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Uniform identity: how uniform affects personal identity

Uniform Identity: An exploration of personal identities and school uniform

My name is Naomi Levy and I am currently a grade 11 student in a co-ed private school in Vancouver, Canada, which, has a rather traditional, standard school uniform; we wear grey pants or green plaid skirts, as well as button up or polo white shirts with ties and blazers depending on the time of year or occasion. For this conference I really wanted to examine the effects that wearing a school uniform can have on a student’s personal perception of themselves and the expression of their identity. For this specific project I was focussing on the more obvious, official school uniform, though this is not to say that there are not many interpretations of what wearing a uniform means, nor does this project speak for all individuals who wear any kind of uniform.

I would love it if you could take a few moments to answer these brief questions before continuing onto the page. Don’t worry, all answers are perfectly acceptable!

What is the uniform like?

The uniform at West Point Grey Academy (WPGA), is relatively reasonable in comparison with other schools in the area. Unlike many single sex schools nearby, the girls are WPGA are in fact allowed to wear pants, which will be discussed later on this page. The standard uniform for ‘females’ looks something like this, with a green sweater with the logo, a green plaid skirt, a button up with a tie or a polo shirt, some blue socks, and black polishable shoes.

 

The young woman you are seeing modelling the uniform is, in fact, none other than Sarah Lee, the inspiration for this project and author of a fantastic essay discussing uniform’s affect on individuality, which is linked below. With Sarah’s original sentiments as guidance, I set out to discover for myself, through interviews and taking photographs of my peers in both their casual and uniform clothes, some possible perspectives on this topic.

 

Who’s Affected?

I really could talk your ear off about how uniform affects personal identity and how this affects the people in the school, but I figured I might as well take it “too the halls”, if you will, to get real students opinions on the uniforms they wear. Here are the answers of four of my peers when questioned about their experiences and opinions of the school uniform. As well as this, I hoped to compare the clothes that these students wore in their free time with their uniform as a visual representation of the differences between uniform and personal identity.

 

Emmeline – grade 11

 

 Do you enjoy wearing uniform? What are the pros and cons to wearing a uniform?

Emma: Absolutely not. It takes away everyone’s individuality. The pros are that it is quicker to get real in the morning, and the cons are that some days when I want to dress a certain or different way I can’t express myself. Uniform is often believed to pull us together as a school and make our community stronger, but it doesn’t really do this a lot of the time. Instead, it sets us apart from public schools so that when we go to events with public schools I feel super uncomfortable because there are certain stereotypes that they have about private school kids.

Matthew: No. I am a boy of many skinny jeans and I have to wear the pants that don’t make me look good and I want to express myself in other ways. The pros are that kids won’t be ridiculed for not wearing “cool” clothes, and the cons are that the uniform isn’t comfortable. When I get to choose what I’m wearing i get to create my image – this is our time to figure out who we are and the fact I can only do that two days a week sucks.

Shireen: In some aspects, yes. I don’t have to think, what I’m wearing isn’t a second thought. It also doesn’t allow you to express yourself and then I look for other channels to show who I am. I am so much more comfortable on casual days because I am showing who I am.

Calais: I understand why we have a uniform: equality. Someone could be picked on for the way they dress. But uniform is not comfortable. It really isn’t true equality, as boys can’t wear skirts, and girl couldn’t wear pants for a while. I understand why I wear it, I go to a private school and I understand that’s part of it, but it’s practical, not comfortable.

 

How do you think uniform affects your school community?

Emma: Kids feel a need to be more of something to express themselves because they can’t through the way they look. Because they can’t show this with their clothes, people are louder, more sassy, and brag about being rich. It not like you don’t know, I mean people wear $27,000 glasses to school. 

Matthew: It’s kinda grey. It gives us something to be united about, but who likes uniform?

Shireen: It’s a big problem because people try to look for an outlet of expression. You get penalized for wearing your own sweater, which sends a bit of a mixed message to the students. It’s not just a dress code; this is a school, not an office. This is when we guide out what our thing is and what we want to do. It’s hard though because we can’t figure out our style while wearing uniform.

Shireen – grade 11

Calais: Uniform gives everybody an equal playing field.There are less distractions, and there are still ways to add you own self into your look through fancy backpacks or shoes. I don’t think it impacts the community that much, or drastically changes it.

How do you think uniform affects your perception of yourself?

 

Emma: In a way, it makes me look more at my physical being, not just in the way I dress. When you wear uniform you might not be wearing clothes that make you feel good; instead you are wearing clothes that don’t look good on you for compliment your body type and you don’t feel confident in. You compare yourself to everyone else you see, and people who are skinnier look better in the same clothes. 

Matthew: I look in a mirror and say “this again”. This is not what we want to be wearing. Right now is when we find out who you are and it’s really important to develop that now as I’m not going to wear uniform in the real world. This is out time to express who we want to be before we can’t anymore. Without being able to express myself how can I view myself?

Shireen: For a long time I didn’t have an idea of style or self expression, so I just went with the trends. I wasn’t sure what to wear on weekends and I didn’t have the chance to experiment. Six months ago I started figuring out what I want to do, and just saying ‘screw it’. I started letting myself wear what I wanted to; I’ll be seventeen tomorrow and it took me that long to figure it out.

Calais: If you asked me last year I would have said I as insecure as I didn’t identify with being a girl – it felt all wrong. I wanted to wear pants but I felt like I couldn’t, but I’m not sure why. Now it’s fine as I currently feel like a girl and am in touch with both the feminine and masculine sides of me, and I am quite femme presenting. I wouldn’t say it hinders the perception of myself.

How does uniform interact with your personal fashion?

Emma: When I’m wearing my uniform I compensate with accessories (I never accessorize normally) so that I can express myself and feel more like me. I also do my hair and makeup more to help express myself without using my clothing.

Matthew: My uniform are the clothes I wear 8:20-3:30 – it starts to get ingrained in you. More often than not I’m wearing my uniform, and I begin to dread wearing it. On casual days, I don’t want to wear a cardigan or something similar to the uniform at school, because it is too close to what our uniform is. The casual days have to be perfect, and in this way, uniform makes my regular fashion never good enough. I only have one or two days a week to express myself, which essentially sets me up to fail because it will never be perfect.

Matthew – grade 11


Shireen:
 I can’t change
my physical uniform too much other than wear comfortable shoes and jackets in the colder seasons. I’ve been in uniform since I was little so I would always change my hair – I recently had it dyed for a while. I really like change and it’s hard to have a uniform that’s the same.

Calais: Uniform doesn’t affect how I dress outside of school as it doesn’t cross over. Uniform has taught me that I am comfortable in femme clothes, and I alter my uniform by wearing slides or hoodies, not to rebel but just because I want to feel more physically and emotionally comfortable. It’s not a matter of expressing myself.

How does style play into your expression of your gender and personal identity? How does uniform play into that?

Emma: When it comes to my gender there are some days I want to be feminine with floral patterns and dresses, and some days where I want to be more androgynous with jeans or somewhere in between. Uniform has strict boundaries when it comes to expressing my gender because I don’t want to wear the pants from the uniform shop as they are not very flattering, but I don’t want to go buy pants for only a short while, so instead I’m stuck showing just one side of me with my skirt, which is the feminine side.

Matthew: Clothes are how you express yourself and how you view yourself, and about finding what you are comfortable in, which is super important. In regards to gender, people are starting to realize what suit them. Fashion allows people to show what’s inside. With uniform you either wear a skirt or pants. Gender isn’t A or B, it’s A to G, and it might not even exist. There are no pant skirts in the uniform. High-schoolers are figuring out how they like to dress but then they have to show up to school and wear pants or a skirt. They have to be a boy or a girl – there is no in between.

Shireen: I wear what I want, and figuring that out -that I have the power to wear what I want and that nobody’s opinion matters – was a bit of  a realization. As a women it’s hard to dress: if you have cleavage, you’re a slut. If you are the polar opposite, you are a prude. It’s always been hard to deal with because my mom is always telling me to wear flattering clothes, but I feel much more comfortable in baggy clothes. There is a pressure to be more feminine, and in school I have to wear skirts.- I don’t feel as confident in the school pants, and these weren’t even an option when I was younger.

Calais: I use clothing to feel comfortable with myself and how I’m presenting, anywhere from androgynous to uber feminine. I wouldn’t say it affects me too much as I’m so used to it, but hearing how it affects other people affects me, and I still care about how other people want to change it even though it doesn’t affect me all that much.

Calais – grade 10

How would you change the uniform? Do you ‘rebel’ against it? 

Emma: In terms of the strictness, the only thing they could do aside from abolishing it, would be to have no rules when it comes to anything else such as shoes, hair, tattoos, anything that people feel the need to get to show who they are when they aren’t able to use clothing. I definitely rebel against it with my platform shoes with stars on them, and I will often ignore the hoodie rule and wear whatever I want.

Matthew: I think they should get rid of the uniform, but if not that it should at least be made looser. We have ‘no tie Fridays’, but those aren’t enough. I should be allowed to wear pink pants or dye my hair, and be trusted to be appropriate. Or maybe we should redefine what appropriate even is. Don’t give me detention or call me out in front of the class for wearing something slightly non-uniform. Clothes are something that you work so hard to feel comfortable in, and having your peers watch you strip it off is dehumanizing. I wear the shoes I like because I spent money on them and I like them, and I wear my jacket until I’m told to take it off. I’m not showing up and burning people’s shirts, but it’s the little victories.

Shireen: I think the school should have more options that relate to the modern style, because nobody normally wears clothes like the ones we wear for our uniform. Also, the uniform fits weird because there is no variety for different body types. Because of this I’m still wearing ripped and stained clothing because it fits me and the new styles don’t. I wear jackets around the school and wear my PE strip all day sometimes because nobody notices, but I don’t do much to rebel.

Calais: For me, I don’t care, but I too think that the uniform shop should do free alternations because they are making uniforms for a school full of different people. If you are making students wear this you should make feel comfortable in their own skin. I don’t care though, but I’d rather not wear it. We don’t have the right to personalize our uniform, but we should. Some people express them through clothes and they should be allowed to with moderation. I don’t rebel, but they need to give more leeway with shoes, jackets, and accessorized.

 

How does this measure up?


These interviews, for me, have definitely illuminated some problems and areas within my own school community that
need adjusting and attending to, but I wanted to briefly compare the uniform policy of my school to the neighbouring private schools in the area specifically in reference to gender.

This aspect of my project was less formal, and really just entailed me asking around and doing a bit of research on the school websites. What I found was that out of the seven private schools in my, five of which are single sex schools, the only two schools that had the option of pants and skirts for their female students (I do not know about their policy regarding male students or non-binary students). One of these two schools was my own, which speaks to the necessity of greater changes in schools as if students in my school are dissatisfied, how must the students in the other five schools be feeling?

So what?

By no means did I begin this project with high hopes of making permanent change in my school community, nor did I even mean to go into this project with a clear bias. So, then, why does this matter? I wanted to put faces and names to the people that are referred to when having a discussion of uniform; these are the people who’s identities are being overshadowed or simply not expressed through a uniform. I felt that if I truly wanted to create change in my community, I had to talk to the people affected in it. With this in mind, I do not see this project as the end of this topic for me; instead, I wish to use this project as a stepping stone to larger projects, and to raising more awareness about the affects of uniforms in schools in terms of identity and expression.

Get Involved!

I hope that this page has raised some questions for you about uniform, and has urged you to think critically about the formal and informal uniforms that you yourself wear everyday. Please post any thoughts, images, and or anything really relating this topic on the padlet below, where you will be able to see everybody else’s posts as well. I’ve also ‘created’ a hashtag: #showyouruniform that you can post pictures of either your personal, everyday uniform, or the clothes you feel most yourself in – it’s okay if your uniform is the clothes you feel most comfortable in – there is not wrong experience of identity or perception of self. Feel free to visit #showyouruniform * Instagram photos and videos and take a look around!

Thank you so much for taking the time to read my page; I hope you get involved and learned as much reading this as I did making it. I can’t wait to see all of your responses and images! Have a fantastic day.

A special thanks to all of the students at West Point Grey Academy, as well as everybody in Ms. Wood’s Gender Studies class (including Ms. Woods) who helped make this project possible; thank you for being my guinea pigs and for letting this project become a reality.

 

 

Sources

Spencer, Stephanie. “A Uniform Identity: Schoolgirl Snapshots and the Spoken Visual” History of Education, vol. 36, no. 2, 2007, pp. 227-246.

Swain, Jon. “The Right Stuff: fashioning an identity through clothing in a junior school” Gender and Education, vol.14, no. 1, 2002, pp. 53-69.

Walmsley, Angela. “What the United Kingdom can teach the United States about School Uniforms” Phi Delta Kappan, vol. 92, no. 6, 2011, pp. 63-66.

Park, Judy. “Do School Uniform Lead to Uniform Minds?: School Uniforms and Appearance Restrictions in Korean Middle Schools and High Schools.” Fashion Theory: The Journal of Dress, Body, and Culture, vol. 17, no. 2, 2013,pp. 159-178.

“‘The Will To Adorn’: What We Wear And What It Says About Us.” Talk of the Nation 24 June 2013. Literature Resource Center. Web. 12 Apr. 2017.

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