Walking along a road shared by two schools I was first passed by a crocodile of 8-year-old boys in uniform from a private school. From their shiny shoes to their smart caps they were immaculate. The teacher who was responsible for them had a glow of pride on her face. They sallied forth to face an alternately admiring and envious outside world. The boys at the end of the crocodile were looking around worriedly, as if expecting attack whilst those at the front, protected by the teacher, shared her glow. “Those uniforms must have cost a packet” muttered one woman at the bus stop. “Oh, but don’t they look angels” said her friend. Within just a few moments uniform could be seen as promoting shared identity, evoking envy and hostility over difference (whether social class/gender or age) and attempting to transform the ordinary difficulties and pleasures of childhood into something “angelic”.
A little while later three teenage girls hurried past. Although they all wore navy blue skirts, berets and blazers, they had many idiosyncratic refinements. One girl in particular had managed to fix her beret at a rakish angle so that it looked the height of fashion. However, whilst admiring the individuality that was showing through, it was impossible to miss an air of forced bravado in the girls. They were exerting their individuality at a price.
The St. Trinians sexual look of adapting male clothes to “look even better on a girl”- linked to loosened tie and short skirts - raises historical questions as to why so many adolescent girls are dressed as if they were male. “Breasts do so get in the way” was the notorious comment by a past female P.E. teacher of mine who savagely gave demerits for imperfect tie-knots.
Uniform can be a cohesive external sign of belonging, a means of sexual erasing, a democratic ideal or a totalitarian control. These observations were sharpened by a mixture of letters. A secondary school teacher, Ms L, wrote how upset she was at being expected to reprimand secondary school students who did not adhere to the uniform strictly enough. “I am here to help them understand history, not to go round with a tape measure complaining that skirt-lengths are x many centimetres too short or long. I think it shifts staff-pupil conflict into an unhelpful arena- the growing teenager’s need for autonomy over his or her appearance”.
Louise Usiskin, aged 15, in the 5th year of Ackland Burghley School, where there is no school uniform, agrees. “Uniform can make you feel trapped, because it controls one of the few choices you have- it is control of your image. It can be an excuse to get at you if they don’t like you. For two years I was in a school with uniform and they were the worst two years of my life. The uniform was the focus for all staff annoyance with students. On the other hand, uniform stops people being judged by what they are wearing and some people like it as it makes them feel they belong.”
Jonte Baron, aged 17, in the Upper Sixth of a public school which has a uniform is also aware of the difference of opinions. “It is personal whether you mind or not. In my school you can wear your own clothes on the way to school but inside you wear the uniform. I do not personally think that wearing a uniform gives a sense of community. However, teachers can project that wish for a community through rituals and tradition-one of which is the uniform.”
The meaning and intention behind uniforms can be transmitted both consciously and unconsciously to the pupils. At some secondary schools the attack on adolescence and autonomy is striking. In Ms L’s school the moment any item of the school uniform became fashionable (such as long socks) it was promptly replaced. The aim to make the older girls unattractive and unfashionable as an attack on youth and sexuality was, she said, blatant. In another school, the strict attention to details such as exact type of trouser or width or length of jumpers, shirts, skirts, tunics performs the same function. At other schools, however, where the genuine intention of a school uniform is to relieve pupils from agonising time-wasting deliberations, cultural and economic pressures and fear of being unfashionable the pupils feel more satisfied.
Mrs E writes in with a different problem. Whilst her oldest daughter, Danielle, loves her school uniform – “it is really attractive and it suits her blonde hair”, her youngest daughter Sarah hates it. “She really is unlucky. She has ginger hair and the colour really clashes. Otherwise, she likes the teachers and has good friends”. It is so important to consider internal qualities and not be obsessed with external appearance that some schools can, with the best of intentions, show remarkably little aesthetic skill in considering the colours and style of uniforms. Some styles and colours are far more universally acceptable and aesthetically appropriate than others. School councils can be helpful here.
Ms F, on the other hand, raises a different concern. “My daughter Mary is 14 and she keeps getting detentions for disobeying rules on uniform. The uniform is attractive, it suits her and her friends like it. Her teacher is very sympathetic to fashion views. However, Mary does not seem satisfied until she has upset her. She walks right past to show she has put on bright red nail varnish, has got two ear-rings on one ear, skirt yanked up to the wrong length and on and on. I am at my wit’s end.”
Mary is using a concrete visual language to communicate something sexually important to the adults around her. Just as some adults can be jealous of the youth and growing autonomy of teenagers so some teenagers can be envious of the sexual knowledge and authority of adults. Is Mary seeking punishment for unconscious wishes to rival her mother or teacher? . What in Ms F’s experience makes her so exhausted by this particular expression of anger from her daughter? There are many questions to ask. Whilst Ms L’s school sounds repressive, in some instances teachers identify with their pupils against the adult authority of the school. There is nothing uniform about uniformity!