The Hierarchy of Uniforms

If you’ve been to any kind of service establishment lately, restaurant, hotel, shop, then you may have noticed that not everyone working there was wearing the same thing.
This is particularly true of hotels, where the various service people are designated by their uniforms.
Case in point: the latest hotel we stayed in at Masai Mara, Kenya. It was a tented safari; granted “luxury” since there were bathrooms inside the tents with running water. But even in this semi-casual environment it’s clear who does what.
The khaki pants and animal print blouse (red and white stripes) work the bar and the restaurant.
The all over green are the night watch men (which makes them blend into the camp’s lush foliage).
The all over khaki are the camp’s rangers who take you out in the jeep everyday on game drives.
It’s almost like we are conditioning ourselves and others to see the service instead of the person; the women in white blouses and black pants were the managers of the whole operation.
There is a practical purpose to this: when you are a guest it’s easier to see who does what so you know what to ask for.

But at the same time there is something… reductive about it. Granted, the custodian is probably okay with is dull brown uniform because he doesn’t have to get his normal clothes dirty. But at some point it becomes “us” against “them”, doesn’t it? Perhaps I was really aware of this because in our last two trips we have been the only non-white vacationers at both our destinations (Kenya and the Maldives).

It’s a little disconcerting being at these luxury playgrounds of Europe, where families with four children come for a week, when the price is at least $350 a head. Then there are the couples (do they always seem to be from Germany? Best vacation days in Europe!) who have been where we are at least a week before us and staying at least a week after.
None of these people have been overly friendly; this past week I nearly confronted a woman who looked me up and down, literally, all the way to my shoes! Perhaps this is the irony: since we weren’t wearing the uniforms, it was clear we were not there to work but to vacation. And this turned countless heads.
The reaction from staff is always the opposite. In the Maldives, being so close to the coast of India, there were countless Indian and Sri Lankan employees who were happy to serve us and looked after us with an added level of care. As if to say, “we’re happy one of us made it to this place.”
So it’s part guilt and part pride that we take these vacations and try to even out the class and race issues in our own small way. After all, what would you do if you saw an Indian and a “Chinese” looking guy, holding hands, speaking English with American accents?