How the fashion police uniformly rule

13th April 2001 at 01:00
I'm learning the hard way that sending a child to a "uniformed" school doesn't mean life gets easier or cheaper.

When we lived in Camden, north London, my husband was all for sending our girl to a non-uniformed school. This was not the main criterion, of course. It was just that, politically, he regarded uniforms as archaic, and authoritarian, and they smack of public schools. As a teacher, he thought uniforms were a waste of teachers' precious little time - they can't afford to waste time pulling kids up for not wearing the right-coloured socks or giving them detention for not wearing a tie. As a parent, he thought the cost of uniforms exorbitant and well beyond the reach of poor people. Intellectually, I agreed. Secretly, I nurtured an image of how sweet she'd look with neatly-combed hair, white collar, grey skirt or trousers and shiny shoes. The point was largely academic since the school our daughter was likely to go to didn't have a uniform.

When we moved down the road to Barnet, the point once again became academic. All schools in our area have uniforms. "At least," I said, masking my triumph,"we won't have all that nonsense of kids competing over clothes and being isolated when they can't afford the latest fashions. It's probably cheaper in the long run. Plus it saves time when you know what you're going to wear. And don't they look nice?" In my dreams, of course. Shoes can be scuffed to look unpolished, ties go askew or are removed at the first opportunity. Basically, uniforms can be made to look as scruffy as torn jeans, grubby teeshirts and dirty trainers.

Especially if fashion so dictates. My husband shrugged and grinned knowingly.

I was wrong on all scores. First and sharpest blow of all, given that we have only one earner (a teacher!), was the cost of the uniform.

I should think that we finally paid around pound;300 - and that's without regularly replacing the most expensive bits: shoes. Uniforms save nobody time. Not the teachers who waste their breath pulling up the kids. Not the parents who have to do the washing and ironing, the pleading and cajoling to get shoes polished, trainers cleaned and mud scraped off football boots. And not the kids. I don't know how long it takes boys to get their hair gelled every morning, but my daughter spendsan hour dressing for school. Why? Aha. Fashion will out. The skirt has to be just the right (illegal) height above the knee, and the trousers pulled down to get just the right amount of mud on the hem. The hair has to be combed, plaited, curled, tied in the fashion of the week. I suspect the large purse in her schoolbag holds illicit tinted lipgloss and larger-than-permitted earrings.

Then there's the final touch. The jacket. Girls will customise any part of a uniform to suit their idea of fashion. But the one item they've adopted is the jacket or coat. School rules say these must be black or navy blue. Accordingly, our daughter owns both a navy blue raincoat (never worn) and a black jacket (now threadbare).

Since she bikes to school, she also has a rainsuit. A skyblue jacket and yellow trousers hunted for all over London and bought at great expense, which, sadly, has been outlawed by the fashion police. Rainy mornings produce thunder in our house that has nothing to do with the weather. Me (starting calmly): "It's raining hard. You'll have to wear your suit."

She: "But it's not school uniform."

Me: "The school knows you have to wear special bike gear."

She (lip beginning to wobble): "But it's too bright."

Me (despairing): "It's meant to be bright, so you can be seen on a dull day. For your safety."

She (tears in full flow): "But they laugh at me!" Me (yelling): "Then whoever 'they' are are fools."

She (shouting): "You don't understand!" Me: "I do understand that you'll get pneumonia to please 'them'!" She: "But I'm the one who'll look like a fool! Nobody will like me!" Me (long-suffering voice): "You'll look like a fool if you don't wear a bikesuit for biking - as you would if you don't wear a swimming costume for swimming."

Today I won, technically. She wore the bike suit but ensured she got to school well before the fashion police (fashionably late). My husband brought home the shamefully-bright bike suit which was stripped off outside the school gates in the pouring rain and exchanged for the acceptable black jacket. You can't beat the fashion police. Especially when the uniform coincides with fashion. What will happen, I wonder, when skyblue becomes fashionable?

Shereen Pandit is a short story writer and poet.


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