Wednesday, November 5, 1997

On School Uniforms

DURING MY high school years, I wore a uniform. It consisted of a dark green wool suit – a pleated skirt and a tailored jacket – and a white blouse. On the front pocket was our school emblem. Every morning, the neighborhood would witness a flurry of girls, all dressed in green, converge on a brownstone and precisely at 9 o’clock, would see Mother Superior lock the doors.
When I tell my friends this, they think my school years quaint, not unlike those of Madeline, the heroine of Ludwig Bemmelmans’ books, who marched with her identically dressed classmates in two straight lines. In fact, my school, like Madeline's, was run by an order of French nuns. My grammar school, where uniforms were also de rigueur, was run by an order of Byzantine nuns. There, the uniform consisted of a navy blue jumper and a white blouse.
So – though my contemporaries might raise an eyebrow or some, even two – I, for one, am not surprised by the recent success of uniforms in the public schools. This news, and the ensuing accolades, seem merely familiar and commonsense to me. About 50 percent of students in urban public schools wear uniforms now, and the movement is spreading.
Despite what some see as regimentation, it never occurred to me to object. I took uniforms for granted, considered them an inevitable part of life and of being a student. The doctor wore his coat, the businessman, his suit, and I had a uniform for school. My friends wore uniforms. When I look at school photos of my mother, I see her in uniform.
So, my recollection is that uniforms, while not exactly divine . . . were fine. Unlike the current discussion surrounding the introduction of uniforms into the public schools, there was no American Civil Liberties Union involved, no controversy, no exceptions made. We had to wear the uniform.
As I look back, I see the requirement enforced not so much a rigid uniformity, but a certain
equality. Since we all dressed alike, what stood out was what we accomplished. Uniforms took pressure off parents to buy many outfits for school; they also took pressure off me, particularly at an age when much time and thought went into getting ready for school.
Interestingly, on the rare day when we could wear what we wanted, the usual order was thrown into disarray. From the various jumpers and skirts, we could tell who could afford expensive outfits and who couldn’t, who was stylish and who wasn’t – all distractions that did not show during the uniform days.
Uniforms also provided an identity, a kind of camaraderie. We recognized each other on the subways, on the buses, in the streets. Uniforms created a sense of belonging. I have fond memories of riding the subways, ice-skating in the park, roaming along Fifth Avenue, easily identifiable by the clothing I wore, clothing that linked me to a school that everyone seemed to know. Wearing a uniform, we carried ourselves a bit less casually through life; we dared not do anything untoward. Somehow, Mother Superior would hear about it.
Uniforms also enforced a certain formality. They made for a serious teaching environment. Clothes, we realized, do not make the man, but they do convey an attitude.
I still find myself rather perplexed by the dilemma one of my contemporaries described – wearing “hot pants,” those short shorts that were worn over stockings in the early ’70s, to a City Hall press conference.
It may just be that our society has come to feel a bit too much at ease, and it’s no secret that some kids these days have no clue about how to dress for school.
In this casual world, where baggy jeans and T-shirts are the rule, and designer clothing and expensive sneakers seem to take center stage, it is only natural that uniforms are making a comeback. Tellingly, President Bill Clinton endorsed the movement. Even die-hard civil libertarians concede that uniforms are harmless.
In fact, in Long Beach, Calif., schools report a drop in crime of 36 percent since the start of their mandatory uniform program four years ago.
So, in the end, it’s not a bad thing that uniforms have come full circle. Educators, parents and even quite a few students seem to like them, and are coming to see their benefits. Even in schools where the policy is voluntary, uniforms are catching on. While just a few years ago uniforms were considered somewhat dated and staid, one may now go so far as to say that they are becoming the rage.
After all, even Land’s End recently created a catalog uniform department.
Reproduced with permission of the copyright owner. Further reproduction or distribution is prohibited without permission.

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