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Hey, TTC, it’s time to suit up: How to fix those dreary uniforms


Toronto's streetcars and subway trains aren't the only things getting a makeover from the Toronto Transit Commission. This week, Andy Byford, the organization's chief executive officer, told The Globe and Mail that, with the uniform supplier's contract up for renewal in 2013, the TTC – which last updated its uniform in 1993 – is poised to become more fashion-forward. Globe and Mail reporters Vidya Kauri spoke to the TTC about uniforms past and present, while Tiyana Grulovic cast her gaze forward with the help of big names in Canadian fashion

Past: Know your A.Q.

The TTC uniform has gone through several changes since the transit agency's inception in 1921, said Chris Upfold, the TTC's chief customer officer.

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One of the earliest recorded changes was made in 1954 – the same year the Yonge subway line opened with 12 stations – when new uniforms in air-force blue were issued to operators. At the time, the TTC used a term called the "Appearance Quotient." Operators were told to keep the four buttons on their military-style jackets fastened at all times and "not to spoil their A.Q." by tilting their caps backward. According to a Globe and Mail article dated Dec. 3, 1954, "TTC officials declared that an operator's A.Q. is just as important as his I.Q."

It is not known how long the air-force blue lasted – the TTC has not maintained a complete history of the uniform. But in 1976, a brown uniform with patch pockets, pajama collars and flared pants was introduced. The thick material got uncomfortable in the summer and the brown pants faded quickly in the laundry, giving the effect of a two-tone suit when worn with the brown blazer, Mr. Upfold said. Writer Leslie C. Smith had harsh words to say about it in The Globe and Mail in February, 1994, when it was ditched for the maroon uniforms TTC operators wear today: "Designed by Montreal-based Leo Chevalier, the uniform might even have been part of a dastardly plot by our municipal rivals to make this city look as silly as possible."

The TTC estimated they would save about $630,000 over two years if they created a new uniform that took less time to manufacture with fewer pockets and less detailed stitching. And thus the city's transit staff entered its maroon years.

Present: The maroon cocoon

The familiar ensemble of maroon parkas, grey trousers and light blue shirts was designed by TTC uniform staff and uniform manufacturers in the wider community. Stylishness (or lack thereof) aside, staff have complained that the material doesn't breathe very well and that the navy-blue golf shirts fade quickly in the laundry.

Mr. Byford has made it his personal mission to transform the TTC's image "from top to bottom," with a focus on improved customer service. "What I really want to do," he says, "is show we are changing." Hence his interest in sprucing up operators.

"We've got a bit of a stuffy 1970s image. Rightly or wrongly, people perceive us as a bit stuck in the past."

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That, and he has opinions about maroon.

"I'm a great believer in tradition," he said. "I like railway traditions and transit traditions. But I think my personal view is that maroon has run its course."

While no decision has been made about what colour the uniform will be ("I have a personal preference for green because my football team in England play in green, but I don't think it will be green," says Mr. Byford), the CEO is leaning toward a darker shade of blue that is less likely to show stains. Mr. Upfold, who is putting together a process to re-design the uniform, said consultations will take place with staff and the customers. There may even be a design competition amongst colleges.

Mr. Byford stressed the uniform should be "practical, durable and comfortable," and one that makes staff proud to wear. On a visit to The Globe and Mail's editorial board recently, he recounted a wardrobe fail that happened at a company he used to work for. When British rail operators were dressed by their French employer in blue jackets with canary-yellow waistcoats, customers would approach staff and say things like, "Excuse me, mate, where's your parrot?" The staff would often deliberately dirty their uniforms so they wouldn't have to wear them to work.

The uniforms were "dropped like a stone," said Mr. Byford. "So you always have to be aware of the law of unintended consequences."

Future: Burgundy's back? Really?

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For her part, Ms. Morra would love to see transit workers dressed to reflect the standards set by positions of authority, such as airline pilots, police officers and senior army personnel. "You're looking at greys, navies, gold trim and brass buttons, all [these elements are] traditionally thought of as authoritative," she says. "It would be nice to have something that is polished and that does suggest a hint of a captain."

"I like grey and blue a lot for uniforms," says Shawn Hewson, who designs the label Bustle, along with numerous uniforms for hotels such as the Thompson in Toronto. "[Those shades] tend to be more user-friendly," he says, adding that it's still important for the TTC to have a signature colour. "You can find cool shades of grey and cool shades of blue that can become associated with that particular brand."

Stylist Corey Ng, who suggests that the current uniforms are as enthusiastic as the staff themselves, would love to see them eschew generic sizing for something that fits. "I feel like people who wear clothes that are properly tailored look more put together and confident in general."

Mr. Ng points out the navy tailored jackets and trousers designed by Giorgio Armani for police officers in Rome as the gold standard of uniform dressing. "A suit is considered a uniform for men in business, so that's what I consider confident."

As for those oversized parkas, Ms. Morra says good riddance. Referencing a recent series of photos and YouTube videos of TTC workers napping on the job, she adds, "They've become almost too comfortable, like sleeping bags."

With files from Marcus Gee

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