‘How wonderful to wear the same outfit every day’

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It’s the end of January, a time of year when most parents in Australia begin to wonder if they are suffering from a major depressive illness or just really ready for the school holidays to end.

As I watch my daughters fight over who got to watch the most YouTube meditations before bed – which is not what meditation is supposed to be about, you pint-sized philistines – I keep myself sane by curling, slater-like, into a ball and browsing the Marks & Spencer uniform shop for pointelle socks, pin-tuck blouses and knife-pleat pinafores.

Standard state school uniform suppliers, with their predilection for polar fleece and coarse disregard for shape and form, don’t make the grade. A good school uniform should be comfortable, aesthetically pleasing and made with fabrics that don’t instantly bring to mind the words “keep away from fire”.

Related: Starting school can be a traumatic experience – for the parents | Emma Brockes

If shopping for school gear sounds like an odd way to self-soothe, let me explain: I love uniforms. Some people spend their evenings furtively hunting down tabloid stories about Harry and Meghan; I spend mine looking up uniforms of the world – posh private school uniforms, Italian police uniforms, NHS nurses uniforms (those silver buckle belts), flight attendant uniforms.

My primary school enforced a rigid and elaborate uniform code, the perfect hothouse in which to nurture a budding uniform fanatic, and by eight years of age, I was doing Windsor knots for my friends and enthusiastically assenting to even the pettiest uniform demands (retrospectively, that navy underpants-only rule seems OTT).

Even as I devolved into a dyspeptic teen with Drano-coloured hair, I could never bring myself to vandalise the uniform like my classmates did. So it’s with a hint of envy that I watch my kids sort through their gear in preparation for the first day back at school.

A uniform eliminates any possibility that someone is less or more equal by what they wear

Fashion collector Charlotte Smith

How wonderful it must be to wear the same outfit every day, without fear of looking overdone or underdone. How wonderful to never have to put a moment’s thought into looking adorable.

I’m not the only parent with a taste for sartorial conformity. Schools in the US are tightening up their uniform codes, often because parents tell them that’s what they want. In 2006 just 13.8% of US schools had a uniform requirement, but that number has now risen to over 40%.

Australians value a uniform too – there are even social campaigns around them. In Western Australia all public schools have mandatory uniforms, as do schools in the Northern Territory up until year 9. In all other states, the majority of schools have uniform requirements too.

Why, as our culture becomes ever more accepting of a person’s right to freely express themselves via their clothes and gender, do we still view uniforms as a necessary requirement in the schoolyard? After all, uniforms are not without their sinister aspects: it’s not by accident that the fertility slaves in The Handmaids Tale wear red robes and white bonnets. Uniforms are an easy way to convey control.

But in less sinister settings, they can also do the reverse. “I believe the appeal of a uniform is because it makes you feel empowered,” says fashion collector and author Charlotte Smith. “There is no better way to embody ‘team’ than by dressing the same.” Smith’s words certainly gel with my experience of wearing a uniform; as someone who always felt a bit on the outer, I relished the sense of belonging my school uniform gave me, even as I kicked against the institution itself. In an educational environment, continues Smith, “a uniform eliminates any possibility that someone is less or more equal by what they wear”.

Which isn’t to say a uniform can’t be a status symbol. Fashion designers have a rich history of collaborating with brands to create staff uniforms, such as Martin Grant’s immaculate red tailoring for Qantas. Internationally, Oleg Cassini, Balmain, Christian Dior, Yves Saint Laurent and Zac Posen have all put their stamp on cabin crew uniforms too. One look at Max Mara’s spring 2020 collection will show the fascination extends to the runway, which featured military-crisp pastel shirts, shorts and ties. While on the high street last year, work wear company Dickies teamed with Madewell to create a wildly popular line of utilitarian basics, including a sellout mechanic’s-style boiler suit.

In 1916, American home economist Helen Louise Johnson floated the idea of a standardised dress with interchangeable collars, cuffs and trimmings, her admirable aim being to liberate American women from “the constant and ridiculous, troublesome and costly, change of fashion”, which she described as “a kind of slavery”. Her suggestion was, ahem, uniformly rejected.

Related: ‘Don’t dress like Ally McBeal’: the new rules of women’s workwear

But were Marc Jacobs to revive the idea in 2020, I’d be an early adopter.

When I look at the other women at school drop-off, though, it’s clear that I already stick to an urban mum uniform of sorts – a mishmash of clearance-store Gorman and Zara, with the odd shock of lurex thrown in, to remind everyone that we used to know how to carve up a dancefloor.

“We are tired,” say our clothes, “but we are not yet ready to lay down our bodies at the altar of athleisure.” We don’t really want to think about what to wear anymore. There is no school principal forcing us to adhere to a pleasingly draconian set of uniform requirements, so we will create our own. You know, a legionnaires cap in a bold print could really help shield us from those UV rays.

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