Sunday, March 11, 2012

School Uniforms and Gender Messages

Hienuri mentioned in a recent comment that in his country almost all students wear a uniform. Here in the U.S., uniforms are worn mostly in Catholic schools, some private schools, some charter schools, and a few public schools. I have never worn a uniform to school; neither have my kids.

The last time I saw a lot of kids in uniform is when we were visiting England, where school uniforms are standard for both state-run and private schools. The part that interests me is how girls are dressed for school. They wear neckties and blazers, which in every other context are only worn by boys and men. What's the message here? I think the uniform says that for the purpose of school girls are honorary boys. As we all know, a girl being dressed or treated as a boy is taking a step up, whereas a boy being treated or dressed as a girl is being humiliated. (Thanks, guys!)

It's partly a historical accident. School uniforms were originally designed for boys because only boys went to school. When schooling became more customary for girls, it was easier to just fold them into the existing structure. The school uniform tells us that male students are the norm, and female students are an afterthought. (Similarly, in the U.S. we have school sports teams that are called the "Lady X", where X is the school mascot. The message is that the male team is the norm, and the female team is an afterthought.)

While girls are dressed as honorary boys from the waist up, they wear skirts below. We can't have them wearing the pants! The skirt in the uniform would have just about killed me as a child, if I had to wear them; I hated anything girly. Thank God I grew up at a time of unisex children's clothing.

Schoolgirl uniforms usually have short skirts; this dates back to a time when short skirts for girls, matched by short pants for boys, were a signifier of childhood. (My father once mentioned his "first pair of long pants" as a big moment for him.) Today, little boys are no longer dressed in short pants, but the short skirt remains in the schoolgirls' uniform, where it is now wildly inappropriate. Catholic schoolgirls in our area routinely hike their skirts up to show as much leg as possible, and you can imagine the distracting effect this has on the boys. It would be more modest to put the girls in pants, which doesn't mean it'll happen any time soon.

Cross-cultural footnote: I'm using "pants" in the American sense, meaning "trousers", not in the British sense, meaning "underpants."


  1. School uniforms…bad theory. The idea that if kids wear uniforms to school it helps keep order. Don’t these schools do enough damage, making all these kids think alike? Now they’re gonna get ‘em to look alike too? And it’s not a new idea. I first saw it in old news reels from the 1930s. But it’s kinda hard to understand ‘cause the narration’s in German.- George Carlin

  2. I never had a strong opinion either way about uniforms. I was in high school when the Britney Spears "Hit Me Baby One More Time" video came out and made the whole idea of being a Catholic schoolgirl sexy and cool, so I wished I went to a school that required them.

    I was also bullied in late elementary and middle school, and some of it was due to not having clothes from a certain expensive store where the cool girls shopped. But I suspect uniforms would've just diverted their attention to something else about me.

    Forcing parents to make a purchase of something not essential for school seems wrong, somehow. If the parents desire to not buy clothes made in China, for example, but the school's chosen uniform is made in China, they're stuck. And while the uniforms I've seen aren't terribly expensive, they may still be out of some people's price range.

  3. I've long been skeptical of the idea that school uniforms promote discipline. I am equally skeptical of the idea that it makes kids equal, so they can't tell who's rich and who's poor. The kids who care about status will figure it out just the same.

  4. Come to think of it, if I could have attended school wearing a uniform of full male drag (necktie, blazer, and trousers) I would have been a happy little girl. Too bad no such place exists ...

  5. My daughter has attended 2 without uniforms and one with. We switched from our local public school (no uniforms) to a charter school 2 years ago and our "uniform" is really just a more strict dress code: white, lite blue or dark blue shirt and dark blue or black pants/shorts/skirts/capri's. I have to say I LOVE it. It simplifies our mornings and there are no arguments over what to wear. As far as cost goes the first year I bought way to many clothes and this school year I got wiser. Four or five shirts, 2 long pants, 3-4 skorts or shorts, and some leggings. She changes as soon as she gets home so there is no reason that pants and shorts can't get one more then once a week. The school does a uniform sale 2x a year where parents donate clothes that are to small and then these are put up for sale at great prices ($1 for pants) with profits going to the school. It's a great service for parents as I was able to pick up lots of good stuff for little money. I am a huge fan of uniforms after seeing what some of the kids were wearing in our local public school. Watching the middle school dismiss is down right frightening! Maybe I would feel differently if all the girls were forced to wear only skirts but that isn't the case at our school. I'm not sure what effect it might have on behavior at school but I do know my daughter comes home talking about movies, tv, books, toys that other kids have that she "has" to watch/read/have but there is never any mention of clothes. I'll take any break from the insistent peer pressure I can get. I think it has allowed her to develop her own "style" (as much as a 10 yr old can) without input from others as to what is "in". She is a pretty unique kid who likes skirts over bright leggings and hats and scarfs. I would hate to see her change what she likes to wear just because of what the other girls at school are wearing and what is "cool".

  6. If it were me, I think I'd get tired of wearing the same colors all the time, and looking at the same colors on my classmates. I hope the school itself is a colorful environment.

    It reminds me of a passage in one of the "Little House" books. Laura has brown hair, so her mother always finishes her braids with red ribbons; Mary has blond hair, so she gets blue ribbons (apparently this was regarded as some kind of immutable law!) One morning Ma was in a hurry and put the blue ribbons on Laura's braids and the red ribbons on Mary's by mistake. She didn't have time to fix it. Laura describes what a pleasure it was to look down and see blue ribbons on the end of her braids instead of the red she'd been looking at for years.

  7. FedUpMom -- Great post, and I agree with you, except for this part:

    "Catholic schoolgirls in our area routinely hike their skirts up to show as much leg as possible, and you can imagine the distracting effect this has on the boys."

    I think we have to stop worrying about the effect girls' clothing choices have on boys. It's actually one of the arguments used in *favour* of uniforms (and of single-sex schooling), as I'm sure you know.

  8. northTOmom, that's a good point. I guess I mentioned the effect on boys because it seems so odd that the Catholic schools, of all people, are still putting young girls in short skirts.

  9. At public schools where I live, the uniform is not so strict. Girls are allowed to wear pants, shorts or skirts while boys just get a choice of pants and shorts, and both genders have polo shirts and jumpers (generally no blazers or ties unless it's a formal event, so people generally just hire the blazers from the school for that event only). It's private schools that are stricter on uniform. My neighbour summed it up like this:

    "Summer uniform? A dress. Winter uniform? Tie! Shirt! Pinafore! Tie! Jumper! Blazer! Shoes!"

    (Yes, she had to wear shoes for her summer uniform as well. She just shoved it in the end of her description of her winter uniform for the added effect.)

    One of her friends also went to the video store at about 5pm while wearing her uniform but with one change- she wore slippers instead of black leather shoes. (That's another difference between public/private schools here- public school kids can wear any closed-in shoes they like.) Her teacher, who happened to be there, gave her an infringement.


  10. I wore uniforms for 12 years. One of my biggest objections is that it made one a target for various comments if you were ever seen in your uniform outside of school. Having had no control in the decision to be sent to a uniform wearing school , the comments got old.

    We were supposed to wear our skirts at a certain length...I think there were a fairly small amount of girls who would try to wear them shorter, but most of us felt very self conscious in the skirts.

    One rationale for uniforms is that with everyone wearing the same clothes it was harder to distinguish the rick kids from the poor. It doesn't really work out that way, unless you specify the shoes, shirt, socks, jewelry etc. When I was in school the only item that you had to buy from one place was the skirt...otherwise you could choose what type of white shirt etc., so people still found ways to individualize. Anyway, people still knew who was rich or not.

    I'm not really for uniforms, and I don't think they serve the intended purpose.

  11. More on the unintended sexual consequences of uniforms ...

    I was talking to a friend the other day who was sent to military school as a teenager. He said he hated everything about it, except the uniform, because when he came home on the weekends, he would put the uniform on, and "girls love a guy in a uniform!"

  12. @Hienuri, when you say "jumper", we Americans say "sweater", I think.