I’ve been thinking lately of the idea of style uniforms, and how our adult style, our personal style, if you will, evolves. Of course this is because my uniform for the past week has been leggings or pyjama bottoms, and a loose, soft tee. So no style, and no brassiere. Because of a painful shingles rash, I haven’t even been able to consider wearing a bra. And this reminded me of the early-seventies, when barely a year after I needed to wear a bra, I stopped wearing one.
The irony is that I’d been so delighted when I actually needed a bra. In fact, I wore one needlessly for two years just because everyone else had one. I remember telling my mum tearfully that I simply couldn’t attend my friend Mary’s pyjama party in grade seven and be the only girl wearing an undershirt. Ha.
|Pyjama Party 1969|
I remember junior high and high school as the time when I began to learn who I was becoming as a person. And I remember experimenting with clothes, using outfits as a means to demonstrate who I was, or who I wanted be be, at any rate. I remember a long, yellow, flowered peasant dress, or granny dress as we called them. A fabulous pair of faded, flared jeans that I inherited from my sister Connie. She had sewn beautiful flowered inserts into the hem. This was a clever way of fixing jeans that had become too short. And luckily for me, too small as well.
By grade ten my girlfriends and I were pushing boundaries. We considered bras uncool. Old school. So we went braless under boys’ tee shirts that we bought at K-Mart: tiny, striped polo shirts that we found in the boys department. They were perfectly “shrunken,” tight, and just long enough to hit the tops of the suede belts we wore on our hipster jeans. We thought they were the end. Mine didn’t last the summer, though. My mum gave it away to a young male cousin who was visiting, thinking it was one of my step-brother’s shirts that had shrunk. I still remember wailing in frustration when she told me. And her incredulity: “Why on earth were you wearing a boy’s tee shirt, Susie?”
I think my clearest outfit memory is of a beloved, grey suede bomber jacket that I bought with my own money. My friend bought a brown one. We wore them with our jeans and turtlenecks, with polka dot cotton handkerchiefs, filched from my step-father’s drawer, tied around our necks like scarves. My friend refused to wear her “scarf,” though, after she saw an old man on the bus blowing his nose into an identical one. Ha. I think that outfit was the beginning of my lifelong love for jackets and jeans. In fact, when I won a khaki suede jacket a couple of years ago on Alyson Walsh’s blog That’s Not My Age, I was thrilled. Wearing it was kind of like stepping back in time. Minus the mop of hair. Ha.
|Jeans and suede jackets… 1972 and 2016|
But, back to bras, or rather the absence of bras, and pushing boundaries. I can’t remember if I refused to wear a bra to school that year, or not. In fact, I can’t remember if there was a dress code by the time I was in high school. I certainly never heard of a student being sent home for being dressed inappropriately. But there was a strict dress code when I was in elementary school, and everyone my age in my hometown remembers its demise.
We all remember the girl whose mum sent her to school in slacks, or trousers, one frigid winter morning in 1970. This in an era, at least in New Brunswick, when girls had to wear skirts or dresses to school. The girl was sent home several times. But the mum persisted, and finally the school board relented, and we had a new policy: girls could wear pants. And a year or so later, we could even wear jeans. I still remember when I discovered that this trail-blazer was the older sister of a friend. “That was YOUR sister? I murmured, reverently. She was our hero.
Most schools in Canada, which don’t require uniforms, have dress codes of some type. A dress code being a policy which attempts to define what “cannot be worn to school” by students, as opposed to a uniform which clearly stipulates “what must be worn.” Of course, dress codes are famously difficult to enforce, often engendering all kinds of protest from students and parents when a student is chastised for “dressing inappropriately.” As teachers, we all groaned every spring when the issue of dress codes would rear its head with the arrival of the hot weather. Dress codes are such a dicey issue for teachers and school administrators.
As a high school teacher I remember dreading having to make the call whether a student’s clothing was too revealing or not. That’s a minefield, people. So many parts of dress codes are open to interpretation: too short, or too tight being relative terms. And I did NOT want to be the vice-principal who had to have “the talk” with a student about their “inappropriate” outfit.
You see, here’s what bothered me and many of my colleagues about dress codes. It’s always the girls who get the talk. The contentious part of dress codes is the focus on “revealing clothing” which always targets girls. And often girls who are larger, who cannot find fashionable, well-fitting clothes as easily as smaller girls. Fast fashion stores, where most teenagers can afford to shop, do not cater to anyone who is larger than a size 10. So what is a teenager who is larger than a size 10, but who wants to look cool like her friends supposed to do?
I had to turn the radio off in exasperation last spring when on a call-in show on the subject of dress codes, an irate parent said her daughter was being “victimized” for showing up to school in a tank top with spaghetti straps. Tops with spaghetti straps being one of the most recent articles of clothing deemed “inappropriate.” She said her daughter should be able to wear the top because she “is tiny” and “looks adorable in it.” But to me the subtext of her argument was that if her daughter were heavy, the criticism would be justified. I remember I shouted at the radio, “Lady, can you hear yourself?” And then I switched it off. Phew. Easy for me to remove myself from the argument now that I’m retired.
Then there’s the crop top controversy at a school in southern Ontario. One news photo had a shot of kids posing together when they showed up for school all wearing “crop tops” to protest their friend being sent home for wearing one. In response to that I will say there are crop tops and there are…well… sports bras. I remember my mum was not thrilled when I stopped wearing a bra under my tops, but I wonder what she might have said if I’d tried to leave the house in only my bra. Ha.
One angry mum writing about the controversy wrote that if schools want to have a dress code, they should just go with school uniforms and be done with it. Well, now that’s a whole other can of worms, my friends.
And one which Todd DeMitchell, Professor of Education at the University of New Hampshire says is not as cut and dried as everyone seems to think. That despite claims that school uniforms promote inclusion, identity, and discipline, the data shows that they are not the panacea that they might appear to be. He says schools should be wary of “easy” solutions. You can read his well researched article on the subject here if you’re interested.
Mark Oppenheimer, in his New Yorker article says that the longing to see happy kids clad in school uniforms is as much about nostalgia for a time that never really existed (at least in North America) as it is anything else. He admits that his daughter’s wearing a uniform to school has simplified school mornings in his house, but he cautions that we need to be careful about what we’re implicitly teaching kids when we require that they wear uniforms. And we should be mindful of, as he puts it, “the liberties we’re surrendering.”
And here’s my point. I think it’s good for kids to have the freedom to push boundaries. Go braless. Or try to get away with wearing their bra to school. How do kids learn to navigate the complex adult world if they don’t get a taste of that complexity in school? How do they learn to make their own decisions if adults make all the decisions for them, even down to their clothing choices? As much as I groaned as a teacher when the short shorts and tank tops appeared with the May sunshine, I also remember my own fifteen year old rebellion.
I remember all my terrible outfit choices, the long, long flared jeans with the ripped up hems, the cropped sweaters my mum hated, the dreadful platform shoes. But I also remember navigating style choices and beginning to decide what worked for me and what didn’t. I remember developing a personal style, some parts of which have evolved into my own style uniform, and which remain unchanged, even today. Even at age 62.
And if I’d been fifteen during that crop top controversy at that school in southern Ontario, I’d have been right there with my friends proudly wearing my crop top, irate at the adults for daring to limit our freedom of expression. The drama of youth, eh?
At least I’d have worn my crop top, or sports bra, until I had to catch my bus. Then I’d be pulling on something more suitable before I got home. And if I were sent home for what I was wearing, I’m certain that my mum would NOT have been calling on-line radio shows to say I was being victimized for breaking the rules.
I might have pushed some boundaries when I was fifteen, but I always toed the line at home. Okay… maybe not always… but I WAS always happier if my mum never found out.
|The evolution of personal style: variations on a theme.|
P.S. I just wanted to add that it wasn’t my intention to open up debate about whether school uniforms are a good idea or not. I’m not against them. I never attended a school myself, nor did I teach at a school, where the students wore uniforms. But according to everything I read in putting together this post, the data doesn’t support what we think we all know about school uniforms. I thought that was interesting.
Now, let’s hear from you, my friends. Whether you wore a uniform to school, or didn’t… how do you think your personal style evolved?