expression of identity, regardless of context. “I never tried to fit in, and they would just have to adapt to what I was bringing,” she remembers. “The Italians always got it. They love excess, right? The Parisians, not so much.” Now an author, a TV presenter, and a radio host, Smith only deviates slightly from her signature look when she’s on TV. For morning shows, no patterns—solid, primary colors are key. “And if there’s not a desk in front of you, you got to remember your legs are going to be showing,” she notes. “If you part the seas, you give someone a Sharon Stone Basic Instinct moment.” Smith says her bold sense of style is inspired by the women in her community, her mother in particular, who is 93 years old and still a fashion plate. “She was just in the hospital, and when we got the notification that she’d be coming home, she said, ‘Someone has to go to my house and get my dress,’ ” Smith recalls. “We were like, ‘Mom, we have what you wore to the hospital.’ And she said, ‘I’m not going to let the people in the neighborhood see me coming back in the same outfit.’ That’s indicative of who I come from.”
A blue and white striped marinière, or Breton shirt, which makes up the top half of Jane Wenner’s everyday outfit, is a natural choice for a uniform, given that the style has been part of the official kit of the French Navy since the 19th century. (Legend has it that the total number of stripes on the standard Saint James version represents the sum of Napoleon’s victories over the British.) In Jane, the book her son Theo Wenner (who also photographed this story) published in 2020, Jane Wenner is seen over the course of one year, wearing her stripes and jeans while drinking tequila on her roof, looking through binoculars over the Amagansett dunes, and overseeing an impeccably set dinner table. In one particularly arresting image, 13 identical shirts are hung out to dry over the railing of her Ward Bennett–designed home, a uniformed housekeeper walking behind them. When asked to share the story or philosophy behind her consistency, Wenner demurs. “I’ve been wearing the same thing for 30 years,” she says. “The whole point is to not have to think about it, let alone talk about it.”
The writer and comedian Fran Lebowitz does not consider herself a uniform person. “They’re just my clothes,” she says when I broach the topic. “Because of the Internet, there’s photographs of me from when I was 20. And people say to me, ‘Oh, you’re wearing the same thing.’ But that is quite an unrefined eye on it, if you ask me.” For one, as she’s gotten older, she’s stepped up the quality. For the past 20 years, she’s had her jackets and suits made by the Savile Row tailor Anderson & Sheppard. “I wanted them to make me clothes earlier, but they refused, because they never made clothes for women,” Lebowitz says. (After many male clients interceded on her behalf, they eventually relented.) Also in her suiting mix are several jackets that the late Geoffrey Beene had originally designed for himself; he passed them on to her when they didn’t fit him anymore. She gets her shirts from Hilditch & Key, and her jeans are usually Levi’s 501s, but not always. Her boots, also custom, are, “unless people have copied them, which they might have, the only wing-tip cowboy boots I’ve ever seen.” Accessories: tortoiseshell frames ordered via catalog from a men’s store called Ben Silver, in Charleston, South Carolina; a 1929 oyster Rolex that she bought in Italy in the 1980s (she couldn’t afford it, but she had calculated the lira-to-dollar exchange rate wrong); and cuff links, many of which were gifts from friends. Her favorites include an ant-shaped pair, which the artist and designer Enrico Marone Cinzano handed to her after she glanced at his wrists during dinner, and another set fashioned from dice. “I always think they’re going to bring me luck, but they haven’t so far,” Lebowitz quips.
Photo assistants: Eric Zhang, James Sakalian.