More than 26 million Americans wear uniforms every day. Most of those who are made to wear them are teenagers, the most style-conscious subgroup in our image-obsessed nation. Yet they have the rep as the ugliest, most ill-fitting and uncomfortable togs to roll off the conveyor belt.

Hurrah for fast-food uniforms.

A job that requires a uniform is one tough gig. The clothes are an itchy reminder that your time isn't your own, that, for the duration of your shift, you have to conform to a staple-bound employee handbook and some halitosis-prone middle manager's low expectations. It's a dress code dominated by niggling and arbitrary rules: Black shorts, but never navy! Slap a belt on those khaki pants! Wear that foam visor bill forward (or get garbage duty)!

Ah, the humiliation!

For some, leaving that McJob in the dust means gleefully trashing the visor and greasy apron forever. Others take morbid delight in continuing to wear the evidence, as if wresting the uniform from its context also robs it of its power. "I survived, see. This is ironic."

My friend Greg Ferencko, now a math professor at Tacoma Community College, routinely wore his McDonald's socks (reddish-burgundy ankle jobs with those yellow arches stitched into the sides). "You can't just go out and buy these," he'd say, pointing proudly to the pilling acrylic. "You have to work there to get these."

Jack Green, an incoming Lewis & Clark law student, has pulled paychecks from a trio of take-out joints: Gyros Gyros, Taco Bell and Burgerville (but alas, not Jack in the Box). Jack recalls his Burgerville uniform with fondness. "It was blue, and blue's a good color on me." He's pretty sure it's still at his parents' house.

Yes, there is a kind of utility chic in those tunics, polos and poly-blend pants. It's a style with history. Not only was it a way for all-consuming corporations to extend their brand, but it was also a neat way of cleaning up your employees. It helped define and enforce the personnel/patron relationship.

The paper hats that spiffy 1940s soda jerks wore were a nod to military efficiency and authority--in a crowded drugstore of unruly sockhoppers, there could be no doubt who was in charge. The sex appeal of skating carhops rolls all over our fantasies. One can catch glimpses of fast-food chic in the opaque militarism of Prada and the Gap's shrunken polos and cotton everypants. And why not? As a look, it's inherently youthful. Remember Kevin Spacey in American Beauty donning a fast-food uniform right about the time he started working out and smoking a lot of dope? For the yuppie who has moved on and up, the rigidity and desperation of a fast-food job sweetens into nostalgia.

Well it should, because the kooky uniform is quickly becoming a thing of the past. Consider Mattel's latest, the McDonald's Fun Time!™ Barbie. This fashion doll, which retails for around $16, wears a red-and-yellow McDonald's crew uniform and a hat splashed with the Golden Arches. She's traded in her handbag and cell phone for a plastic cash register and food tray (also included!). The outfit itself, white shorts and a casual yellow T-shirt with festive piping, wouldn't look out of place at a golf event or company picnic. From Barbie on up, uniforms have infiltrated daily apparel.

Evil toy giants aren't the only ones to have seized on fast-food style's appeal. Cut to haute couture: When John Galliano strode the catwalk last winter, he flaunted a burger-vendor hat complete with the legend "Galliano King: Make Mine a Whopper." Meanwhile, who wasn't tickled to bits by the racy, futuristic McDonald's staff costumes Jean Paul Gaultier threw together for Luc Besson's '90s suck-classic The Fifth Element? Or completely charmed by '80s icon Judge Reinhold in his Fast Times at Ridgemont High pirate getup?

Fast-food fashion is taking hold, if quietly. A survey of the Pioneer Place food court proves the point. Say goodbye to the retro hilarity of Hot Dog on a Stick--no matter what cuisine you're serving, caps and polos are what you serve it in. Distinguishable, but not distinguished. Uniform, but not uniformed. If it's an attempt by employers to make employees feel more at ease, more like themselves while at work, I'm not fooled. Robin Davis, a Cool Temptations employee, had to buy her black polo and black pants but still thinks of them as a uniform (she changes into jeans immediately after her shift). Sure, the clothes are probably smeared with fro-yo and berries, but it's a symbolic gesture, too.

"I have to wear these clothes every day," she says. "I don't wear them any more than I have to."

Dress Listings

To let us know about special events or sales, send information to Elizabeth Dye, WW, 822 SW 10th Ave., Portland, OR 97205 (fax 243-1115), at least 10 days prior to publication.

And Now for Something Completely Different
This year's National Costumers Association convention includes workshops titled "How to Create a Werewolf" and "Fun with Crepe Hair." Don't miss the opening night "Cabaret Le Cosmos," an aliens-from-outer-space fancy-dress ball.

Jantzen Beach Double Tree Hotel, 909 N Hayden Island Dr., 254-2005 for info. Friday-Thursday, July 27-Aug. 2.

The Shoe Angel Has Landed
Halo's Summer Sale means 20 to 70 percent off on clever shoes from the Continent.

Halo Shoes, 1425 NE Broadway,
331-0366. Sale ends July 29.

Rediscover uniforms at

Red White & Blue Thrift Store,

19239 SE McLoughlin Blvd., Gladstone, 655-3444.