Sunday, May 28, 2017

The Significance of The Uniform

You know, for someone who is really not "into" fashion, I feel like I've written a fair amount of blogs about clothes.  

And here's another one!

The other day, I saw that one of my former employers got brand new rash guards, prompting a series of awesome group shots showing off their shiny new digs.  And that got me thinking about the clothes we wear as zookeepers.

This this amazing ensemble, which prompted my grandmother to ask "Who is that man?" when I showed her this photo of me at work

So for most of us, this is really a matter of function.  But it starts out as a badge of honor, if you think about it. It is pretty awesome to don your first work shirt with STAFF or TRAINER or GODDESS OF THE UNIVERSE on it.  It also immediately identifies you based on the longevity of your tenure at that particular facility.  In fact, there are a lot of things our uniforms do (both good and evil) that I think are worth taking a second to address.

1. As mentioned above, uniforms can identify how long you have been at a place
Look at those crisp new digs.  I was a baby trainer...maybe a month into the job.

D'uh, some of this is pretty obvious.  Let's talk about my first day at Miami Seaquarium.  Or Clearwater (as an intern).  In both cases, these were my FIRST uniforms. Clearwater was the first place I was ever involved in the marine mammal training community.  It had a standard uniform shirt, but everything else was up to me to provide.  So I had swishy black wind pants and Tevas.  I also had no clue what the general "work attire" vibe was, so I showed up to my internship utterly drowning in make up.

Okay, can we just talk about that for a second?  I am still like super embarrassed about this.  I'm not saying it is wrong to wear make-up to work if you're a dolphin trainer.  Plenty of you guys do it and well, good work. 
Just make sure your makeup doesn't run

The thing is, I have NEVER pulled off make-up wearing well, not in any facet of my life.  I just look like some kind of B-movie horror film villain and/or a Bratz doll.  I also bought the cheapest stuff available, mostly because it took me until I was 30 to realize you can buy good stuff (read: waterproof) from actual cosmetic stores, versus my main source of the stuff *cough Walgreens cough*.  Wait, I'm lying.  Walgreens was for fancy occasions, such as weddings and/or first dates that went horribly awry.  Everyday makeup was purchased at the grocery store.  

Anyways, so I totally showed up in my brand new wind pants and a Killer Clowns From Outer Space face to my internship, my enormous quantity of hair draped over my person like a wet towel....let's just say my lack of bleach stains on my clothing were not what tipped people off to my n00bness.
This is a more pleasant image than what I looked like on my first day as an intern

At Miami, I was a little savvier about personal appearance.  But I still felt like a new kid in school when I walked around with radioactively white shoes and perfectly ironed khaki shorts.

Am I right or amiright when I say we can all make pretty decent guesses at the length of employment of animal caregivers based on: sun-fadedness, bleach stains, holes, and/or the intangible badassery that surrounds a confident zookeeper like a magical aura?

2. At some point, new uniforms absolutely make your day

Glory days.

I've worked at places that REALLY care about your appearance, and places that really didn't, and places that were somewhere in between.  And in all of those cases, there was one thing that made everybody happy:

New work clothes.  Especially wetsuits.  Oh god.
My brand new wetsuit (right)!! So shiny and new! 

When I worked for Marineland when it was privately owned, we had a pretty baller logo and the clothes were cool and functional.  We had rash guards, tank tops, normal shirts, wind breakers, wind pants, sweat pants, sweat shirts, swim suits, viser, khaki shorts and pants, and board shorts (THAT WHEN THEY GOT WET THESE HIBISCUS FLOWERS APPEARED OMG OMG IT WAS AMAZING), and the standard issue of full and shorty wetsuits.  I LOVED those uniform pieces.  The only problem was that the super comfy bathing suits um, became see-through around the butt area.

Yeah.  It would start with the butt crack.  And then, like some kind of disease, the fabric surrounding your butt crack would grow into a sheer window so that everyone could see what your momma gave you.   When waiting for new suits, we would wear bikini bottoms in order to prevent the public from gazing upon our glorious cabooses (I mean, they didn't pay enough for that show).  It goes without saying that it was a joyous occasion to get a new bathing suit.

But other things really made a difference.  You work outdoors in FL or any other hot climate, you know that sweat stains turn a color currently not understood by science and will not go away no matter what you treat it with, including fire.  There is a point at which your old work shirt turns a corner into a category that requires action including but not limited to: dragging it behind a shed and shooting it.

At Gulfarium, we had these rain jackets that basically absorbed water and deposited it efficiently to all points of the human body most prone to immediate heat loss.  As such, we decided to pool our money together and use a coworker's absolutely unnatural talent at sniffing out a deal (and her employee discount at Eddie Bauer) to buy some freaking AMAZING foul weather jackets. 

Check out that incredible foul weather gear I'm rocking.  Also, this was a Peeps eating contest.

Guys, we made an entire evening out of this event.  It was an event.  We knew that we had to use our money to buy these things, but these things were incredible.  We all went shopping for them, and celebrated our purchase by GOING OUT TO DINNER.  For months, we talked about how amazing these rain jackets were.  Waterproof pockets, waterPROOF material that only soaked through after hours of relentless downpour but dried super fast, a zip-in fleece for those colder days.  Ah-mazing.   

3. But there is nothing like a broken-in set o' clothes
Look how happy I am in my broken-in wetsuit

Like anything, it is impossible to categorize an experience in absolutes.  Yes, new uniforms are great.  But before it gets to that health-hazard and/or see-through phase, it has its glory days. 

Wetsuits are a fab example of this.  New wetsuits are nice when your old one can basically stand on its own (more on this later), but it really does require some serious breaking in.  There is nothing like slipping into someone else's wetsuit to realize how differently the human body is shaped, even if you are the same size.

Or, ha, like I did for a while, when I would put on a guy's wetsuit before I got one of my own.  I wore it so much that conformed pretty well to my body, except for that enormous, gaping space in the nether regions that made me seriously afraid of encountering the man who used to use that wetsuit.  Or rather, made me wonder why anyone would need a space that large to accommodate any body part.
To creators of male wetsuits everywhere

4. Old uniforms can also make your day the Absolute Worst

Tina consoling me that my shirt doesn't perma-smell THAT bad

Okay, wetsuits are perfectly demonstrable evidence to support this contention.

Once the sun has set on your wetsuit's glory days, it enters into an abysmal hell that at the very least, entails other organisms sharing your neoprene.  Dry rot was my personal favorite.  I have had my fair share of wetsuits where the neoprene had shriveled up and died and was replaced by some kind of mystery material that feels like a combination between a paper bag and the tears of orphaned children.

This usually happened because we didn't take care of our wetsuits "properly", like you would if you were a pro surfer or diver and had access to the right chemicals, the right dry locker environment, and/or didn't wear your wetsuit for 40 hours a week for years at a time. 
"Where did I leave my wetsuit yesterday?"

"Don't ever rinse your wetsuit in hot water," they said. "It'll stretch the neoprene cells," they said.  Okay butthead, you try following that advice when it's 30 degrees out and you are 6 seconds away from end stage hypothermia.  When I needed hot water, it was in times when you know, my hair was literally frozen and I couldn't feel my soul. There was never a time I needed hot water the temperature of lava sprayed all over me when I thought, "BUT THE NEOPRENE".

So yeah, my wetsuits got destroyed over time.  Sometimes, they would get holes in the seems (side note: this was a great way to distinguish between uniform wetsuits when our initials HEY that's mine, it's got the hole in the left armpit).

5. Every place has orphaned uniforms that usually make us a little sad

Most of the people in this photo have long since abandoned their wetsuits and moved on.  p.s. Miss you guys

There is that rack of wetsuits, or cabinet of old uniforms.  You know it.  It's the one you use for food prep.  It's the one you have interns or volunteers scavenge from.  It's the graveyard of old employees.

Even if I didn't know the people, I always felt a little sad going through the Quitter Closet/Rack and seeing initials of people who had long since come and gone.  I wonder too, who wears my old stuff at the places I've been at. 

But all of this just makes me realize how much our uniforms mean to us, not just in the utilitarian sense.  They are a historical marker, they are an indicator of seniority in some cases, they conform to you and see you through some of the best and some of the worst times.  They are the butt of our jokes (especially if they actually SHOW your butt).  And so you know what? They deserve a little recognition. 

Thanks, work uniforms!

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