Multiplicity in Schools: Uniform or Free Form?

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Initially I didn’t think I had strong views about school uniforms, although so far I haven’t been interested in a school that uses them. I can see their advantages, which might most simply be distilled to the fact that they are, well, uniform. There’s something to be said for leveling the class playing field and for cohesion. But their disadvantages also distill to the fact that they’re, well, uniform. Because there’s something less to be said for sameness.

I’m not talking here about some assertion that one should be able to wear whatever one wants and bear no social consequences. This is, to me, absurd, since the truth for almost all of us is that we dress in ways that attend to how we want to be received by our world: whether to stand out or blend in or rebel or fade away.

Rather, I worry about how a school uniform can be limiting in more fundamental ways. It’s understood that boys wear one set of clothes while girls wear another and Nathalie has already spoken to how the sexism of this can be damaging. Also, especially somewhere like Canada, how is the bursting collection of diversity that makes up our population reflected in one type of pants or a knee skirt?

The constraints of the school uniform do not end there. I remember as a girl feeling so uncomfortable in skirts; I never felt like myself in them and would have hated to have worn a skirt just because I was a girl. More pointedly though: what about the children who don’t necessarily or always identify with the body they were born in, and certainly not to its allocated clothing?  Where do they fit into a school where there is no spectrum to express who a person might be, but only two discrete end points?

As it turns out, my problem with a school uniform isn’t only because it’s uniform, but because it’s binary. You are either a (specific kind of) boy or a (specific kind of) girl. A school uniform posits these two exclusive options, and basically I think they are too few. It excludes quite a few of us, for whom getting dressed in the morning becomes not much different than putting on a costume, except more painful.  Here the argument against a school uniform becomes an assertion not only of a person’s individuality, but of the right to be recognized as a whole person regardless of sexual and gender identity.

There may be times when the good of the many outweighs the good of the few(er). But the school uniform? I’m not sure it’s one of them.

5 thoughts

  1. I have always taught at uniform schools but grew up attending schools without uniforms. I actually liked the uniform schools. Kids can all be at the same level without judgements through the clothes they wear or can afford. We had dress down days or incentives for kids to wear street clothes, those were dreaded days for teachers as it always seemed the kids acted crazy on those days. Great article showing each side.

    1. I think there are clear benefits to school uniforms. My husband went to private school with uniforms and said it helped the kids judge each other less on social and class lines, which reduces stress on several levels. But there is a limitation with uniforms that most people don’t think about, and that truthfully I didn’t think about until recently, and that is what happens if your gender identity doesn’t fit easily into a boy or girls uniform. I think these kids and their needs should be part of our awareness and the conversation, even if we continue to support school uniforms. Thank you for commenting and having the conversation with me!

  2. I actually did some volunteer work this week at a school that had uniforms. To be honest, I felt the kids could still self-express with their hairstyles, their shoes, etc. This school seemed to have a fairly lax dress code- khaki or blue on the bottom, neutral tones on top. I think they allowed Colts blue since the project involved our NFL team. I also noticed that the girls were not being required to wear skirts, which was good to see. Just an observation.

    1. That’s great that the girls had that choice, as it desexualizes them and also accommodates girls who don’t identify with traditional girls’ clothing. If the boys are permitted to wear skirts, then we’re good to go. Your comment shows me that it’s not really a uniform that is my issue, but a uniform that restricts a person’s ability to express their gender identity. Maybe an expanded version of the flexible dress code that you have described is the best of both worlds.

      1. Yes, you would have to see how the school would address any sort of deviation from the ‘norm’ to see if uniforms really could still be effective at bridging a socio-economic gap (no labels or brand names) yet still encourages a freedom of expression or gender identity as the child desires.

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