Tuesday, 5 August 2008

U = Uniform

Kiwi girls grow up with uniforms. School uniforms are compulsory. I've always thought that was a good thing. There was no stigma about clothes, no competition, no embarrassment or false pride. We all wore the same. There are some girls I probably only ever saw in their school uniform.

At primary school I wore a dark brown pleated tunic with a white shirt. It’s taken me years to realise that dark brown actually looks great on me.

Secondary school was even worse. The uniform was a "bottle green" tunic with white shirt, and a red and green tie (which is why I can’t face red and green Christmas decorations). That, coupled with my mother’s intense dislike (almost superstitious fear) of green, has meant that it took me years to find that deep greens look great on me too!

Growing up in the country meant that we didn’t need many other clothes. We had farm clothes – warm, comfortable, durable, often patched, frequently hand-me-downs. Good for wrestling hay bales, or for being around sheep and dogs, mud and muck. We didn't go out much - life was school (or after-school in our uniforms) or at home. We had maybe a couple of sets of “good clothes” which came out for visits to town or outings on the weekends. It might have been different for town kids. (And I suspect it is very different for schoolgirls these days.)

Then I went to Thailand. They wear uniforms there too. Long navy blue skirts and little white blouses. They were okay. There was no way I was going to blend in though – standing a head taller than most of the girls at school. The most painful part of that uniform was the footwear. Little black mary jane shoes with white socks. My shoes had to be made to measure. They were incredibly uncomfortable. Wince. In Bangkok I even voluntarily wore my school uniform on outings to the Weekend Market as my schoolgirl status always helped when bargaining for the best price, saving a few baht here and there.

My first ever full-time paycheck was spent on a delicious soft wool jewel green (yes, green) dress, in March 1986. I loved that dress. Sigh ...

By the late '90s, our mortgage was easier to deal with and New Zealand designers started doing new and exciting things. I discovered Trelise Cooper and Kate Sylvester, and Penny introduced me to the joys of a designer coat with a $20 T-shirt underneath. Such excitement!

I am so lucky. I need never look exactly like other women again. Don’t have to be one of the crowd. Don’t have to wear a uniform anymore. The best thing is that no-one does, with apparel duties lifted and a flood of cheaper imports meaning clothing is cheaper than ever before.

So why do so many women stick so slavishly to what is "in fashion" even when it doesn’t suit them? Or so religiously wear black (Wellington CBD looks as if it is in perpetual mourning) even when it washes them out and ages them. It’s so depressing in the middle of winter. Rain, clouds, wind, gloom, black, black and more black.

It’s just another uniform. Why are so many women afraid to be different? To express themselves? To have fun? Was all that crushed at school in our uniforms?


  1. Maybe, but I didn't grow up with uniforms, and I imagine I dress pretty boringly. Except, lately, I've splurged on some cute shoes.

    Do you think it's also a matter of what's available in stores? It's taken me awhile to accept that if I want to buy jeans now, they will be hip huggers.

    I do like black too much. But hey, dark brown looks good on me too...

  2. I wear a lot of black. I find that other people buy me things in color, and I try to take that as a hint. But all my basics are black.

    I did a lifetime of uniforms too--and loved them. Sophia has a simple uniform, no lovely plaid, but I love it even more as the parent who has to be with her in the morning. No fights.

  3. I should admit I wear black too! But it suits me - unlike many of the poor washed-out faces I see it on - and I wear it under a red winter coat. It's almost impossible to see the change of seasons in Wellington on the streets - black black black, spring summer autumn winter.

    PS: IB ... by all reports higher waists are coming back. Cute shoes are always a good splurge - that'll be another post from me!

  4. I try to express my fashion individuality via hats. This embarrasses my nephews terribly.

  5. There is a possibly apocryphal story about a Frank Zappa gig where all the hippies/freaks were abusing a uniformed attendant who was trying to make people get out of the aisles or something.
    Anyway Frank says 'Everybody in this room is wearing a uniform and don't you forget it!'
    I did used to quite like my courier unform: all that lycra.

  6. Helen: Good for you!

    Mrs S!!!!!!!! I was loving your comment (Frank Z was right) until the last line ... now my mind is boggling ...

  7. Here’s a hat story, which I’ve probably told on someone’s blog before, but maybe everyone else’s memory is as bad as mine is. I was in an antique shop once and spotted some wonderful Russian-looking hats on a table. I was trying them on, turning my head this way and that and admiring how they emphasized my cheekbones, to the point that I thought (in my wildest dreams!) that I resembled one of those Slavic beauties who James Bond might seduce. I may even have muttered “Oh James…”. Then I noticed the salesperson laughing. I looked down at the table and saw a sign: “Russian tea cosies.”

  8. Frannie wore a tea cosy to school once, with her pigtails sticking out of the holes: so it is cool: what do salespeople know?

  9. my sister and I used to tease Mom about always dressing like a penguin: black, black, and occasionally white or khaki. now I resemble that remark. color in shirts (since I'm almost always wearing a jacket or sweater, unless it's August), lime green or red.

    my kids both attend uniform schools, and it does reduce morning angst and argument. unless they're fighting over the same white polo shirt. the Girl is already testing though, in her love of brightly colored tights ...


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