Like a red rag to the bullish

16th March 2001 at 00:00
A Hampshire headmaster, I hear to my joy, is planning to change school uniform because part of it is red. He has heard that red encourages aggression, tension and behaviour problems, and wants a colour more conducive to peaceful concentration. Pastel blue, perhaps, or Hare Krishna yellow. Or perhaps good old bottle-green or battleship grey, as worn with loathing by generations of grammar-school swots. At the moment, he says darkly, the children en masse are "a sea of red" which his consultant psychologist says may accentuate aggression.

Well, this is why one loves headmasters so much. At their best, they relieve their solid humdrum virtues with a rich vein of lunacy rarely achieved by headmistresses. But this particular example struck a chord with me, since the school where I spent four years just happened to have a uniform whose brown skirt was jazzed up by a a bright red cardigan, bright red sweater and - to top it off - a bright red cloak with a hood, of the kind worn by little girls tripping through the forest with basketfuls of goodies for bedridden transvestite wolves.

The learned nuns liked the red. Never having done a course in colour psychology as part of their novitiate, they merely thought it "cheerful", and the older ones would sometimes observe sentimentally that we looked like little robin redbreasts hopping around. Local youths in the park also failed to recognise our dangerousness, and shouted "Santa Claus!" at us as we slouched by on Sunday walks.

I have been cudgelling my brains to remember any occasion when the redness made us aggressive. A control is available: in the summer we slopped around in cotton print shifts which looked like something run up for a wartime orphanage, I remember feeling quite aggressive about those, with no red in sight.

I do not recall hair-pulling or pinching breaking out in the winter terms when the whole school was muffled up in garish scarlet, although I do remember tying up a small friend in a large cloak and rolling her downhill like a ball (at her own request, I hasten to say. In those days one made one's own fun). I also remember that there were brown reefer jackets as an alternative to cloaks, but that they were generally regarded as inferior, possibly because they made it harder to smuggle in bottles of Merrydown cider and unauthorised rabbits.

But science marches on, and it would be ipolite to question the "academic research" on which the Hampshire school bases its fears.

Possibly we need even more rigorous research on the effect of uniforms on school ambience. Red is the least of their problems. There are far more urgent issues.

Take pleats. Pleated skirts, say my research sources, are a root cause of depression in older schoolgirls. You sit down a lot, at school.

The rooms are warm, the seats hard wood. Your pleats, one by one, give up the unequal struggle with your backside. You stand up. You smooth your skirt; and you know without looking that there is a depressing flat bit forming, in which your bum definitely does look big. You are going to have to iron this skirt with as much care as if you loved it.

Suddenly life seems pointless.

The A-line skirt, beloved of the bog-standard British school, is not a lot better. There are very good reasons why fashion gave up the A-line in 1969. A sort of dreary, tubal pointlessness infuses it; again the risk of depression looms large. As for the boys, what does it do to a lad to wear grey socks which wrinkle down? Or shorts beyond the age of four?

And blazers! You could make a worryingly good case for the theory that blazers make children more right-wing. For all the attempts of fashion to vary them, there is something about putting on a double-breasted blazer which causes an invisible Jimmy Edwards moustache to sprout on your upper lip, a Leslie Phillips leer to twist beneath it, and your hand to start groping for a gin-and-pink and a golf club. When some schools are out, the whole town seems infested with miniature Terry-Thomas clones from 1955.

When the blazers are striped, you add the extra risk of fixating the children, to the point that they can only ever be happy in a career as a deckchair attendant or city trader. I have no time to share my research on the peril of badges (how do you suppose the head prefect and captain of games cope at university, stripped of insignia? Their whole life post-school must be like one long military disgrace).

But the question of ties must be faced. The morality watchdogs must speak out. Pop psychology has known for years that a woman adjusting a man's tie symbolises something saucily different. Are schoolchildren old enough for this blatant suggestiveness? We need a national debate. It is never too late to panic.


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