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Stine Johanne Thiesen

The Discreet Charm of Uniforms –

An Epistemological Analysis of the Iconographic Uniform


Table of Contents:

Introduction………………………………………………….……………………………...p.3 -

Disposition and Literature………………….…...……………………...…p.3

Uniformed Personnel & Rock Stars – Theories and History about Uniforms…...….…..p.5 -

The Uniform and the Self………..………………………...………...…....p.5


The History of the Uniform…………………….………………...……....p.8

The Discreet Iconographic Uniform……………………………………………………...p.14 -

Plot of the Film………………………………………………….………p.14


The Discreet Charm of Dress…………………………………………....p.16

Conclusion…………………………………………………….………………………...…..p.21 List of References…………………………………………….………………………….....p.23 Appendix……..…………………………………………………………………………...…: -
























A uniform creates diverse signals for the user and about the user, which constructs fragmented and hyper functional identities1. These identities fall into conventional types such as a policeman, a doctor or a student. On the contraire, other uniform-users may fall under the category of being a fashionist – a person who is dedicated to follow a particular trend or style. The uniform’s ambivalence meanings are an interesting subject of study if we look at the iconographic uniform as used in visual culture. This study will bring this into focus by analysing how we interpret the iconographic uniform in visual media based on the film and the poster of The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie directed by Luis Buñuel (1972) as an example2. This film and the film’s poster use a distinct method to present the uniform as something which creates the character’s identity, without separating the man from the clothes. In this way, the appearance and the self are unchangeable and stereotyped to visualise and epistemologically construct the uniform’s iconographic discourse. The uniformed characters in this film are therefore ironic parodies of the absurdity of life and its constructions of myths that glorify the establishment (in particular the bourgeoisie). It is important to understand the theoretic and the historical motive of the uniform to identify it as a social and cultural artefact. A short presentation of the chapters and the selected literature follows studying the disposition of the analysis.

Disposition and Literature To understand the context of the iconographic uniform, it is useful to combine a theoretical and a historical approach to the analysis. This will be presented in the first chapter: Uniformed Personnel & Rock Stars – Theories and History about Uniforms focusing on the epistemology and historiography of uniforms – both theoretical and historical. The Uniform and the Self will be used in the analysis to recognize, how the appearance affects the self on the basis of validations. These validations are intercommunicated between the person who is appearing and the review of this appearance (by others). This will be used to clarify the iconographic values and meanings created by the uniform for the user and about the user. In The History of the Uniform the military uniform, the ecclesial dress and business suit will be examined and analysed with the help of photographic materials. The history of the uniform will albeit be focusing mostly on the general innovations of the military uniform


The term user- instead of wearer- is used in this paper to emphasis the individualistic and artistic approach to styling. It may seem strange to use this term about persons who are wearing formal uniforms, but even within this category, depending on the environment, the uniform can change its meaning. 2 Original title: (FR) Le Charm Discret de la Bourgoisie, cf. appendix 1 for more detalis on the credits of the film. See appendix 2 for the original theatrical film poster.


and business suit. The chapter will use Jenifer Craik’ historical analysis (cf. p. 9 table 5.1) and pictures of uniforms (cf. appendix 4-9) to examine the iconographic characteristics of the uniform. The following theoretical literature will be useful to get a understanding of the epistemologies of the uniform; Gregory P. Stone: ‘The Appearance and the Self’ (1962), Anne Hollander: Seeing through Clothes

(1988), Lars Fr. H. Svendsen: Mode (2005), Yuniya Kawamura: ‘Introduction’ in Fashion-ology (2005), Susan Kaiser: ‘Cultural Dynamics and Indentity Construction’ (1998) and Marcel Mauss: ‘A category of the human mind’ (1985). Significant is Table 2 (p. 404) in Stone’s ‘The Appearance and the Self’, which is based on a widening of the symbolic interaction studies (social psychological studies). In this way, Stone recognize that symbolic interactions can as well be found in appearance. Meaning is therefore only established, when there is a consensus between the symbol of the appearance and the review of the appearance. Table 2 is therefore important for an analysis of the visual apparatus in cinematography, e.g. The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. From a historical point of view Jenifer Craik: Uniforms Exposed (2005) and Dominick Sandbrook: White Heat (2008) will be valuable sources about the uniform from the 14 century to the 20 century.

The Discreet Iconographic Uniform, the next main chapter will be focusing on the analysis of the iconographic uniform in the visual media. It will be used to analyse the film and the original theatrical film poster The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (ff. The Discreet Charm). This film is directed by Luis Buñuel and was released in 1972. In Plot of the Film, the main phases of the film will be described and will provide further analysis of the cinematic technique of Buñuel. The Discreet Charm of Dress will give a comprehensive analysis of the use of the iconographic uniform in The Discreet Charm. This chapter will analyse the character of the bishop, the ambassador of Miranda (Rafael) and Mme. Sénéchal’s affiliation to their iconographic costumes (uniforms). In this regard, the following literature gives some excellent interpretations of the film (and its use of uniforms), e.g. Marsha Kinder ed.: Luis Buñuel’s the Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1999), Gwynne Edwards: A Companion to Luis Bunuel (1999), Julie Jones: ‘The Picaro in Paris’ (1999), Rebecca .M. Pauly: Le Charme discret de la bourgeoisie (1993), Peter William Evans: ‘Roads to and from the Abyss: Le Charme discret de la bourgeoisie and the Comedy of Desire’ (1995) and Ingun Grimsted Klepp: Clothes, the Body and Well-being: What does it mean to feel well dressed?(2008).

In the Conclusion, the iconographic uniform will be understood as an un-variable and a distinct uniform that emphasises Buñuel’s argument in The Discreet Charm. The iconographic uniform in the film have a symbolic appearance that correspond to the review of this appearance.


Uniformed Personnel & Rock Stars – Theories and History about Uniforms.

“…a touch of humour without risking absurdity”3

In Britain in the 1960s the military uniform was being revitalised as fashion. In the Sixties, the eclectic consumer used the uniform, which symbolized heroism and patriotism of the past Victorian times. This emphasised the iconographic values and meanings of the uniform. A perfect illustration of this can be found on the record cover for Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band by Peter Blake which portraits the Beatles wearing the faux- uniforms inspired by the Victorian age. On this particular usage of the uniform, Sandbrook concludes that “[…] it was not always easy to tell the late 1960s from the late 1860s” (2006:448). Although it is not a surprise that the military uniform was being regenerated in Britain in the 1960s, as it characterised a post-imperial society with convergence of norms. The eclectic fashion trend was edgy, twisted and on the verge to absurdity, partly because of the ambivalence and the semiotic clashes with the iconographic values of the military uniform. In the film The Discreet Charm the uniform is used to stereotype where the characters deconstruct our epistemological expectancies of its iconographies. In this context it is first important to look at the terminology of the uniform and the historical background of the uniform look.

The Uniform and the Self: The definition of a uniform, according to the Oxford English Dictionary 5th edition is “…not varying; the same in all cases and at all times”, whereas a uniform is defined as “the distinctive clothing worn by members of the same organisation or school”. On the basis of this, it can be concluded that non-variableness and distinctiveness are the most important iconographies of the uniform. This is direct contrast of what a uniform might symbolise, when used in other social and cultural occasions such as in subcultures and fetishism. In this sense, the uniform can symbolise variableness and indistinctness that constitutes hyper functional identities. In order to fully understand what a uniform does when it’s worn, we must lay forth how the appearance and the self interact with each other.


Whiteley, 1986, ‘Shaping the Sixties’, p. 29.


In addition to this Marcel Mauss, describes the self as “From a simple masquerade to the mask, from a ‘role’ (personnage) to a ‘person’ (personne), to a name, to an individual; […] from a moral consciousness to a sacred being” (1985: 22). Mauss indicates the self as being something that is constituted by habitus, not only by material culture, such as clothing. To understand the self in the later context, Table 2 clarifies how clothes guide us to form our own self-perceptions through a certain criteria of validations. It is important to notice that through Mauss’s approach, it is possible to understand the mask of the person which has similarities to the appearance of the person. This is indicted by the habitus (mask), meaning the self (the act) is adjusted to the group decorum. It can be understood as validations that are intercommunicated consciously and subconsciously between the self and the others. Table 2 indicates how the self is constructed through appearance where clothes worn on the wearer “calls out in others the “same” identifications of the wearer as it calls out in the wearer”4. In this case, it is interesting to examine the validation on the basis of a uniform.

Table 2: Schematic Representation of the meaning of Appearance, Emphasizing the Validation of Personal Appearance5 Program

of Review of Appearance [from other people]






[the wearer] Announcement Show Expression Proposal

Identity Value Mood Attitude

Firstly, it is important to understand that the meaning of appearance is based on the ideas identity, value, mood and attitude, which are being intercommunicated between the wearer and the review of appearance (1962: 398). The interaction between the self and others formulates the identification of one’s own appearance, meaning that “By appearing the person announces his identity, shows his value, expresses his mood, or proposes his attitude”, which assists in reviewing the appearance in the categories such as placement, appraisal, appreciation or anticipation6. Communication (in appearance) emerges only at the point, where there is an epistemological consensus between the program of appearance and the review of appearance. This can be found on a person wearing a uniform where communication (validation) is faster and more precise (though stereotyped and iconographic) compared to a person wearing a shirt and jeans, e.g. 4 5 6

Stone, 1962, p.404. Table 2 is taken from Stone, “The Appearance and the Self”, p. 404. Added words are shown in brackets. Stone, 1962, p.404.


informal clothing. This proves that “Codes associated with uniforms are highly elaborated and precise, indicating fine gradations of status, rank, role, occupation, character and performativity.”7 We can conclude that a uniform is faster than other appearances construct iconic references to placement, appraisal, appreciation and anticipation. In other words, it is very hard to avoid the iconography of the uniform, because the uniform estranges the personal appearance to a unified appearance. Therefore, the uniform is faster in communicating to ‘others’ and because of this the wearer already feels what the ‘others’ are going to feel. This indicates that the uniform is functioning on the basis of iconographic characteristics which guide the wearer and the ‘others’ to a common expectancy. Sometimes this unambiguous communication will be disturbed by other factors such as non-matching hair styles, piercings, odours and language – i.e. everything that is misleading to the iconographic characteristics of the uniform. This is also called the not statements of the uniform, which best can be understood as the informal codes. This contrast between statements and non statements is clear; “[…] intended symbolism of uniforms (sameness, unity, regulation, hierarchy, status and roles) […] [contra] the informal codes of wearing and denoting uniforms (subversion, individual interpretation and difference)” 8

This means that the uniform symbolizes statements and not statements depending on its use and its user. It is very important to add that in some cases the uniform might break out of these categories to form a new discourse. In particular, this was the case of Jimi Hendrix’s use of the vintage military jackets – not as a protest against war –but as a symbol of independency and eclectic style of heroism. 9 This kind of styling indicates a strong notion of power that alters statements and not statements in to a new discourse. In other words; “The injecting of idiosyncratic expression into objects of dress serves as a customizing agent, which alters the intended meaning of the object.”10 Jimi Hendrix’s use of the vintage uniform can be understood as a cultural dialogue. This dialogue is a way of communicating appearance through a “collective search for identity” or an “individual expression of identity”.11 This way, appearances and styles can be used as “expression, revolt and identification” for the user.12 Meaning that style can also be categorized in to a power-knowledge system, where the user is led by an epistemological power of style (cf. Foucault). This is something that Craik acknowledges by asking; “do people wear uniforms or do uniforms wear people?”(2005:7). A differing approach to this is found in fashion –ology and material studies of clothes.


Craik, 2005, p. 9. Craik, 2005, p. 7. Word in brackets is added to the reference. See Langkjær, 2008, ‘Then how can you explain Sgt. Pompous and the Fancy Pants Club Band?’, p. 7 and p.18. 10 O’Neil, ‘The Power of Styling’, p. 132. 11 Kaiser, ‘Cultural Dynamics and Indentity Construction’, p. 457. 12 Ibid. p. 459. 8 9


Fashion-ology (fashion studies) is a new approach to the study of clothes and fashion. It tries to draw the line between the terms clothing and fashion through examination of their etymologies. Through this approach, Kawamura attempts to clarify the two understandings of fashion, that is; “fashion as a concept and clothingfashion as a practice or phenomenon” (2005:2). Fashion is therefore understood as a cultural process that should be examined through an interdisciplinary point of view. In the same view, Woodward is arguing for the corporation of materiality in fashion studies – i.e. an interdisciplinary argument. This view is based on the fact that clothes is worn on the basis of both internal (identity, value, mood, attitude; to look good) and external factors (weather, fabric, colour; to feel right).13 It is important to mention that in this study, there is no distinct separation of the terms fashion and clothes. In a material study approach, a person is therefore conscious/subconscious of both the semiotic (meanings/norms) and the material of the clothes (on the body). Both of these elements are of great significance in the creation of a personal look. In this way, Klepp adds;

“For living human beings body and clothes constitute a unity. When this unity as a form corresponds to the desired meaning it gives a feeling of well-being. This well-being thus depends on what the body does with the clothes, and what the clothes do to the body, and not a least how this relates to the environment or the situation for which the body is dressed”14.

To sum this up; fashion is something that are being fabricated both as a concept and as a phenomenon, which people consciously use to feel good and right in. It can be concluded that people do not only wear uniforms, but also use them. In other words, the uniform is used to feel aesthetically good and right in, albeit the power of fashion (style) makes people unconsciously wear a particular style of uniform. Klepp argues that; “In this context it is important that clothes are not only carriers of meaning, but they also instruct”15. To understand this more comprehensively it is necessary to examine both the fashion and the clothing history of the iconographic uniform.

The history of the uniform:

The history of the uniform can be understood through many different sources – both visual and printed sources. In this way, the iconographies of the military uniform are perfectly displayed through the masculinity in the Victorian paintings16. These paintings constructed discourses (icons) about the heroic


See Woodward, 2005, p. 28. Klepp, 2008, p. 26. 15 Ibid. p. 18. 16 Ketsner, 1995,”The Validant Soldier”, p. 222. 14


soldier in its time, which has continued to influence throughout history. The New Romanticism in the end of the 1970s is a perfect example of the influence of Victorian ideals. Such kind of iconographic notion of the military uniform originates further back to the distinctive uniforms of the sixteenth century. In this period, model armies wore a distinctive uniform which strategically unified and functionalized them. The soldiers were therefore categorized into different kinds of recognizable colours, which made a huge strategic difference in battles.17 Before the growth of the unified army the military uniform had been seen in various styles, e.g. this can be found on the Chinese terracotta worriers from around 200 BC and on the armies of the Roman Empire.18

In order to understand how a uniform can be understood as formal, quasi and informal it is necessary to examine the sumptuary laws in society from the thirteenth to the seventeenth century.19 These laws allowed certain groups in society to wear luxurious clothing and accessories. This was especially useful to appose the social mobility of appearance in the mercantile period. The change in the social mobility of appearance was first altered in the nineteenth century. As understood by Svendsen;

“…during the 19 century, it became more common that uniforms and garments that belonged to particular professions would replace ordinary wear, so one’s social class was reflected by their clothing.”20

A good example of this change can be found in the corporation of the suit in the upper classes. The suit was a middle class garment, which became popular and firmly used as formal wear.21 The military uniform is generally categorized as a formal uniform that is different from a quasi and informal uniform. The quasi uniform is signified by the business suit and the informal uniform is found in the subcultures, i.e. pop. It is important to notice that a formal uniform can be understood as a uniform used in the military and the police like wise as a uniform used in an ecclesiastical and medical purpose, i.e. by priests, doctors and nurses.22 The military and ecclesiastical uniform has strong iconographic connotations which symbolize the distinctiveness and conformity of these garments throughout history. Innovations of the military uniform are categorized by a slow change that contrasts the rapid indistinctiveness of the informal uniform (cf. Table 5.1 app. 3). A uniform is part of a discourse (norm) of fashion that adjusts its look. It is therefore important to be aware that the military uniform always has been used as fashion. This is signified 17

See Craik, 2005, p. 25 and appendix 4. Craik, 2005, p. 22 and p. 103. 19 Svendsen, 2005, p. 38 and Craik, 2005, p. 57. 20 Svendsen, 2005, p.49. Translation: “ …at det op gennem det 19. århundrede blev mere og mere normalt, at uniformer og klæder, der var knyttet til specifikke erhverv, erstattede almindeligt tøj, så ens sociale status var tydeligt markeret i beklædningen”. 21 Ibid., p. 44. 22 Craik, 2005, p. 17 and p. 127. Table 5.1 (appendix 3). 18


by “a continuous rebirth of the new”.23 This way, the innovation of the uniform is based on a look, which shall be understood as a discourse of style (fashion) within a certain time period. Hollander argues the look as something that;

“…is not a sequence of direct social and aesthetic messages cast in a language of fabric but, rather, a form of selfperpetuating visual fiction, like figurative art itself”(1978:p. xv).

It should be noted that Hollander has a different approach to clothing and fashion, than Kawamura, which is found in her deconstruction of the two terms (based on a Eurocentric point of view). Svendsen argues that; “[…] Anne Hollander defines “fashion” as the whole spectrum of attractive styles of clothing at a given time [...]”.24 The aesthetics is the focus point for understanding and writing the history of clothing (dress). In this way, the military uniform is modelled by the visual art where the practical purpose of the uniform will always be altered by the aesthetic principle. Hollander argues that the visual media transmits how the look of clothing should be. In a historical perspective, she argues for this by saying that; “In the twentieth century, photography and cinematography are the commonest media for figurative art […]But for centuries before the camera, all kinds of prints and engravings were conveying the human image to Western eyes”(1978: p. xi). The same understanding of the relationship of the uniform and the fashion is found at the exhibition Swords into ploughshares: Military Dress and the Civilian Wardrobe, the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1995). In the exhibition catalogue, it is noted that “[…] war offers a modern wardrobe of the efficacy of virtue-imbued, tested, sentimental, epic dress. Again and again, war’s fiery raiment has become a figure of modern apparel”. 25 The question is therefore not whether the uniform has been inspired by fashion – but if fashion has been inspired by the uniform – what kind of iconographies is present in the uniform? By this;

“Glamour was often a characteristic of such dress with military grab heavily influenced by contemporary fashions and, in turn, the dress of the dashing soldier influencing civil fashions. Countless references can be found to the “dandy” element of soldiering gear where soldiers, commanders and units competed to outdo each other sartorially”. 26


Translation: ”det nyes evige genkomst” argued by Walter Benjamin in Zentralpark p. 677, cf. Svendsen, 2005, p. 10. Translation: ”[…]Anne Hollander definerer ’mode’ som hele spekteret af attraktive tøjstile på et givent tidspunkt[…]”, cf. p. 13. 25 See Martin and Koda, ‘Introduction’. 26 Craik, 2005 p. 24. 24


This kind of glamour and customizing of the military uniform was seen in the thirteenth century with the introduction of slashing – a practise of cutting slits – which became popular in Europe in the fifteenth century. In the latter part of the sixteenth century, the military uniform was customized on the basis of division and professionalisation of the military. This meant that the seventeenth century the military uniform had “ more fashionable cuts and the addition of finery”, which influenced on that; “Officers remained more dashingly outfitted proudly displaying a coloured sash representing their commander and often wearing different dress on the battlefield –the beginning of multiply dress codes for the military”.


In the eighteenth century, the

uniform was more standardized, which was partly due to the mass production of the modern military uniform. The hussar uniform can be seen as the most glamorous of them all. This was due to the fact that the hussar “became fashion icons rather than military heroes” under the Ancient Regime in France.28 The hussars appeared in most European armies in the nineteenth century where the national colour imbued the design of the uniform. In the nineteenth century “…it also became standard practice to issue three uniforms: dress uniform, active service uniform and barracks uniforms”.29 The hussar trend of the traditional uniform is in contrast with the use of camouflage in the modern military gear of the 1990s. It should be noted that, in the history of camouflage as a disguise it was first applied in the 1930s by the German Waffe SS.30 In the contemporary design of the 1990s military uniform, there is no references to pomp and tradition, but instead a focus on the effectiveness and resistance of the materials.

“The current issue for the design of the military uniforms relates more to fabrics that can repeal thermal imaging and environmentally adjusting fabrics that can automatically respond to changes in the surrounds”. 31

The design of the modern military uniform has changed gradually, but the symbolic codes remain unchanged (cf. table 5.1). These small changes can especially be seen in the military uniforms of the imperial age which incorporated the styles from the colonies – e.g. feathers, khaki colours, turban and loose fitting tunics. 32

Around the nineteenth and twentieth century, the military uniform becomes codified in the civilian dress, for example the school uniform and the business suit.33 The business suit becomes a classic garment used both


Ibid., p. 25-26 and appendix 5. Craik, 2005, p. 28 and appendix 6. 29 Ibid, p. 33. 30 Ibid. , p. 43 and appendix 7. 31 Ibid. p.43. 32 Ibid., p. 37 and appendix 8. 33 See appendix 9. 28


by the upper and lower classes which can be seen as a final break point within the sumptuary laws34. The classic suite and especially Chanel (a haut couture fashion house inspired by uniforms) gave also women the opportunity to be fashionable in a style which had strong connotations of masculinity35. This post-war trend changed the sex of the uniform, but not its iconographic value. This is found today in for example this internet advertisement of a ladies’ tuxedo;

“The ladies’ tuxedo: perfect as a formal suit – classic as a business suit. You will be properly dressed for any formal and festive occasion for years to come with this black suit. It will look just as appropriate during the day, when you are visiting clients or attending









The business suit is portrayed here as a garment with clear signal value about the user and for the user. The advertisement focuses on this by using a strong terminology. The headline tells us that a ladies’ tuxedo is a formal suit and classic as a business suit, because you will look properly dressed, appropriate and never look overdressed – i.e. a uniformed look with a unambiguous communication and semiotic. Therefore, the look of the tuxedo has a non-variableness and distinctiveness, which can be understood as the iconographic epistemologies of the uniform (cf. p. 5). The school uniform had a different and more militarized and ecclesiastical history behind its use and appearance. The design of the school uniform is found in the ecclesiastical and military tradition that originates from the fourteenth century Europe. 37 The spread of uniformed wear in society had a turn point in the 1960s. The rebellions against conformity and the repressive society are symptomatic for Britain in the 1960s, which tried to fracture the codes of the uniform. 38 The Home Secretary Roy Jenkins argued;

“First, there is no need for the State to do less to restrict personal freedom. Secondly, there is the need for the State to encourage the arts […]. Thirdly, there is the need, independently of the State, to create a climate of opinion which is favourable to


Svendsen, 2005, p. 38 & 48-49 : Hollander, 1978, p. 362. Also called ‘anti-fashion’ by Hollander, p. 385. Quotation taken from: Indications are added to the quotation. 37 Craik, 2005, p. 57. 38 To understand these changes see Sandbrook, 2006, p. 335. 35 36


gaiety, tolerance and beauty and unfavourable to puritanical restriction…”39

This points a perfect picture of the zeitgeist in the 1960s Britain – a zeitgeist that was clearly expressed through the arts (‘the swinging scene’) where the influence from art was strongly found in the dress of the rising pop stars – e.g. The Kinks and The Beatles. The transgression of the uniform could be found in rock stars and within other subcultures which used the uniform. The eclecticism of 1960s Britain is perfectly seen in the adventure series Adam Adamant Lives! (1966). The storyline of the series was based upon the resuscitation of a gentleman from the Victorian age in the swinging London. 40 In the series, Adam Adamant is wearing the exact same Victorian military uniform that was in high fashion in the swinging London at the time. These Edwardian style uniforms were bought by the rock stars (and other socialites) from the vintage boutiques I Was Lord Kitchener’s Valet and Granny Takes a Trip (London). This look was based on the play of identity and difference which could be pursued through a kind of escapism where ironic and non-ironic statements of the uniform in this period was mixed and blurred. Sandbrook refers to this use of the uniform as; “…one of the more sticking fashions of the period, reflecting the exaggerated patriotism of pop iconography in the middle of the decade. As early as A Hard Day’s Night (1964), the Beatles had delighted in dressing up in a variety of uniforms, and of course they were at it again on the cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”.41

It can be concluded that the use of the uniform in the 1960s was based on the iconic references to the valiant soldier which symbolize power. The iconographies of the uniform are found in the notion of power that helps the appearance to communicate via validations. The history of the uniform and the self are therefore interlinked in our understanding of the iconographic uniform in visual culture.

39 40 41

Ibid. p. 337, The Labour Case (from 1959, p. 135). Indications are added to the reference. Ibid. p. 274. Sandbrook, 2006,. p. 449-450 and appendix 10.


The Discreet Iconographic Uniform It is common in cinematography that iconic dress is used to emphasis the roll of the characters. This means that the uniform in most cases will symbolise its statements – i.e. its formal qualities. This way, the uniform is used to stereotype the character as a heroic, gallant, impersonal, patriotic and powerful figure. The same kind of understanding of clothes and especially the uniform is found in the film The Discreet Charm. This film confronts the separation of clothing from the man, which can be viewed as a postmodernist understanding of the human42. The human is understood as an empty character without the agency to break out of the discourse which upholds the order of society. In this way each cultural group has their uniform that clearly communicates the significance and class of the individual.

“In short, whatever the film in which the bourgeoisie plays a prominent part, dress acquires the character of a uniform, as much a mark of identity as that of a soldier or a priest”. 43

This way, there is no separation of agency and clothes in the film, which is a perfect example of the iconographic virtues of the uniform. It is necessary to give a short introduction to the plot synopsis, before discussing the use of the iconographic uniform in the film.

Plot of the Film The Discreet Charm opens with a driving scene which leads the viewer to the house of the Sénéchal family. The main characters (the Ambassador of Miranda (Rafael), M. and Mme Thevenót and Florence) are invited for a dinner – or that’s what they think, they are44. Instead, they are met by a surprised and puzzled Mme. Sénéchal, who insists that they were invited to dinner the following day. The group is later joined by a bishop, who begins work as a gardener for the Sénéchals. In a previous scene, the Bishop is asked to leave the house by the Sénéchals because he inappropriately claims to be a bishop meanwhile wearing clothes of a gardener (cf. app. 10). This attitude towards him changes when he reappears after changing clothes back to his formal ecclesial dress.

42 43 44

E.g. Pauly, 1993, p. 417. “…clothes makes the man”. Edwards, 2005, p. 95. Indication added. Miranda is a non-existent Latin nation that means utopia in Spanish, e.g. Pauly, 1993, p. 415.


This kind of paradox and arabesque story categorizes the rest of the film where the bourgeoisie are constantly interrupted in the social ritual of having dinner, i.e. a pleasure.45 It happens at various times and places in the film; the second time at a countryside restaurant where the owner has just passed away putting off the bourgeoisie. The third gathering is interrupted in the ‘tealess’ tearoom, where a soldier reveals a dark secret. Following the party, they are meet up at the Sénéchals were they are interrupted this time by soldiers on a military exercise outside the house. This kind of crossroad and picaresque pattern are the basis plot of the film and can be seen as ‘the dream in a dream’ scene in which the bourgeoisie are set up to dine on a theatre stage, which is a nightmare dreamt by M. Sénéchal. After this scene, he wakes up and leaves to go to the ‘real’ dinner with his wife. At the dinner party, Rafael ends up shooting the colonel (from the military exercise) and after a couple of more dreams, the Ambassador Rafael finally wakes up like from a bad dream to comfort him with food). This illustrates Rafael as the main character of the film because of his picaresque behaviour, i.e. as half-insider and half-outsider. This is very clear when he recites Treatise on Style (1927) before the shooting of the colonel; “And I will shit on the entire French army”46. The Treatise on Style was in particular arguing against the consumerism of the bourgeoisie. Throughout the film, this argument can be seen in the lavish style of the bourgeoisie and Buñuel’s play on the restrictions of pleasure (e.g. food and sex).

In between the unsuccessful dinners, Bunuel portraits the open road theme three times (the last is the final scene of the film), where the bourgeoisie are walking along an isolated highway. The expression on the characters faces have connotations of an archaic smile, which makes the road seems endless, i.e. they are never satisfied on their way. The liberty that the open road symbolizes is therefore only a way of a “phantom” and a “constraint”47. These scenes can be viewed as“dialectic choreography of a choral ode in Greek tragedy with its three contrapuntal movements (strophe, antistrophe and epode)”48. These scenes give the film a “nomadic” discourse, where the plot is minimalized. Buñuel’s surrealism is combined with a strong use of postmodern strategies, which can be found in the “Middles without explicit beginnings or endings”, “Inclusiveness”, “Randomness”, “Contradictions”, “Heterotopias”, “Eclecticism”, “Banality”, “Chinese-box” and use of the “Allegory”49. The final scene of the film shows the bourgeoisie (the group) walking down a highway. In this scene they are wearing clothes that have been used in previous scenes. This use of already worn clothing deconstructs time and space minimalising the plot of the film.


Holm, 1972, p. 64. Buñuel, 1972, p. 39 Translation : ”Et moi, je conchie votre armée dans sa totalité” : Jones, 1999, p. 51. 47 Jones, 1999, p. 49. 48 Kinder, 1999, p. 14. 49 Fuentes, 1999, pp. 90-92. 46


The Discreet Charm of Dress The ironic title of the film facilitates Buñuel’s argument that the insecurity sustained by the establishment is uncontrolled and concealed. The ‘discreet charm’ in the film can therefore be understood as the ambivalence role of the bourgeoisie, the government and the church in the real society. The title refers to an ironic parody and mythmaking of the order in society that portrayed though a deconstruction of the cinematic dogmas – particular with the use of the iconographic uniform. The ‘charm’ is therefore also understood as “to being under a charm” which blurs the difference between reality and a dream50.

The scene involving the bishop at the Sénéchals house is very important scene as it shows Buñuel’s use of the iconography of clothing. When the bishop re-enters the house with his ecclesial dress, he comments; “Do you believe me know?” followed by the pious respond; “We are confused” (Mme Sénéchal)51. In this way, the film “scrutinizes the idiosyncrasies of language, dress, dinner-engagement or cocktail-party etiquette…”52. The film focuses on the role playing in society (habitus) where clothing (a uniform) is an important part. This kind of role playing is emphasised in the character of the bishop where “repeatedly changes costume to suit the situation”53. The bishop is wearing a long black ecclesial dress with red buttons and ribbons which is a typical and iconographic ecclesial dress. Throughout the film, the bishop is being constantly treated accordingly to the kind of clothing he is wearing. This means that when he wears the causal and informal wear the Sénéchals use a different tone and behaviour towards him. A perfect example of this is shown when Mme. Sénéchal negatively comments on his choice of chairs for the colonel and his soldiers on exercise54. The role playing of the bishop is perfectly revealed in one of the last scenes where the bishop takes revenge on his parent’s death by a twist of fate when he kills a dying farmer (the murder) after giving him mercy. In this scene, the iconographic uniform (the ecclesial dress) abide a strong contradiction between the program of appearance and the review of appearance (cf. p. 6). The intercommunication based on the iconographies of the uniform is disrupted and estranged which leaves the viewer in despair and resentment. The reason for this is to show the contradictions between; mercy/ revenge, love/hate, believe/distrust and forgiveness /sin in which the clothes and the bishops actions transcend.

These same contradictions are found in all of the other characters in the film, most significantly in the characters that are uniformed and well dressed (upper class). This is shown in various scenes where the actions of the characters perplex the communication between the wearer and the viewer, e.g. the 50

Jones, 1999, p. 47. Buñuel, 1972, p. 20. Translation : ” Nous sommes confus” and ”Vous me croyez maintenant? ”. 52 Evans, 1995, p.15. 53 Jones, 1999, p. 46. See appendix 10. 54 See appendix 10. 51


ambassador of Miranda and his friends undertaking the drug trade, the colonel in his formal uniform smoking hash with the bourgeoisie, and the sergeant and the policemen torturing a young prisoner 55. This use of the iconographic characteristic of the uniforms in the film enables Buñuel to demonstrate his point which is based on a critical comment on ruling classes in society56. This in particular is revealed by the character of Rafael as the half-insider and half-outsider. Evan argues;

“…in keeping with the patterns of dominant class dress described by Bourdieu[…]Rey’s[Rafael’s]




preference for a functionalist style, prioritizing the impact of form and a concern to introduce formality into all levels of daily life, provides more clues to his bourgeois affiliations.”57

The iconographic suit of Rafael places and anticipates him within the social structure of the bourgeoisie, cf. Table 2 p.6. The communication of the iconographic suit is often disrupted by Rafael’s value and mood which is in direct contrast to the epistemologies of the bourgeoisie. The contrast is perfectly displayed in the scene where Rafael shoots the colonel. The inappropriate behaviour of the ambassador, the colonel and the sergeant are not statements that contrast their iconographic uniforms. The not statements of the uniform are used to play with the validations of the iconographic uniforms between the character and the viewer of the film.

“The Discreet Charm constantly encourages us to form expectations and then avoids fulfilling them through shifts that pit sound against image, characters against their own lines, and clothes against bodies to indicate, for example, the censorship of political discourse but, more generally, the denaturalization of cinematic conventions”58

By this, Buñuel challenges the notion of the iconographic clothing worn against the not statements (actions) of the characters. This notion draws similarities to the original theatrical film poster’s use of the bodyless cartoon human. The poster displays a person only shaped by visual effects which constitutes an appearance of black high heals, blue tights, pink lipstick (oversized lips) and a bowler hat59. These items represent the archetypal wear in the French upper class during the 1970s and are an example of iconographic clothes used in visual media. 55

See appendix 11. See Tobias, 1999, p. 143. 57 Evans, 1995, p. 17. 58 Tobias, 1999, p. 148. Indications added. 59 See appendix 2: Buñuel, 1973. 56


The bodyless person interplays the iconographic characteristics and clearly communicates to the viewer that the film will deconstruct our expectancies and values through a comic-critical approach. In this fashion, the poster shows cheery bright colours that correspond to the comic themes of the film. This comic aspect is in deep contrast to connotation of the bodyless person it portraits.

Another view on the bodyless person can be found in the “playing a part” in life, where “if success is the key, then appearance is all”60. That “appearance is all” meaning that “a man’s position is simply a part to be played” is the key to understand The Discreet Charm’s use of the iconographic uniform61. The same understanding is showed in Table 2 where appearance is linked to communication. In succeeding the role play of the self, the appearance must validate the same symbolic codes as presented by the self. This is a different way of using uniforms in comparison to the use of the military uniform as a theatrical device in the British films of the 1960s.

“Such films turn the uniform into an item of aesthetic pleasure and allows it to retain some of its traditional meaning as a signifier of ‘imperial greatness’; they pose an extravagant, peacock-like dress against the dullness of post-war khaki Britain; they fill out a signifier of traditional masculine Englishness with the androgynous (‘cissy’) qualities of the Sixties’ dandy; and allow the boys of love and peace to wrap themselves in the robes of war” 62.

The military uniform here becomes a fashion item multiplied in by the shapes and forms in Britain in the 1960s. This is in direct contrast to The Discreet Charm’s use of the iconographic and not peacock-like uniforms that would disrupt the intercommunication between the wearer and the reviewer of the wearer (cf. Table 2 p. 6). Instead, the military uniforms used in the film feature green infantry uniforms which are very similar to the American uniforms worn in the 1970s during the Vietnam War. The soldiers are shown in a scene driving off in an American-looking jeep, which may emphasise Buñuel’s political comment. The uniforms are therefore not faux-uniforms as worn by the Beatles, but replica military uniforms from the French army. These uniforms validate the soldiers’ and the colonel’s position in society, while at the same time these validations are interfered by the not statements (the smoking of the joint).

60 61 62

Jones, 1999, p. 45. Jones, 1999, p. 45. Dodd & Allan, 1997, p. 166.


Another interesting aspect on Buñuel’s use of clothes in The Discreet Charm has something to do with the semiotics of clothes, i.e. a “Well-being through following unwritten rules”63. In the second scene, where the guest surprises Mme. Sénéchal and invites her out for dinner, she makes the following comment; “That’s sweet, but I’m not dressed”64. After some convincing she replies;” Then, I’ll just change my dress”, even though she leaves the house with the same dress in the end65. Mme. Sénéchal follows the unwritten rules to feel good in a dress, which is to dress accordingly to the norms, even though the rules of dressing appropriate for women are very imperceptible compared to the rules of dressing for men. This means that;

“For adult woman, however, wearing the same clothes as someone else, for instance at a party, will be seen as a problem. This age division in clothes norms does not apply to men. The man in a dark suit and a white shirt will not be less well-dressed even if other men wear the same, quite the contrary […]. Generally, there are fewer demands for variation between man and for the individual man on different occasions. The demand for clothes that accentuate the body’s beauty and suit the individual’s personality is a demand that to a much larger extent applies to woman. Therefore, clothes norms in the form of rules will be more problematic for woman, because we have to find our own style and what looks good on us…”66.

These norms are constituted by three rules; to “wear becoming clothes” (fashion/beauty ideals), to wear an “age-adequate dress” and to maintain integrity67. The integrity of style can create a conflict between norm and uniqueness which can disturb and challenge already existing norms. Generally, this is not something that happens in the upper classes but merely comes from the lower classes and upwards. Therefore, the bourgeoisie is unable to challenge the ideals of fashion, as they are locked inside a vicious circle of validations (expectancy) which is perfectly portrayed by the character of Mme. Sénéchal. The natural look of Mme. Sénéchal is based upon the communication between the wearer and the reviewer of the appearance which is therefore fundamental to the cinematic experience. Hollander argues that;

“Messages could be exchanged through clothing, based on common cinematic experience. The same became true of gestures – ways of 63

Klepp, 2008, p. 14. Buñuel, 1973, p. 12, translation : “... vous être très gentil, mais je ne suis même pas habillée... “. 65 Ibid., p. 12, translation :“ Alors, je vais quand même changer de robe” 66 Klepp, 2008, p. 25. 67 Ibid., pp. 15-16. 64


smoking, crossing legs, shrugging the shoulders, and kissing. Both men and women began to dress and behave and respond to each other as they saw the people in the movies dressing and behaving, who were in turn purporting to represent reality. Conventional dress and postures representing real life in still art had allowed transitional stages to be visually ignored. Now convention governed movement, and clothes had to fall in line. The influence of movie clothing on fashion has never been a matter of drab and dowdy people copying the clothes first worn by glamorous movie stars. Movie stars, rather, have always worn, in stylized ways of moving, stylized versions of what has always been established as fashion and custom […] so again artistic style, when it is the vessel for the acceptable look of reality, becomes natural style.”68

The natural style of the characters in The Discreet Charm is based upon this common experience, even though disordered by the wrong style of gestures. This ontological disturbance caused by the use of the iconographic uniform underlines Buñuel’s argument in the film. To conclude, the natural look (fashionable look) of Mme. Sénéchal makes her easily identifiable as upper class woman who follows the unwritten rules of fashion.

In this analysis of the iconographic uniform, it is clear that Buñuel’s argument in The Discreet Charm plays with the validations of the appearance. Buñuel is critical in his portrayal of the bourgeoisie, the government and the church which tries to deconstruct the anticipated mask of the persons. The “appearance is all” upholds the role played in the habitus.


Hollander, 1978, p. 344. Indications added.


Conclusion The iconographic features of the uniform are found in its non-variableness and distinctiveness that shows an attachment to a specific group or organisation. This is a powerful feature, especially when used in films that communicate and validate the characters of the uniformed actors (the self). The iconographies of the uniform can be found historically and theoretically as a uniform that intercommunicates between the wearer and the reviews of the wearer. It has a clear signal value albeit it is based on the norms of society (cf. the power of style). The validation of appearance is fundamental in the creation of communication (meaning) and therefore it is a very important player in the maintenance of the self. The interaction between the appearance and the self constitutes the making of identity. The appearance of the self is therefore validated through a review of appearance by other people into categories such as placement, appraisal, appreciation or anticipation. The uniform constructs faster than other iconic statements about the self, although this can be disrupted by the not statements. This can be seen in Jimi Hendrix’s and the faux-style uniforms of the 1960s which challenge the difference between formal and informal wear. In this way, a uniform can create ambivalence meanings when the not statements disrupt the iconographic features of the uniform. This means that the iconographic uniform is challenged by variableness and indistinctiveness of the not statements. The change in the style of the uniforms can be seen as a slow change and almost not-happening if the uniform is a formal ecclesial dress. The military uniform is more open to change which is shown in the use of for example camouflage, feathers and different colours. This is clearly shown in Table 5.1 where the formal, the quasi and the informal uniform are analysed historically (cf. p. 9 and app. 3). This shows that fashion has always been part of the innovation of the military uniform. The uniform of the hussars is the best example of a military uniform, which has created fashion and has been shaped by fashion ideals. This can be seen in the use of the hussar uniform in Britain during the 1960s.

The iconographic values and meanings of the uniform are strongly emphasized in The Discreet Charm. The iconographic uniform stereotypes the character and parodies their actions. In this way, the bourgeoisie, the government and the church are all caught in the act of role playing. Ambassador Rafael, the bishop, the colonel and the sergeant are all wearing formal uniforms giving statements of their position (power) in society. These uniforms are replica uniforms which intercommunicate with the viewer that the drug trade, smoking a joint and torturing is not appropriate behaviour. These not statements are extremely important in Buñuel’s argumentation against the oppressive class-based society. This is why the iconographic uniform is used instead of the faux-uniform, which does not give the characters the same kind of authority and status. The norms of dress in the bourgeoisie are critically evaluated by Buñuel in the scene with Mme. Sénéchal where it shows a general attack on the


consumption of the bourgeoisie. The value of the bourgeoisie is never changing and therefore plays on the film’s restrictions of pleasure, i.e. food and sex. This gives the film a comic-critical character which as well can be seen in the original theatrical film poster. Furthermore, the poster and the film argue that appearance is all, which can be seen in the role played by the bourgeoisie, the government and the church. The iconographic uniform emphasises the mask of the characters that together with the not statements, reveals a perverted self as understood by Buñuel. In this regard, it can be concluded that the use of the iconographic uniforms in the film are vital for understanding Buñuel’s arguments against the conformity of society, where the role playing is to appear – both in the film and in real life.


List of references: Uniforms:

Craik, Jenifer. 2005. Uniforms Exposed- from conformity to transgression: Oxford /New York: Berg

Dodd, Philip and Vicky Allan. 1997. ‘Dedicated Follower of Fashion: British Cinema in the Sixties”. The Sixties. Britain and France, 1962-1973. The Utopian Years. London: Philip Wilson, pp. 162-167

Hollander, Anne. 1978. Seeing through Clothes. New York: Penguin Books.

Kaiser, Susan B. 1998. ‘Cultural Dynamics and Indentity Construction’. In The Social Psychology of Clothing – Symbolic Appearances in Context, 2nd ed. New York: Fairchild Publications, pp. 454- 480.

Kawamura, Yuniya. 2005. ‘Introduction’. In Fashion-ology – an Introduction to Fashion Studies, Oxford: Berg, pp. 1-18.

Ketsner, Joseph A. 1995. ‘The Valiant Soldier’. Masculinities in Victorian Painting, England: Scolar Press, pp. 189- 234.

Klepp, Ingun Grimsted.2008. Clothes, the Body and Well-being: What does it mean to feel well dressed?. SIFO: Oslo

Langkjær, Michael A. 2008. ‘Then how can you explain Sgt. Pompous and the Fancy Pants Club Band? – Utilisation of military uniforms and other paraphernalia by pop groups and the youth counterculture in the sixties and subsequent periods’. Unpublished article. pp. 1-24.

Martin, Richard and Harold Koda.1995. ‘Introduction’ Swords into ploughshares: Military Dress and the Civilian Wardrobe, New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Mauss, Marcel. 1985. ‘A category of the human mind: the notion of person; the notion of self’. In Carrithers, Collins et al. The Category of the Person. Anthropology, Philosophy and History. New York: Cambridge University Press, pp. 1-25.

O’Neil, Gwendolyn S. 1999. “The Power of Styling: On Rejection of the Accepted”. In Johnson and Lennon (eds.) Appearance and Power. Oxford: Berg, pp. 127-139.

Sandbrook, Dominick. 2006. ‘Part one: The New Britain’ and chapters: 10-16, 21, 25 & 35. White Heat – A History of Britain in the Swinging Sixties. London: Abacus, pp. 3-326, pp. 434-456, pp.520-544 & pp.759-788.

Stone, Gregory P. 1962. ‘The Appearance and the Self’. In Arnold M. Rose (ed.), Human Behaviour and Social Processes, Boston: Houghton Mifflin co., pp. 86-118.

Svendsen, Lars Fr. H. 2005. Mode. Danish ed. Århus: Klim.

Whiteley, Nigel. 1986. ‘Shaping the Sixties’: ‘The Swinging Sixties?’, In Harris (ed.) 1966 and all that: design and the consumer in Britain, 1960-1969: London: Trefoil, pp. 13-41 & pp. 109-141.


Woodward, Sophie. 2005. ‘Looking Good and Feeling Right – Aesthetics of the Self’. In Küchler and Miller (eds.) Clothing as Material Culture. Oxford: Berg, pp. 21-39.

Film/Poster: –

Buñuel, Luis and Jean-Claude Carrière. 1973. ‘Le Charme Discret De La Bourgeoisie’ (Manuscript and the original theatrical poster). In L’Avant Scene, avril n° 135, pp.11-48.

Edwards, Gwynne.2005. A Companion to Luis Bunuel. Woodbridge: Thamesis.

Evans, Peter William. 1995. ‘Roads to and from the Abyss: Le Charme discret de la bourgeoisie and the Comedy of Desire’. In The Films of Luis Buñuel. New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 13-35.

Jones, Julie. ‘The Picaro in Paris: The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and the Picaresque Tradition’. In Journal of Film and Video; spring 1999, 51. 1. pp. 42-54.

Kinder, Marsha.1999. ‘The Nomadic Discourse of Luis Buñuel: A Rambling Overview’. In Kinder ed. Luis Buñuel’s the Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. Cambridge University Press, pp. 1-27.

Pauly, Rebecca M.1993. ‘Le Charme discret de la bourgeoisie (The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie)’. In The Transparent Illusion. Image and Ideology in French Text and Film. New York: Peter Lang, pp. 411-424.

Fuentes, Victor. 1999. ‘The Discreet Charm of the Postmodern: Negotiating the Great Divide with the Ultimate Modernist, Luis Buñuel’. In Kinder ed. Luis Buñuel’s the Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. Cambridge University Press, pp.82- 98.

Tobias, James. 1999. ‘Buñuel’s Net Work: The Detour Trilogy’. In Kinder ed. Luis Buñuel’s the Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. Cambridge University Press, pp. 141-175.

Filmography: –

Le Charme Discret De La Bourgeoisie (The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie), 1972, Production Company: Greenwich Film Production. Producer: Serge Silberman. Screenplay: Luis Buñuel and JeanClaude Carrière. Running time 100 min.



The Discreet Charm of Uniforms  

A uniform creates diverse signals for the user and about the user, which constructs fragmented and hyper functional identities. These identi...

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