“The uniform is that which we do not choose, that which is assigned to us; it is the certitude of the universal against the precariousness of the individual.” ― Milan Kundera, The Art of the Novel
Greetings My Darlings!
August’s race is nearly at the finish line. Already, we’ve had two crisp nights in the 50’s (Farenheit) and just like that it is time to castrate the Spring lamb (who is suddenly having carnal desires for an elderly nursemaid ewe)(and pretty much anything else with a pulse). Sheep become amorous when the temperature drops… It is also time to round up all the children, scrape the pine pitch off their shins, wash the greasy matts out of their manes, stuff their little hooves into shoes and send them off to school with conciliatory backpacks with unicorns or superheroes on them. (Homeschoolers can still roam feral for another month…) Like the last of the garden squash and tomatoes, it’s time to pull Summer up by its roots and neuter it.
School Uniforms have been flooding the shop in recent weeks, as local families return from their beach holidays and realize that their gritty little Christians, who smell vaguely of hermit crabs, need to be slip-covered in Tartan post haste. An array of pleated skirts lines the ironing board, awaiting moved buttons and raised hem lines. Elsewhere, some tiny pinafore jumpers need lengthening. It brings waves of nostalgia over me as I realize how yet another generation of students is going to get to look as much like misshapen upholstery as I did, over forty-five years ago. Not one damn thing has changed. But then, is that not the very definition of “Uniform”? From the Latin: You (as in you are no longer)/Knee (as in these cannot show)/Form (prepare to be molded).
I will never forget the moment I introduced the concept of a uniform to my five-year-old daughter many years ago. We had enrolled her in a local pre-kindergarten program that required them all to wear matching grey track suits. GREY. Solid grey…For a five-year-old GIRL who had slithered around the floor in a mermaid costume since the age of three. Her wardrobe contained nothing that did not have some eye-watering combination of Pink, Purple, Glitter, Cheetah print—or, God forbid, all of the above—accessorized by an abundance of gaudy jewels, plastic shoes, and sunglasses. I had to plan my moment well: close enough to 5 o’clock so that I could have a stiff drink, not so close to bedtime that she was up all night with night-terrors. It was worse than I thought. “Why do they want us to look so UGLY?” she sobbed.
“It’s not that they want you to look ugly, dear heart, they just want you to look the SAME.”
“Then why can’t we all be in rainbow clothes with sparkly wings?” she wanted to know. I had no good answer for that. Left to their own devices, every girl in her class (and maybe some of the boys) would have turned up in Princess ball gowns.
She returned from her first day disgusted. “You said we would learn to read at school and we didn’t. And, since we all look the same, they don’t know who we are. We have to wear name tags,” she said, picking off her sticker.
Back in my day (how little-old-lady-ish that sounds!) we had one or two dresses for church on Sunday, the school uniform Monday-Friday 7:am-3:pm, and barn or “play” clothes otherwise. The only time we could dress how we really wanted was on Halloween. In High School, on rare occasions, usually to line the coffers of some worthy cause, we could pay a small fee on sanctioned “dress down” days and wear clothing other than our uniforms. Those days were awful. Neither a church dress nor grubby jeans would catapult one to the top of the popularity poll—but either was far preferable to being the ONLY wretch still in her uniform when everyone else was going wild in their preppy, 1980’s argyle sweater vests, button-down polo shirts and loafers! Then, it was not a uniform at all. It was the thing that announced in LOUD plaid that you were a Total Goober to all who could bear to look at you. Uniforms are only uniforms if everyone else is wearing them.
Well, that’s what I used to think, until I heard about Steve Jobs and how he chose to wear the same thing every day. What a great idea! Twelve years of my life were spent wearing the same thing nearly every day. I could tell the time and the day of the week just by looking down. One sister (not the fashionable one) and I would sometimes sleep in our uniforms to save effort in the mornings. I know that sounds repellant—but wearing a uniform had nothing to do with taking pride in our appearance or identity. It was purely about convenience. What is more convenient than waking up already dressed? (Prudence thinks the people lurking in the frozen food section of the local Market Basket in their pajamas may have taken this one step too far…)
As a result, I never really learned to dress myself appropriately until I had my own resident fashion consultant in the form of a Teenage Daughter. Yes, that grubby little mermaid who used to dry-mop the dusty floors with her homemade glittery tail, who used to “swim” under huge swaths of sheer blue fabric to collect trinkets and seashells, wound up having a far more advanced fashion sense than I. If it were up to me, I would be like a Von Trapp child, roaming the countryside in up-cycled draperies and yodeling.
There is really no evidence to suggest that uniforms make us better learners—if anything, they truncate the portion of one’s brain that is required to get dressed in the morning. But they do teach us to find our safety through clothing. They clothe our cowardice. Our tribe claims us as members as we become transformed from one who wears the uniform to the Property of the Uniform. Attempts to get us all to think alike, just because we all look alike don’t always work either. Back then, our individuality worked its way out in the form of French braids and hair ribbons. Without realizing it, uniforms actually promote personality over attire. One learns to look for more subtle clues about who someone else really is.
From the moment we were out of sight of our parents, until the homeroom bell rang, we were doing our best to heighten our individuality through the use of staples to hike up the hemlines, rolling our knee socks into patterns around our ankles, and that glaring, daring, dash for dangerous sensuality—clear lip-gloss. Don’t think for a minute that we had no idea who the “pretty” girls and boys were. We did. And more importantly, we knew who wasn’t. (Every single one of us, it turns out.) (I thought it was just me.) At the time of our lives when we were desperate to be cool and sexy and fascinating—we were just like my little wee ram lamb—confused hormonal teenagers trying to get the attention of fellow beings who just found us annoying.
When we graduated, there were those who vowed to burn their uniforms. I never did. I had a Stockholm syndrome kind of relationship with it. Secretly, I am very fond of scratchy woolen skirts. Who’s to say if wearing a uniform is a denial of human rights or the crushing of individuality? Do they promote school spirit? I think all these arguments are highly improbable. Rather, it interests me to think about how “the bad guys” in movies are all dressed alike (think Storm Troopers in Star Wars) and “the good guys” are always some rag-tag band of individuals with non-uniform clothing. In fact, usually, they are an odd assortment of people one might not think would otherwise be united except against some common enemy. They come together despite their differences, to unite around problem-solving, shared values, and shared ideals—using wit, courage, and ingenuity in a hard fight that leads to their collective freedom from threatened oppression. Their tribal bonds are forged by commitments, not clothes. How do we get more of THAT in our schools???
And meanwhile… What the hell should I wear today?
Be well my Dear Ones! Whether you’ve been Bad in Plaid or not, have a wonderful day and keep doing your Good Work! I love you so much.