Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Bad Santa: Uniforms, Costumes, and Perception

I saw a news story recently about a guy in a Santa suit who committed an armed robbery. Not exactly what we expect from the 2011 armed robber Fall season collection is it? We make certain judgements about uniforms don't we? That's one of the purposes of a uniform isn't it? Uniforms are nothing more that specific clothing or costumes designed to denote specific jobs or cultural icons. Think about the following list of uniforms. What are the first thoughts that come to mind?
  1. Police Officer
  2. UPS Delivery
  3. Priest
  4. Clown
  5. Pilot
  6. Hooker
Criminals actually use uniforms from time to time. They may impersonate a police officer in order to seize a gun or solicit a bribe. Some burglars may pose as repairmen to gain entry into a house or blend into a neighborhood. I once met a guy who wore hospital scrubs everywhere. He wasn't a doctor, he just dressed like one to meet women. By the time they figured it out, the uniform had served its purpose.

Of course, the real challenge is when the person wearing the uniform to commit bad deeds actually owns the uniform. How can you tell a fake policeman from a real one? First, it's the details. Fake cops don't typically carry all the appropriate gear. They can't provide the name of their watch commander and won't tolerate you wanting to call 911 to verify they are actually a cop. Secondly, people who wear uniforms often drive vehicles with similar markings. A fake UPS guy or telephone repairman would look pretty sill showing up in a Toyota Camry wouldn't they?

As crime authors you can use uniforms in very interesting ways. They are effective tools to deceive your readers and the other characters they interact with. Just as in real life, some witnesses may remember more about the uniform than the man wearing it. Think about the armed robber in the Santa Suit. Would you be surprised if every eye-witness described an old fat guy in a red suit and long white beard? Not much help to detectives is it? As you're writing your next scene you might want to consider how a uniform might add a little depth to the story.

Would a woman more likely open her door to a police officer or a clown? Would a policeman be more likely to give a warning to a priest for speeding, or a UPS driver? There are no absolutes and that's the best part. Our characters can perceive uniforms in any way we choose right? The reader just needs a little back story. A uniform or costume is no different than any other scene element but it might be a lot more subtle. The readers perception might remain unchallenged until that moment you want them spinning on their heels. Those are the moments I remember the most while reading. That moment where my world adjusts in a way I never saw coming; just like Santa sticking a gun in your face.


  1. I grew up in an Air Force family, and to me the Air Force uniforms have always denoted safety and certainty.

    When I was in corporate America I found I was most comfortable in a blue suit.

    Your last line made me wonder what my reaction would be if a man in an Air Force uniform pulled a gun on me. Probably just as unsettling (for me at least) as the Santa scenario.

    This post is a keeper -- just to remind myself of some of the possibilities in upcoming plots.

    Thank you!

  2. Excellent post. I particularly enjoyed your insight into how contradictory actions can shatter the perception created by the uniform. You always give me great things to consider for my next book.

  3. DELICIOUS! As usual, your post gets those creative ideas dancing in my head . . . right along with the sugarplums (whatever they are).

    Thanks, Tom.

  4. There you go again, Tom, putting those twisted ideas in my head. Nothing like a little grist for the mill as I plan my next novel. Thanks for a great post!

  5. This is a funny (albeit embarrassing) true story. One night I'm heading home after work when I hear a radio call about a possible bank robbery with suspect's heading in my direction in a sedan. Then in the lane to my right I see four hooded individuals in a Dodge Aries (I can see it in my mind plain as day). I'm thinking AH-HA! Gotcha sukkas! Imagine my surprise when I pull along side and see four Nuns (Habits and all) driving along. I laughed the whole way home! In my defense, they looked way more menacing from behind than from the front.

  6. Tom, maybe the nuns were criminals in costume, escaping from the scene of a crime! LOL

  7. Well thought! A couple of years ago, I improvised a nun costume with the things I had in my closet for a costume party. Well a friend of mine, churchgoer, saw the pictures and asked me whether I was wearing actual nun garments... so it looks like some usiforms are really easy to pull!


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