9:38AM EDT October 26. 2012 - Steve Jobs did it. Hillary Clinton did it. Mark Zuckerberg still does it. And a parade of celebrities, stars and boldfaced designers Vera Wang, Sofia Coppola, Gwyneth Paltrow do it: They all wear more or less the same thing all the time, despite having all the money they need for strutting down Fashion Avenue.
Call these outfits fashion uniforms. Whether it's the late Jobs' black turtlenecks and black jeans, Clinton's pantsuits, Zuckerberg's gray T-shirt drawer, Vera Wang's tunics and leggings, or Sofia Coppola's schoolgirl button-down blouses and ballet flats, some famous folk are sticking to the same look at a time when the democratization of fashion has made being "fashiony" a mass-market phenomenon.
But others think deciding what to wear is the most fun decision they make all day, so why give it up? Some of them might have grown up in parochial schools, forced to wear ugly uniforms. They swore them off forever (until they became parents and realized how convenient and cheap they are).
Still, why has uniform-style dressing spread to the adult world of high-powered, high-paid grownups?
Because it helps establish identity, which can be crucial for business, and because the good results are obvious and comfortable, says Fiona Ferris, 41, a fashion blogger and shoe-store owner in Auckland, New Zealand, who says she started paying attention when so many of her favorite designers kept turning up in uniforms and looked great.
"What they're telling us is to look to the trends each season, but what they're doing is wearing classic shapes that suit their body and feel comfortable, and make them feel like them," she wrote in a recent post, elaborating later in an e-mail interview. "I started taking notice of celebrities whose style I admired and sure enough, the same looks were cropping up over and over. You only need to Google Image most celebrities to see this."
For some people it's just more convenient, or they're just lazy like the guys who come into her shoe shop and buy a new pair of shoes that look exactly like the old ones. But that's not what celebs are doing, she says; they're deliberately creating a signature look, and it's a smart strategy.
"They will have thought about the image they wish to portray, what kind of person they want to come across as, and build their wardrobe accordingly," she says. "Someone can change their good-girl image to bad with a change of style, and vice versa. The clever ones do it subtly over time."
So in recent years you might have noticed Kanye West repeatedly wearing leather pants. Actresses such as Jennifer Aniston, Gwyneth Paltrow or Renee Zellweger, all of them admired for their dress sense, routinely wear elegant, stylish clothes that usually fall within the same palette and silhouette, sometimes even the same designer.
InStyle noted not long ago that Zellweger, while promoting a movie in New York, wore a different dress by designer Carolina Herrera in six appearances. Two of her outfits were strikingly similar: gray sheath, nude pumps, Hermes bag, aviator shades.
When Paltrow was named World's Best Dressed Woman by People last month, her stylist, Elizabeth Saltzman, said she was not a slave to trends. "She doesn't do fringe," she said. "She has a uniform. It's simple, not overdone."
Paltrow's approach is more a theme than a uniform, says Lucky magazine executive fashion director Alexis Bryan Morgan. "It's a look, not necessarily a uniform. It's one step up from trying every new thing, and the next step is the uniform, so she's in the ideal middle."
And it's not just the younger stars who do it: Ellen Barkin, 57, a Tony Award-winning actress and producer, told Elle in March that she knows she looks like someone who never changes her clothes. "Because there are 10 versions of three styles of L'Wren [Scott]'s dresses in different colors, 30 versions of an almost-identical sweater, and 10 versions of a black pair of pants. I love fashion, but I just like a uniform."
Fashion leaders of the press pack do it, too. Anna Wintour, editor of Vogue, hasn't changed her bob hair style since she was 14 and is routinely seen in signature pieces: conservative, fitted sheath dresses or coordinated suits that are simultaneously elegant and businesslike and current to the season.
"I just got back from the shows in Europe and I always think when I look at all the top editors in the front row don't they get bored (always looking the same)?," says Morgan.
For some people who choose uniforms, it's just a question of time and priorities: They can't be bothered to shop or make decisions about what to wear every morning because they're too busy with other important things, so they just wear more or less the same thing every day. This could apply to Facebook's Zuckerberg, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton or your average, overbooked working mom.
"For incredibly busy women, it's really handy to have a look nailed down so you're not laboring every morning about what to wear and how to do your hair," says Morgan.
Zuckerberg, the boy-genius CEO, is as famous for his dorm-room look as his billions, although he has grown up enough to dress appropriately for his May wedding. But the rest of the time, he relies on staples, he told Matt Lauer Mr. Best-Dressed himself on the Today show recently.
"I mean, I wear the same thing every day, right? I mean, it's literally, if you could see my closet," Zuckerberg said, as Lauer wondered whether he owns 12 of the same gray T-shirt. "Maybe about 20," Zuckerberg confessed. "I have one drawer. Like men everywhere."
Morgan says that ever since she became a mom she's adopted an Audrey Hepburn-ish uniform look for daily tasks: black capri pants, a black boatneck-collar shirt and black flats.
"I can do anything in that, jump on the subway, take my kid to school," she says. "I'm wearing the same thing over and over, so quality becomes even more important. It has to be good quality so it won't fall apart. (The result is) I have fewer things that are better."
Being time-challenged is practically the definition of a fashion designer, what with the multiple collections most have to whip up every year. Many have adopted a uniform, such as Michael Kors, now as famous for being a judge on Project Runway.
"I definitely have a fashion uniform that is an understatement," he told Harper's Bazaar last month. "It is always something black and knitted with a crewneck. And then either dark jeans, white jeans, olive cargos or chinos. The shoe changes...I change my color of aviator (sunglasses). That kind of indicates my mood. Like, the silver aviator if I'm feeling nasty, an olive aviator if I'm feeling sporty, and black if I don't want to think about it. I have about 60 pairs."
Some women designers have come to see the value of a uniform, too. Vera Wang, doyenne of bridal fashion, says she spends most of her time in leggings and T-shirts, dressed up occasionally with belts, jackets or tunics.
"In the end even as a fashion insider there is a uniform that works for you," Wang says on her website. "It's an editing process. And as you become more certain of your own vision, and your own taste and your own style, , you do end up in a uniform."
Elyssa Dimant, a fashion historian, is the author of the forthcoming The Style Mentors, about the "style tribes" who define the art of dressing today, and eight categories of style (such as Mavericks, Minimalists, Classicists) and how certain stylish women achieve them. She says there are three types of uniform dressers.
"The first is the person who can't be bothered, who wears the same pieces because he knows it fits and wears well," she says. "The second is incredibly calculating Coco Chanel is in that category someone who feels very strongly that one should have a select number of pieces at any given time and in perpetuity to establish identity. They are identity wearers.
"And then the third is just drawn to one sensibility, to one group of aesthetics, so it's less about projecting an identity and more about what they are attracted to," she says.
What should real women do about a fashion uniform? The trend Morgan sees happening is more women experimenting with fashion, because fashion is more accessible and affordable and easier to achieve.
"I advise people that if it works for you, or you just love something, to go with it and wear it all the time and not be afraid of it," she says. "If the shoe fits, wear it."
A uniform doesn't have to be static, adds Ferris. "As time goes by you will discover little tweaks to be made," she says. "It's good to be current but still timeless."