Barbara's blog: Skirtgate

Son and daughter – 13 and 14 respectively – went back to school on 4 September, after six months of absence. It was the first day of school, but felt more like the first step in a new world which had taken the status quo – and all its social conventions – shuffled it like a deck of cards and dealt a hand, expecting everybody to know how to play the game. Back to normal? Back to the new normal? But how new? And what parts of it?

It is credit to the tenacity, resilience or perhaps sheer self-centred nature of a young teen’s mind that the kids, on that first day, fell straight back into their old routine and were ready to leave the house at 7:40 prompt, fuelled by the breakfast of expectations and excitement in seeing their friends in the flesh. Restrictions meant that each form would have to use a specific entrance to reduce crowding.

This was the onset of skirtgate.

As the children were filing in to enter their classroom, the Headteacher, his Deputy and other Heads stood by the door to expertly scan each pupil: short hair, natural colour? Check. No jewellery? Check. Tie? Check. Blazer? Check. Skirt not rolled up and to the knee? Ch…ummm not quite right, what do we have here, an inch above the knee? That’s just unacceptable and not conformant to the school’s strict uniform policy…. One by one, girls whose skirt did not comply were taken to one side, given a slip of paper and asked to report to their Head of Year who would write to the parents. Boys whose hair was shorter than a grade 2 or not blended also experienced the same treatment.

This happened on the first minute, of the first hour of the first day of school. Children were selected, one by one, like a sniper lining up his shot, because their uniform was not quite right. On the first day back to school after the world had stopped turning for six months.

Much toing and froing ensued between me and the tutor who had had the unfortunate job of letting me know daughter would get detention unless we bought a longer skirt. I explained that daughter was 5’9”, therefore taller than average, and that it was impossible to buy a skirt long enough from the monopoly supplier the school insisted we used, which had been swamped by requests. In the end, I refused to engage with the issue any further as I felt it was just putting fuel to the fire and wrote a note for daughter to keep in her blazer pocket and whip out if called upon.

By the end of week 2, skirtgate had withered into an occasional look of disapproval towards the most extreme cases of miscompliance, where a child would hastily straighten his tie or pull down her skirt, showing how insignificant the issue really was.

Skirtgate made me reflect on the relationship between clothes and identity, at school but also in the workplace. Having studied design history, I knew the subject was well documented but complex and multi-faceted. I couldn’t help wondering if school uniforms had now had their day: they were originally designed to minimise class differences in children, but these days the social gap is highlighted more by the ownership of electronics, accessories and game consoles. Very few European countries enforce uniforms in their schools, particularly Scandinavia which is often referred to as the didactive role model we should aspire to. Do school uniforms stifle creativity and the ability to make decisions for one’s self? Barack Obama and Steve Jobs were well known for upholding the uniform rule, to prevent wasting time on pointless decisions, but do you not have to learn to make decisions before you can prioritise what decisions you don’t need to make?

Do clothes make the man (or woman)? How many of us continued with the smart office attire while working from home? I certainly didn’t, and favoured less formal leisure wear. I did not get changed into a crisp shirt to speak to the CEO, but simply ensured I was clean and tidy as I would regardless of the activity.

Did I do a worse job because my clothes had changed? Did you? Wearing shorts and t-shirts did not impact a jot on the quality of my work or my performance: I worked harder and longer hours than when I was office-based and didn’t feel I needed to be smart to think smartly. But I also started wondering whether this was because the boundaries of the work / home worlds had collided and fused into a new hybrid which had become the permanent reality. Home-working was not an occasional occurrence: it had become the one and only way. This meant there was no getting dressed to work, only getting dressed to do whatever it was required by that day: home-schooling, working, cleaning, cooking, relaxing – one set of clothes was enough to do it all.

I have quickly realised this is too vast a topic for a blog, but I am genuinely interested in getting people’s views on it: do clothes matter? Should we move away from the conventions of uniforms, whether school or work related, as part of our attempt to capitalise on the accidental benefits of the pandemic?

What do you think?

Answers on a postcard. And don’t dress up to write it.

Barbara works for a regulator in Canary Wharf, but lives a stone’s throw from the South Downs with her 14 year old cheerful and creative daughter, 13 year old funny and ingenious son and supportive husband.

Category: A Citymother's Diary

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