Hot Topic Tuesday: Individuality vs. The School Uniform

Granted, I wasn't in high school for the longest time ever--I left to learn independently/was homeschooled which was awesome, not gonna lie--but I was there long enough for the place to leave more than a little bit of an impression on me. I remember the bus ride, the building, my peers, the teachers and I really, really remember...


I don't know why I put that in bolded capitals. Just because. But it was fun, so let's do it again!


Yes, that's right. I went to a Catholic Secondary School and uniforms were par for the course. They were also ugly; unflattering colour combos and uncomfortable cuts. Kilts, dress pants and shirts, ties, scratchy sweaters, polo shirts. The school enforced them because they were 1) cheaper than buying an entirely new back-to-school wardrobe, 2) they gave the student body a sense of togetherness, 3) it meant automatic wardrobe appropriateness for the hallways (no hot pants!) and 4) they eliminated competition (using clothes as status symbols).

I'm a big fan of the freedom of self-expression, just like this up-and-comer whom you may or may not have heard of:

...And though I'm not a fashionista by any stretch of the imagination (ha!), the uniform I had to wear felt awful and looked pretty bad on me. I felt stifled and insecure because I knew how unflattering my clothes looked on me every time I got up, got dressed and went to school. Also I lived in fear of being "kilted," which is when someone runs up behind you and lifts your kilt up. Yeah, I know.

As the school year went on, something that was impossible not to notice about the uniforms was how they didn't really work in the way the school intended, which made them all the more frustrating to wear. Yeah, we were all wearing the same clothes but the lengths we'd go to to spit in the eye of the reasoning behind enforcing them in the first place was pretty impressive.

Some girls would hem or roll their kilts as short as they could possibly go, to the point that some kilts made hot pants look like a more modest option. Some guys would see how sloppy they could tuck their dress shirts in or how crooked they could wear their ties before they got called on it. If there was a way to make a uniform inappropriate, we were on it. Cliques thrived in spite of the similar wardrobe issues--so we were no more or less together as a student body than we ever were. Brand name wars evolved--it was all in how you accessorized. This would often make me look down at my kilt and then up at the sky and ask the question, why are we wearing these stupid uniforms?

On the other hand, the lengths we'd go to express ourselves in spite of the restrictions placed on us were equally impressive. Brand name wars aside, accessorizing became an art form. So sometimes did make-up and hairstyles. I was not the most adventurous person evah but seeing my fellow classmates, boys and girls, make bold moves to stand out and make a statement always made the whole uniform issue a little more bearable and a little fun. At times, their creative choices were a real testament to teenage ingenuity. So in some ways, I have to admit the uniforms encouraged us to be more inventive in the ways we expressed ourselves as individuals.

But on a personal note: I still don't like them! I would've much rather had an enforced dress code over a uniform. I mean, did uniforms help Jerry Renault? No. They wore ties and dress pants at Sacred Trinity and yet that school STILL had that darn Chocolate War!

And now, my questions for you, dear readers are:

Do you or did you wear a uniform to school? Or does your school have a dress code?
Do you wish you had one or the other?
If you wear a uniform, how do you choose to stand out against all that fashion sameness?
If you don't wear a uniform, how would you describe your personal style?


Ashley @ Book Labyrinth said...

I did have to wear a uniform, and I never minded it. In the end I think it did save me money on clothes, and it was a lot less of a hassle in the mornings getting ready. We also have options.. like, the girls didn't have to wear kilts -- we had dress pants, as well, and there were different types of t-shirts/blouses/rugby shirts/etc. Yes, people did try and get away with not wearing their uniform, but for the most part it worked. Like you mentioned, accessorizing showed people's individuality... and we had dress down days every so often. I think it just worked for me, and made things quite simple.

Autumn said...

I did both. I think I preferred the uniform. I didn't have to worry about what I was going to wear. Plus, there was less...poor/rich division.

My kids now wear uniforms (in public school no less) and I love it. They have to wear khaki bottoms and navy blue knit tops. It makes it very easy and inexpensive to buy each of them 6 or 7 uniforms (in case mom doesn't do the laundry over the weekend!)

My kids have "free dress day", or Team Jersey day or Jeans Day to give them a break and let them have some individuality.

brave chickens said...

My school is very strict on uniform. Some call it unflattering I call it 'easy-to-get-dressed-in-the-morning'. At my school, people try to accessorise by wearing different shoes, keeping their shirts tucked out, having 'cool' backpacks, using nail polish/make-up (it's not allowed in my school) wearing a t-shirt underneath the school shirt and keychains on zip pockets.
Our uniform is rather modest, and most of the time students keep thier unifrom in accordance to the rules. The only thing I dislike about my unoform is the sizes available. My jumper is too baggy!

Cristin Terrill said...

Yeah, put me in the pro-uniform column as well. I wore one in fifth grade and found it a huge relief. No worrying about what you were going to wear in the morning or if you were going to fit in, and as someone who was poor and chubby, it took a big target off of my back. No one was ever going to make fun of me for what I wore.

My classmates did manage to come up with ways to personalize the wardrobe, though. Only boys wore the red shirts, and the cool girls were the only ones 'allowed' to wear the khaki pants with white shirts. This was also in the heyday of the scrunchie, so hair accessories were a big deal. But if you didn't want to participate in the clothing wars, you were still safe.

The uniform was the only reason I was sad to leave that school!

Sarah Darer Littman said...

When I lived in the UK had a uniform, right down to regulation knickers. Then I moved back here in middle school and had to face fashion hell. It was awful. Now I'm bringing up my kids in Greenwich, CT, and I wish to G-d we had school uniforms, even if it were a loose code like khakis and polo shirts, because the social pressure around clothes is horrendous. There are high school students who spend more on their wardrobe in a month than I spend on mine in a decade, because they have rich parents who give them free reign with the credit card. I'm a single mom. I take my daughter to the outlets at the beginning of the season and buy her what she NEEDS and then if she wants extras she has to babysit to earn the money to buy them. Even though in some ways I know it's hard on her, I think it's really helped her keep her head on straight, in more ways than one.

Melissa Walker said...

I never had a uniform, but my personal expression in high school was tights. I wore neon colored tights all winter, under my otherwise black and gray attire. Worked for me, though I'm not sure if uniformy schools would allow it...

Cee said...

I didn't have to wear a uniform but there were schools where I grew up that did have them and they did more to seperate people because the schools didn't pay for them and someone kids had to buy used ones while others had nice new ones and this made some feel like crap because of that.

BrittLit said...

I did not have to wear a uniform, but I kind of wished we did. There was a dress code at my school, but apparently it didn't really apply to the slutty girls, or the boys who were in desperate need of belts. It would have been nice not having to look at their poor fashion choices(not that I was high end, but you couldn't see my underwear). I was mostly lazy in high school and didn't really bother with my appearance too much. I went through a black clothing faze freshman year, but after that I pretty much rolled at of bed and put on whatever smelled the cleanest. I really don't think I would have minded uniforms at all. I actually sometimes dreamed that we did have uniforms and those dreams were fantastic ;)

Tiffany Schmidt said...

I never had uniforms. Never really wanted them either. I liked being able to choose my style (or, let's be honest, it was high school so Style-Of-The-Week).

My fear with uniforms was always the comparisons -- the idea of standing side-by-side with all my classmates wearing the same thing as me is the stuff of nightmares. This is why I HATED sports uniforms. What's cut to flatter one person looks horrendous on the next.

My favorite uniform story comes from a co-worker who had strict uniforms all through school - yet was voted "Best Dressed" in the yearbook. When asked HOW that was even possible, he responded, "It was all about my argyle socks." :)

Susan Adrian said...

I never had a uniform, but Child CRAVES them. Always picks outfits that look like uniforms, with little plaid skirts...

of course she's 8. I imagine at 16 it might be a little different. O_o

courtney summers said...

Ashley, I think it can save money too, in the long run, but the immediate cost was no small financial hit either. My uniform had some holes in it the first couple weeks into the school year as well--not the most enduring clothes! We were allowed certain variations with our uniforms like you were (I didn't have to wear the kilts but the pants were SO MUCH WORSE). We called our dress down days civvies day!

Autumn, that's right--a lot of public schools do uniformsnow too, don't they! Do your kids love the uniforms?

brave chickens, I know that some people's creativity with the uniforms can depend on how strict the school is with it. I know some people that get absolutely NO leeway with it--no variations, no adornments etc. The sizes I had to wear were not that great either!

Cristin, do you think you would have felt differently in high school? I think I might've liked it better in the fifth grade than I did in high school. Fashion was not as big a deal to my peers then.

Sarah, regulation knickers?! (Is it weird that just reading that cracked me up? Aaah!) I can see the definite advantages of having a uniform, for sure. Do you think your kids would love wearing uniforms if they had to? And I think that's a GREAT system you have with your daughter in regards to her wardrobe.

Melissa, high five for neon tights! I know some schools with uniforms can be very easy going about how you accessorize/personalize them and some schools have absolutely NO leeway.

Cee, yes! I also experienced that while I went to school. Lots of people had to buy their uniforms second-hand. And I think the year before I got there, the uniform actually changed a bit so it was easy to tell who was wearing second-hand (if they weren't an upperclassmen).

BrittLit, I thought I'd end up loving uniforms a lot more than I actually did. I think if a school has a dress code, they should enforce it at least, though, for all students. I know lots of schools have a regulations about the lengths of skirts, avoiding certain colours etc.

Tiffany, YES! That is what I hate... the comparison angle! It made me feel truly terrible to stand someone wearing the exact same outfit who looked better than me and knowing I could look better than I actually did. My self esteem took a real hit in my brief time in high school. I LOVE that uniform story!! Haaaah! We had some inventive socks in the halls too.

Suze, I want an update in 8 years!!! Hee.

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AchingHope said...

First off: I love that pic.

Second off: I was homeschooled and didn't have to wear uniforms. So. Glad. I do think it interesting though, how people will still go out of their way to be unique, regardless of what they're forced to wear. Very interesting thoughts :)

Claire Dawn said...

I thought getting "Skirted" and "Pantsed" was just something we did in Barbados. lol.

I wore uniform from 3 til 18. It's the norm in the Caribbean. And it's no prob, since it's the norm. There were, however, some schools you just didn't want to go to on account of the uniform. One girls' uniform looked rather like those brown sacks they put potatoes in. lol.

Micol Ostow said...

We had gym uniforms, which to this day I still wear (mesh shorts) quasi-ironically. We didn't have a school uniform, but we did have a dress code that for the most part wasn't enforced. I recall treating high school like a fashion show, which is funny considering how much of my life these days is spent in dirty yoga clothes.

Cristin Terrill said...

Courtney, I personally would have appreciated uniforms MORE in high school. I found clothes and the social pressures around them more and more agonizing as I got older. I basically adopting my own uniform in high school - jeans and my coat or a black hoodie - as a kind of self-defense. I wanted the opposite of self-expression from my clothes; I wanted them to ensure that I wouldn't get noticed at all.

But, while I really loved uniforms, I'm not convinced that they're all that effective in the way they're meant to be. And I can certainly sympathize with people who feel stifled by them, even though I found them such a relief!

Truth Be Told Blog said...

My school had a strict dress code when I went to high school. I don't really think there should have been one, I have always been against uniforms. I mean, if a person should not wear something it is up to the parents to control that not the school. Now that I am in college, I look around and everyone seems to know how to dress. There are the occasional show it off girls but I think an outfit isn't going to distract you from learning.

courtney summers said...

AchingHope: Lady Gaga rocks! People will always find a way to stand out. :)

Claire Dawn: Skirted/Pantsed/Kilted is something the Barbados and Canada have in common! And I can imagine if uniforms are the standard being a little choosy about which school you went to based on how they looked! :)

Micol: That's the writer's uniform though, isn't it? Oh my goodness, each phase of life is just trading one uniform for the other!

Cristin: It is so awesome, I think, how many different opinions have arisen about wearing uniforms. I can definitely see the relief in having them, as well as the cons.

Truth Be Told: Yes! I think parental involvement is important in that respect. Also, even though uniforms were meant to reduce distraction, a lot of the times the way kids decided to stand out in those uniforms caused even more of a distraction if that makes sense. Lots to think about!

Thanks for the discussion, everyone!

Adeeva Afsheen said...

Banned complain !! Complaining only causes life and mind become more severe. Enjoy the rhythm of the problems faced. No matter ga life, not a problem not learn, so enjoy it :)

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