A Butler’s Uniform: Representation & Cultural Capital Served On A Silver Platter

Representation, in relation to dress, is the idea that the wearer of the clothing is communicating the desired image they would like to portray. Occupations that require a uniform have certain messages that are “built” into the clothing. Colors, fabrics, and the construction of the uniform are signifiers of the worker’s position within the institution they are apart of and are also a representation of the knowledge an individual must have in order to complete the daily tasks of their job. For example, police officers, doctors and judges all have uniforms that represent their occupations, but also represent the knowledge that they have about their particular field. However, a butler’s uniform would have to be one of the most interesting occupational uniforms because of the common misconceptions associated with the job. More often than not, an individual who has the profession of a butler is associated with the lower social class. Therefore, it is assumed that people in lower social classes are not as “cultured” and do not know the customs of the affluent. However, a butler’s uniform represents the cultural capital a person of a lower social class must acquire in order to serve the wealthy and comprehend the values associated with the affluent lifestyle.

The infamous butler, Geoffrey, from the show
The infamous butler, Geoffrey, from the show “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.”

Colors of uniforms or professional clothing heavily depend on the occupation. The colors represent what that particular job stands for and how they would like that occupation to be represented. The butler’s suit usually, if not always, comes in the form of a black tailored jacket and matching pants with a white button up shirt, grey vest and a bow tie or traditional tie to complete the look of the uniform. The colors are bland and when added to a uniform, it allows that individual in the uniform to blend in with their surroundings. It displays the attitude that the wealthy want the help to be seen not heard. Metaphorically, the clothes are not speaking loudly or do not have a bright element to cause attention to the wearer.   “Refined tastes, manners and habits of life are a useful evidence of gentility.” (Veblen 31) Though the colors black, white or grey are not necessarily exciting, the colors do represent the classic and refined tastes that go along with the “cultured” lifestyle.

Modern day butler uniform.
Modern day butler uniform.

“Dress is the extension of oneself and what you wear will express your beliefs” (Wilson 12). How others perceive us through clothing has become a common trend. It is mostly because everyone wants to be represented in a way they deem fit. However, occupational uniforms represent our work identity, not our personal identity. The uniforms may not necessarily represent our personal beliefs or lifestyle, but the uniforms represent the beliefs of a corporation, company or whomever a person is employed for at that time. Most forms of occupations allow dress to represent a worker’s position among that specific working community or society. A butler’s uniform represents that he is the servant. If that is taken at face value then a butler is at the bottom of the totem pole. “What is worn lends itself easily to a symbolic upholding of class and status boundaries in society” (Davis 152). However, if we dig a little deeper it is evident that this uniform represents way more than just social standing. It represents what a butler must know in order to serve the affluent community in the proper way. Some may wonder what would be the difference between a butler and a typical waiter at a restaurant.

Cecil Gaines played by Forest Whitaker waiting to serve in Lee Daniels' The Butler.
Cecil Gaines played by Forest Whitaker waiting to serve in Lee Daniels’ The Butler.

If the uniforms are analyzed, Roach and Eichler claim, “dress will immediately represent an individual’s occupation” (114). The standard waiter at a restaurant wears the typical white shirt and black pants. However, a butler has a full three-piece suit that is tailored and is expected to be clean. The simple fact that a butler is expected to wear a three piece suit everyday that he is working speaks about how he is suppose to represent the family he may be serving and represent himself as well. Now, focusing on the difference between what the waiter at a restaurant must know and what knowledge a butler has to acquire is what separates the two occupations in the working community.  A waiter may have to know how utensils are set up on a table, but a butler understands why they are set up this particular way. The difference is slight, but it is present. A butler not only understands what to do, but knows why it is done in a particular fashion. In essence, a butler’s suit represents his knowledge and acquired cultural capital. “Cultural consumption (or capital) is predisposed, consciously and deliberately or not, to fulfill a social function of legitimizing social differences” (Bourdieu 7). Though cultural capital is normally put on display to separate the classes, a butler is required to learn these values because of the representation on behalf of the employer. Therefore, a butler having cultural capital is vital because it separates him from a waiter or even other butlers.

Butler in proper serving stance and waiting for a command.
Butler in proper serving stance and waiting for a command.

Cultural capital is expressed through many ways of a professional butler. One of the clearest examples would be in the 2012 movie, Django Unchained. In this movie, dated in the 1800’s, there was one scene where a slave plantation was shown and all of the slaves who kept the plantation in order were introduced. The one and only butler, played by Samuel L. Jackson, showcased the cultural capital he acquired by his close dealings with the slave owner through certain actions. For example, African American slaves did not know how to properly smoke a cigar or have access to particular types of alcohol for consumption. However, Jackson played a butler that understood how to consume certain types of cognac, where in the house to consume an alcoholic beverage and how to cut a cigar in order to get the flavor when smoking. A typical African American slave would not have this kind of cultural capital. Jackson wearing the butler uniform represented that he was always in close proximity with the slave owner and also knew, and sometimes took on, the values of the slave owner as well.

Samuel L. Jackson playing head butler in Django Unchained. He is speaking with his slave owner, played by Leonardo Dicaprio.
Samuel L. Jackson playing head butler in Django Unchained. He is speaking with his slave owner, played by Leonardo Dicaprio.

It is also important to note that Jackson played a butler that had this particular occupational role for five decades. “Good breeding requires time, application and expense and therefore cannot be compassed by those whose time and energy are taken up with work” (Veblen 31). Though cultural capital requires free time to acquire, a butler’s job is to be around those who have a privileged life that allows their free time to be filled with things that add on to their cultural capital worth. The butler’s uniform is a clear representation of how cultural capital can be instilled in someone through working not just being born into a life of privilege.

By: Jessica Brooks

Readings/Images Cited:

  1. “The Theory of the Leisure Class.” Thorstein Veblen. Dover Publications, INC. New York.
  2. “Adorned in Dreams.” Elizabeth Wilson. Rutgers University Press. New Brunswick, New Jersey.
  3. “Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste.” Pierre Bourdieu. Harvard University Press. Cambridge, Massachusetts.
  4. “Do Clothes Speak? What Makes Them Fashion?” Fred Davis. Routledge. London & New York.
  5. “The Language of Personal Adornment.” Mary Ellen Roach & Joanne Bubolz Eicher. Routledge. London & New York.
  6. “Modern day butler uniform” Image: http://www.butlerschool.com/en_US/the-extras/interesting-facts/
  7. Django Unchained Image: http://carpetbagger.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/02/06/visualizing-django-unchained/?_r=0
  8. Lee Daniels’ The Butler Image: http://time.com/2219/what-the-butler-really-saw/
  9. “Butler In Proper Serving Stance” Image: http://blog.ram.rachum.com/post/1388741380/thinking-of-your-software-as-a-butler-is-difficult
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