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How Do I Hate Thee, Uniforms? Let Me Count the Ways.

March 2, 2010

If it requires a uniform, it’s a worthless endeavor.
• George Carlin (a bit harsh, but nonetheless, I hate uniforms, so I can ignore the usefulness of uniforms in non-school contexts as I include GC’s wit)

If there’s one thing that would have pushed a good, obedient, ever-compliant girl like me right out of school, it would have been school uniforms. My outfits, carefully crafted combinations of home-sewn and thrift-stored vintagery, were the one thing that kept me going and doing and being what other people wanted. If you’re wondering what I mean, just watch Pretty in Pink. Oh, Molly Ringwald, what wonders thou hast wrought!

In my odd combinations—how many plaids can a person wear at one time?—I kept my spirit alive and said “the hell with you” to a world that often didn’t know me. I compensated for being the perpetual new-girl-loner not by trying to fit in, but by being the same me from coast to coast. In a uniform, I’d have lost the only sense of self-empowerment I had in an ever-shifting world of school rules and conformity to norms. In my own duds*, it didn’t matter that I went to four high schools in three states. Everywhere I went, I was still me.

And please don’t tell me that my delightful spirit and soul would still have been there even in a plaid jumper and white Peter Pan-collared blouse, that a uniform doesn’t affect them. I believe it does. I believe that garbing the outer body in ways that promote blandness and sameness do harm to the spirits of those who do not like this sort of thing.

And there’s one of the key problems with school uniforms. Some people actually like them (and I say, let them wear them). These zealots make life difficult for the rest of us. I cannot really understand this love of uniformity, although I can see on some intellectual and reasonable level how easy and cheap it would be to have two pairs of khaki pants and two navy blue polo shirts and never have to think about what to wear on a school day ever again.

Imagine the time savings for someone like me. No more wondering if a flowered blouse and a striped t-shirt really go with that camouflage jacket. No more hunting for exactly the right skirt to wear under a vintage bathrobe. No more agonizing over the moth holes in my Briscoe Bulldogs letterman’s sweater. No more. In a uniform, I could look just like a Best Buy employee or maybe a Target partner. I’d be preparing for possible future employment.

School uniforms are once again in the news as yet another school district adopts them in an effort to curb gang activity, improve morale, build school spirit, create discipline, or whatever today’s reason for doing this same-old-thing is. Perhaps school uniforms actually accomplish these things. Their proponents will certainly provide the statistics proving whatever it is they need to show that demonstrates they have found the easy answer for their complex question. But I worry about the unintended consequences to people like me, the folks who don’t like to define themselves as always the same, consistent, undifferentiated, conforming to one standard, and unvaried.

How about you? Are you a uniformer or a ununiformer?

When you put on a uniform, there are certain inhibitions that you accept.
• Dwight David Eisenhower

* Note re: the word duds. I write this synonym for clothing and realize that it’s actually uniforms that are duds. Literally. Duds. Flops. Misfires. Mistakes.

P. S. Lest you think I am completely opposed to uniforms, you should know that I always felt beautiful in my Brownie uniform which I was only allowed to wear to school on troop meeting days. Fortunately, the troop leader didn’t mind the extra accessories I added to mine, a long red scarf for a belt, red socks with my brown Brownie shoes, and, of course, a sparkly red rhinestone brooch. A rhinestone brooch goes with just about everything.

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4 comments

  1. It seems that this has long been a debate, or at least throughout my generation. I’ve always debated this because I can see good points to both sides. In a community like the one I live in, using school uniforms would seem an unnecessary expense and stifling of individual expression and creativity. However, in neighborhoods with high-gang activity and/or poverty, using uniforms can actually create a safe learning environment by eliminating gang-color violence and violent theft of higher price clothing.


  2. My daughter once wrote a comparative essay about her and me. (Is that English right?) She said I wore what was needed for the appointment and had sensible shoes. She, on the other hand treated her body like a canvas and decorated it, even painted on it. (henna) After reading this, I immediately went out and bought red shoes with 2 inch heels on them. I was shocked to hear the truth. I will say that now I get a little more playful just because of this essay! I love that she felt like a canvas. Zinn-I think you feel this way too. I’ve never liked uniforms but I like “special clothes”. I would never want to constipate someone like you or Jana who wants to “paint” or create their canvas! One more thought…if you really wanted to the uniform could be fun–it’s all about the everyday idea that ruins it.


  3. Yikes, touchy subject for some. As I read this article I was taken back in time to Elementary, Jr. High and High school.

    I was fortunate; maybe fortunate isn’t the right word to be in the “In” crowd all through my schooling. One of the hardest things I had to deal with in being part of this crowd was, what do you know? clothes.

    I wish I would have had Zinn’s self-empowerment to be happy in “my own duds”. I can retrace some memories back to elementary school 5th & 6th grade and wishing my parents could afford; Butterfinger, San Francisco and A-Smile Jeans. Then off to 7th & 8th grade I traveled where parachute pants and James & CO. sweatshirts were the fad. Finally, the fashion of all high school. Here we had Guess, Gap, Ralph Lauren, Liz Claiborne, and so many other designer clothes.

    My parents tried as well as my grandmother to help me fit in with the little money they had. My grandmother was a grand seamstress; I remember clearly her going to JCPenny’s with a brown paper sack. Once we arrived she would ask me to point at what I liked, then she would take her brown paper bag and sketch the popular clothes. Using brown wrapping paper she would then make a pattern, buy material and make the perfect imitation of an A-Smile Overall(s), Parachute pants and whatever else she could make for me. Even though you would have had a hard time telling the difference I knew and I thought for sure everyone else did too.

    So, maybe for this insecure school girl-uniforms would have made all the difference. Everyone dressing the same and not feeling left out.


  4. Wow, there are so many pros and cons for uniforms. I have teenage neices that go to a private school, and they love their uniforms. Eliminates the contest of who’s the riches and has the coolest clothes. They have plenty of opportunity to wear their own clothes at all their other social activities. I think uniforms take some of the social stress out of the school environment, letting individuality take the form of your actions and interactions and the work that you produce. I would bet that most lower income students would benefit from schools having uniforms, but I’m sure that many upper and middle class families would be against them. But of course, they can afford the cool clothes. When I was in school, I was one of the “have nots” and would have loved school uniforms!



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