Paul Fussell is back, and he's as feisty as ever. After categorizing the nation's social strata in Class: A Guide Through the American Status System and setting the record straight in The Great War and Modern Memory, the National Book Award winner and former U.S. Army officer turns his biting wit to another social phenomenon.

In Uniforms: Why We Are What We Wear, Fussell describes, discusses, speculates and pontificates about the customs and vanities that drive people of all nationalities to suit up, each in their own fashion. "This is unashamedly a book about appearances," he writes. "This is also a book about the comfort and vanity of belonging, which everyone has experienced." The former Ivy League professor of literature sparks his history lesson with colorful opinions and offbeat facts. Ever wonder why a priest's cassock has 33 buttons? Why police uniforms are blue? Why the first Salvation Army workers wore padded headgear? Fussell answers these questions and more. Through research and interviews, he pieces together an overview of uniforms throughout the 20th century, peppered with his own curmudgeonly brand of commentary.

Examining military uniforms in detail, Fussell describes the looks of American, Russian, German and Italian troops. He explains why the U.S. Army changed its dirt-colored uniforms, or "Brown Jobs," to green, and how the Air Force came up with its own outfits around 1950. He describes the theories behind the uniforms of bus drivers, postal workers, nuns, chefs, cheerleaders and baseball players. Entertaining stories round out the mix, including that of Elmo Zumwalt an admiral who tried to change the U.S. Navy's traditional uniform and Gen. George S. Patton, who believed that a smart-looking uniform commanded respect and boosted bravado.

Full of pugnacious observations and intellectual insights, Uniforms notes that most people attempt a delicate balance when it comes to fashion conforming to the norm while asserting their individuality. Hence the uniforms we all wear, from Birkenstocks and bell-bottoms to khaki pants and Polo shirts. Rebecca Denton is an editor and writer in Nashville.

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