When I was a kid I went to Catholic school. Back then, and maybe still today, uniforms were worn in Catholic school. Boys wore black dress pants, white shirts and ties. Girls wore plaid skirts with white blouses. The little ones, the first and second graders, wore plaid beanies bobby pinned to the tops of their heads. When I was little, I couldn’t have cared less about the uniform. Each of the boys in our family had a couple of clip-on bowties and which we changed around if one was missing. I certainly didn’t object; it was just what we did. We didn’t know anything else.
These had to touch the floor when kneeling... OR ELSE!
For a working class family like ours, it made a lot of sense. We didn’t need many school clothes as long as the laundry was done (and with seven kids it was done very regularly). We wore the same pair of pants for a few days in a row and, unless they got really dirty or stained with food, no one knew the difference. It was the great equalizer. Rich and poor – we all looked alike in our uniforms.
As I got older, I switched from the simple clip-on ties to the kind of real ties my dad wore to work, the kind with real knots that you had to practice to get just right. I started first grade in ’63 (that’s 1963 you smart alecks) so big fat ties with huge knots were in. My dad knew all the knots and it was sort of a right of passage for him to show me the knots. He showed me three different knots, which I still remember today, although I rarely wear ties these days. It’s funny; I remember that time when my dad taught me the double Windsor. I think he was just as proud of me for getting it (after many tries) as he was of himself for showing me. I felt so much more like a grown-up (a ‘grup’ as my friends and I called them).
Not as simple as it looks.
We had to wear short hair too. That really did sting because in the 60’s guys were letting their freak flags fly. Long hair was pretty normal and really short hair was out. Being out was NOT what a 13 year-old eighth grader wanted to be. Our hair had to be above our ears and above the collar. We definitely stood out in a crowd of non-Catholic schoolboys.
Nowadays, there seems to be a trend toward uniforms again, even in public schools. Several schools in my district have a pretty strict dress code. While not exactly a uniform, most kids have to pretty much wear the same thing. Our little school still allows personal expression with clothes.
I assume most kids are like my boys were. Until they got into fifth grade or so, it didn’t matter to them what they wore. Jeans when it was cold, any shorts that still fit when it was warm. Tennis shoes all the time. The same pair every day suit them fine. Colin did go through a phase where he wore Hawaiian shirts every day for a couple of years. He was the only one in his grade to do that. It was super-cute.
The other day a first grade class was in charge of Learning Celebration, our end-of-the-week get together (my class next year). The first graders were up there just being as darling as they could be, singing songs and talking to the school about what they have been learning. Since our class had just had a discussion about uniforms, I took out my writer’s notebook and jotted down what the little ones had on.
Here’s the t-shirt list: a big oversized Gamecocks shirt (probably belonged to older brother), YMCA, South Carolina United Way, Eastern Division Champs (we are awfully fond of our USC baseball team), PEACE-LOVE-ADIDAS (that one is a little strange to me), a black shirt with white collar bones and ribs and backbone in stark contrast, tie-dye with yellows, reds and oranges and a big peace sign, another black one with a big skull and crossbones across the front (ARRGGHH!!), a very frilly shirt with glittery hearts, Varsity Basketball Champs (high school), a picture of a teddy bear with lots of glitter, St. Louis Cardinals (that was Ty, Chris), a big blue butterfly, a picture of a fossilized fish, a tight little leotard with a v-neck, a flowered dress, a black turtle neck (or maybe it was a dickey – I’m kidding, those things went out with fat ties with huge knots), a puppy with a pink bow, large horizontal multi-colored stripes, Camp Comanche State Park.
Not my class next year. Random first grade class from Google Images.
Nothing stood out to me as particularly rich or particularly poor. In a funny way, the kids’ shirts (and the few dresses) matched their personalities. Or maybe their clothes represented the parents since they bought the clothes in the first place. Or perhaps some grandparents who gave them as gifts, or cousins who outgrew them. It was fun to see those little ones, with such unique personalities, dressed so very differently. They looked comfortable in their clothes. They looked happy.
It reminds me of one of my former students, now a seventh grader, who was a tomboy. She only wore jeans and shorts. She played hard on the playground with me every day. Clothes did not seem to be important to her at all. Until picture day in third grade. She wore a dress to school for the first time since I had known her. Her hair was curled too. She had on hose.
“Wow! You look… very pretty,” I said, noting her embarrassment and the unusual way she was walking with her knees very close together.
“Whatever. I look like a sissy. How am I supposed to play O-Ball (our playground dodge ball game) in this?” she asked in disgust.
“No,” I said smiling. “You look great. I bet your parents think you’re darling.”
“I hate dresses,” she said mater-of-factly. “They’re gross.
“Why? Don’t you think it’s nice to dress up every once in a while? Something different for a change?”
“Dresses are weird.” Then she did this little dance, this little shuffle with her knees together and her hands holding down the edge of her dress. “There’s just way too much air up there!” Definitely not her uniform.
My former third grade student dressed up for school pictures. "How am I supposed to play O-Ball in this?"
I am no clotheshorse (well, I am compared to some people I guess), but I very rarely buy myself clothes. I pretty much wear the same shoes to school every day and when I do get a new pair, all the kids notice just as when I let my hair get too shaggy and I get a haircut. It is nice to be noticed. We have a dress code in my district, but it is fairly loose and practical. I play on the playground pretty hard. I sit on the floor (OK not as often as I used to); I often go from table to table and stand on my knees. I need to dress casually. It wouldn’t make sense to wear starched white shirts or pants that needed dry cleaning. It just wouldn’t be practical.
I guess in a way we all have our standard clothes that we feel most comfortable in. We create our own uniforms. I have these dress shoes that I bought to wear in my brother Dan’s wedding. They’re coming up on their 23rd wedding anniversary. Those shoes look brand new. I’ll probably have them until the day I die. And they will look pretty much the same. They are special occasion shoes. Not my uniform.
I really do understand the rationale for uniforms. But, like most of my third grade friends – I prefer the comfort of a very uncontrolling dress code. I know it sounds like an oxymoron but I like my own uniforms.
I love my job, I love my boss
I love my paycheck too, of course
But most of all I love to wear
Those clothes that make me warm
I fit in with everyone
When I’m in my uniform!!
Wonderful, wonderful clothes!
When I get up in the mornin’
From my head down to my toes,
I’ve got my uniforms! Uniforms!
No decisions to make!
I just put on my uniform
And start my day!
Levis or a beach tan
Or a polyester knit
A jogging suit with stripes
Or toe-shoes that don’t quite fit
A cowboy hat, and apron
Phi Beta Kappa key,
I know all about you, yes,
And you know me! We’re in our,
In the Military
You gotta wear your proper suit
Pay attention to insignia
So you know who to salute
And in an altercation
Well you know who to shoot!
If you should die, well, we’ll get by
'Cause there’s lots of substitutes! In the same,
Gray-haired airline pilots
And nurses dressed in white
And even fancy couples
At the opera at night
And sewer workers in their boots
Justa sloshin’ to and fro
Feel safer in a world where
Ev’rybody knows, that those
Written by Peter Alsop, ©1980, Moose School Music (BMI)