A firetruck was parked in front of my Starbuck’s recently. Half a dozen of its burly men in blue leaned against a wall.
In one pheromonal POOF , my latte urge dissipated (this is major) . I don’t know--I just wanted to set my house on fire and call 911.
Just what is it about men in uniform that sets some hearts atwitter?
It boils down to the “M-factor,” explains Midge Wilson, a psychology professor at DePaul University in Chicago.
“The erotic value has to do with masculinity ,” says Wilson “A man in uniform taps into . . . father figures, heroism, protection and power. He also suggests a chance for excitement and adventure. Even Prince Charles looks good when he dresses in a uniform.” (A true miracle make-over).
As with tuxedos, most guys look better in a uniform. But there are exceptions.
“It can’t be just any guy straining his butt in his uniform,” says Robin Piccone, who, as creator of the Body Glove neoprene bathing suit, knows a thing or two about snug threads. “It’s a combination of man and uniform. We used to have this Fed Ex guy who looked real dapper. A mass exodus of men and women left for the warehouse when he arrived. He was a company celebrity. [Now] there is a new guy but nobody looks.”
Nobody gawks at postal workers, either, proclaims Piccone, whose headquarters is across the street from a post office in Los Angeles. The mailman’s lack of appeal has to do with a problem Piccone characterizes as “postman pants,” which look like a “1960s version of Dean Martin rented tuxedo pants.”
“They pull around the behind and tug at the thighs and are slightly flared at the bottom,” grouses Piccone. “They just make everyone look bad. And they are that awful gray.”
Then there is that Orkin Man, who decimates your bugs in an impractical white uniform with matching helmet. Not a blip on this allure-o-meter. It seems the lighter the color of fabric, the more the M-factor diminishes, says Wilson.
But while the powers of a uniform are not transcendental, they do enhance a man’s natural shape, says Stan Herman, a New York designer who is reinventing Fed Ex uniforms “for the next century.”
“Uniforms look as good as the man,” says Herman. “The cut is sexier these days. Most are pleatless, so you see men with butts. Uniforms have stayed very retro. And there is a positive feeling about retro.”
Many uniformed occupations are physically demanding, rendering bodies into well-honed muscle machines that have animal magnetism. Whether it’s firefighters storming an inferno, cops helping an old man, soldiers returning from war, or paramedics saving a child, the effect is potent. These are our modern-day Hercules fighting the forces of evil. And, let’s face it, we need heroes.
Mostly, uniforms define the good guys, says Michael Cunningham, a University of Louisville psychology professor. It obscures the individual and symbolizes a social role imbued not just with sexy manliness, but with nurturing qualities: helpfulness, caregiving, seriousness and being part of a greater good. (FABULOUS combo) .
Police and military uniforms, despite repugnant things surfacing about the Los Angeles Police Department and stories about military guys gone bad, still have draw.
“Ohhh, hubba hubba, " says my sister, Maureen, whose husband is a Long Beach police officer. “Sometimes I’d meet him for lunch at work and I’d want to jump his bones, but I couldn’t. I felt my hormones rage. [The uniform] showed off his body and he looked really sexy. Now he is a [plain-clothes] detective and I don’t find him nearly as attractive.”
But Cunningham suggests that police and military uniforms probably have a situational effect, more potent when it’s evident they are defending against nefarious forces. For pacifists and those with anti-authority mind-sets, the uniform gives no charge.
One 36-year-old Santa Monica mother of two declares that while the United Parcel Service man is “a distant second to firemen” in appeal, his greatest draw is enigma, physique, fabric and package .
“There is this mysterious element,” she says, unleashing a heavy sigh. “ What is he going to bring you? It’s what you want every man to do, bring you something whether it is candy or chocolate. And they are strong, young and those short-sleeved shirts show off their biceps. [The uniforms] are made from pert fabric. It’s got some poly in it.”
The uniform also has its place in gay subculture. (Who could forget the Village People?)
“There is a whole contingent of uniform enthusiasts among gay men,” says Jim Key, spokesman for the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Community Services Center, who wore a Marine uniform for the 10 years he was enlisted.
“Some men find it very sexy . . . the masculinity and authority associated with it. Marine shirts are cut tight across the chest. There are no wrinkles and you wear these shirt-to-sock suspenders to keep it tight. It’s very uncomfortable but it looks great.”
The phenomenon of uniform appeal may even occur in a primordial, subconscious way.
“Women are attracted to power signals built into male clothing,” said David Givens, a Virginia-based anthropologist who studies the evolution of human behavior and development. “The crisp silhouette shows the male broadside, which is the chest. The shoulders’ horizontal line further accentuates that. Uniforms show an alliance with other males, it shows that you are a member of a power group and it represents resources. There is strength in numbers. The lone male is scary.”
Our collective psyche may get a chance to register the power of uniform appeal on a grand scale. Retired Gen. Colin Powell’s crisply uniformed image is bound to be a huge plus if he decides to run for President.
“He makes you proud to be an American,” gushes Wilson. “The uniform is part of the whole package.”
But, for some of us, there is only one perfect hero.
“The real man in uniform is the fireman,” says the Santa Monica mother. “They are the last unadulterated heroes . . . the quintessential American male. Fire is the ultimate evil and they are always going to save you. The firetruck is the ultimate male machine. All that pressure and all those axes . Excuse me --I’m gonna go play with matches.”