I recently received an email from a young lady, a high school sophomore, asking for help in assembling a timeless, classic wardrobe. I was impressed with her foresight, and with her family’s intelligent choices: she implied that they lived modestly among middle class families, in spite of having a substantial net worth.
She was weary of chasing fashion trends, and, more interestingly, was hoping that dressing in a more classic style might help her ‘not be picked on by other students’.
I found the comment disturbing, but not surprising. High school is a notorious breeding ground for peer pressure and ridicule. Most of us never forget real or perceived slights or persecution inflicted upon us by our classmates. As teenagers, we are immature, emotionally vulnerable, prone to due and undue anxiety, and often very dependent upon and influenced by the opinions of others. (High school, and high school reunions, are the things movies are made of for a reason.)
Private schools can, and often do, mandate that their students wear uniforms. The reasons for this requirement may be obvious to some, but warrant repeating.
First, the uniform removes a lot of ammunition some students may have to make fun of other students, especially students from less affluent backgrounds. Everybody’s wearing a button-down shirt and khakis. This eliminates the divisiveness that often occurs when some students can afford to wear designer labels and other students can only afford to wear their siblings hand-me-downs.
Second, the uniforms make it clear to students that they are students. They are not members of a gang. They are not their parents’ money. They are members of a school’s student body. Uniforms also make this clear to the public, and make it much easier to identify someone who’s on campus without authorization. They also subtly communicate who’s in charge. (Hint: it’s not the students.)
Third, some research has shown that school uniforms have no effect on academic performance, attendance, a reduction in gang violence, and graduation rates. On the other hand, some studies have shown that uniforms do positively impact overall student behavior. Personally, if there was a chance that public education results could be improved by implementing mandatory uniform requirements, I’d be a parent in favor of it.
Why? First, it will save a lot of arguments between parents and children about what a child is or is not going to wear to school each morning. “You’re wearing the uniform.” Not a skirt that’s misdemeanor-high-up- the-thigh.
Second, it will save parents money when shopping for back to school clothes. “You’re wearing the uniform.” Not two-hundred dollar sneakers advertised on television.
Third, it will, as previously mentioned, save a lot of angst and tears about Jenny having a nicer dress than your daughter or Johnny having a fancier jacket than your son. “You’re wearing a uniform.”
Fourth, several studies have shown a reduced level of overall violence on and around schools when uniforms are worn by students. I’d want to make every effort to keep my child safer at school.
Opponents of the school uniform argue that it is a hardship on less affluent parents. My reply is that your child is wearing clothes to school every day right now. Next year, your child will be wearing clothes to school. You will pay for those clothes. The only difference will be that you will buy clothes that the school requires, rather than clothes retailers persuade you to buy through advertising. And, please note, research shows parents spend less money buying school uniforms than buying back to school clothes that are not uniforms.
Another argument is that school uniforms violate a student’s right to self expression. If by this someone means that school uniforms prevent a young adolescent girl from dressing like a prostitute, then yes, that is absolutely true. (Side note: if parents can’t stop their children from dressing like rock stars or the groupies who follow them, then school uniforms can. Another plus.)
Furthermore, I think we’ve confused education with art. Students go to school to learn. After receiving a good education, and even in the process of it, they can express themselves with work, words, ideas, essays, extracurricular activities, and protests…all while wearing a uniform. They will, of course, express themselves more effectively after receiving a good education. Uniforms will, most likely, contribute to providing the environment for this to happen.
I think we must also limit how much input high school students have into their own learning environments. They’re teenagers. They don’t know anything, candidly speaking. That’s why they’re in school. We don’t let them vote. We don’t send them off to war. We don’t sell them guns.
If we were honest, we’d feel more comfortable if they didn’t have the right to drive cars or legally spend money. (Wink, nod.) We try our best to keep them away from drugs and alcohol.
If we’re smart, we try to teach them morals and caution them about early pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, and a myriad of other dangerous issues. If they’re even remotely trying to do their job, parents worry like hell about their teenage children. School uniforms can help.
School uniforms can help remove the petty and emphasize the important: it doesn’t matter how you dress but what you learn that counts. School uniforms can reinforce equality in an increasingly unequal society: you’re all students here, not reflections of your families’ backgrounds. School uniforms can contribute to a safer school environment: drug pushers and child molesters aren’t likely to invest in school uniforms.
Old Money families often send their children to private schools that enforce a uniform policy for many of the same reasons that I’ve detailed here. Many of these same advantages and benefits could be available to parents and students who attend public schools.
Parents just have to demand it.
23 thoughts on “Old Money and The School Uniform”
My son wore uniforms to school, and it was everything you described above! Uniforms helped to relieve multiple issues of stress and undo angst. Thank you for this concisely written affirmation of a time in life where dressing with conformity is entirely appropriate!
Thank you, Mrs. Hutchinson. Much appreciated. – BGT
A great article Byron. Here in England of course, school uniform is the norm and for all the reasons you state I am in support of it. It is still easy to spot class divisions when in uniform however, namely as time goes on, how well items have “washed and worn” shows the lack or care and consideration even in basic hygiene. Cheap shirting, polo tops and trousers show age and lack of quality rather quickly giving a ruffian vibe to some students and therefore singling them out as targets. English OM’s can trust Marks & Spencer and John Lewis for good quality uniform extras and achieve a lower cost per wear and smart appearance for their offspring.
Most children attending schools in England make their own way to and from school either on foot or via public transport so if bullying were to occur based on social status and how much a child has/has not there are opportunities to spot this knowing just by an address or mode of transport of a peer.
That being said, we English have fond memories of wearing our uniforms, keeping ties and house badges until we are long in the tooth and I think, as adults those who were studious and thrived academically choose to translate a sense of “uniform” into our daily outfit choices well beyond our teenage years. Blazers, polos, shirts, slacks and loafers for the OM Guys, neat pencil skirts or slacks, blouses and twin set knits with plain black leather shoes for ladies.
Sorry for rambling – I found this subject so fascinating!
If I could add a little advice from the enterprising and forward thinking young lady who emailed you, I would just like to congratulate her on setting herself apart in such a positive way and to start concentrating on quality over quantity. The sooner this lesson can be learnt the better. Also, shop outside of what is marketed to you. I am in my early thirties but find that I feel most at home in clothing stores targeted to women in their early fifties and beyond. The quality and cuts are better as well as feeling more cohesive in style. Create a look and “uniform” of your own that you like and feel comfortable in. Charming shift dresses in the summer in plain colours with cardigans worn with some pretty sandals, sperry’s, white lace up plimsolls or leather loafers are age appropriate yet lovely. In winter, some wool slacks, wool skirts, thick tights and neat sweaters or twin sets will serve you well too. The aim is to build up a good quality, conservative base of items first and if you want to mix it up a bit then you can add one or two cheaper “seasonal” pieces to follow a trend here or there. You are young, have fun with fashion while you can but don’t take it too seriously, now OR later… There’s more to life than clothes, and though you may know that now your peers may take a while to realise it. A lot longer than you might think really…. Concentrate on the quality of YOU as a person, a student, daughter and friend and that’ll shine brighter than any outfit you choose to wear.
Thank you, Alena. Your insights are always greatly appreciated. Hope you’re well. – BGT
“they can express themselves with work, words, ideas, essays, extracurricular activities”
I fully agree. For those students not attending a prestigious boarding school, most communities offer a wide range of activities, from art and drama to music and games. Helping them to discover their interests and talents is an essential part of their education.
Sometimes one would even plead for a travel uniform, especially when confronted with people stepping on an airplane or walking into a restaurant, as they would on a beach. Perhaps travel attire would be an interesting topic as well.
Thank you, Jean-Louis. Yes, a post on travel attire is in the works. Great idea. – BGT
Another Masterpiece Byron! I teach in the inner city and as my school has been more lax on our uniform dress code in recent years, I notice a direct correlation with student behavior and morale. It affects the students in all the ways you described and I have noticed teachers struggling with maintaining the proper control for the best learning environment. School uniform is the first step, strictly enforcing adherence to the policy is the next. Oh how important it is.
Thank you, Dario. My compliments to you and your calling to be a teacher. As I mentioned in another response, if you think copies of The Old Money Book and The Old Money Guide To Marriage would be a welcome addition to the school library, please let me know. Happy to forward with my compliments. – BGT
A thought-provoking and well thought out post. I attended public schools in the 1970’s and as a student from a working-class background, I have to admit that I envied students whose wardrobes were apparently limitless. At the time, of course, I did not have the knowledge and maturity to realize that clothing variety (or lack thereof) made absolutely no difference in how one applied oneself to learning. I wish that I had had the opportunity to wear a uniform at school – it would have made life so much easier and less stressful – and I think this concept is absolutely pertinent and necessary today. Interestingly enough, I have a style uniform that I wear for both my professional and personal life, and I can attest that this simplifies and improves my daily life!
Thank you for sharing, Sophie. Having a go-to ensemble for the work week does make life simpler (if not easier.) – BGT
So very true! I remember reading a book about style written in the ’90s entitled Simple Isn’t Easy. It had a real impact on me and is still very relevant today. The young lady who e-mailed you about a school uniform might find it helpful since it is very practical and timeless. Lots of copies on Amazon!
Thank you, Sophie. Much appreciated. – BGT
Is it that time again? Where did the Summer go! Since my children are grown now I am not as in tune as I used to be to the back to school rush.
I can definitely report though at my children’s large suburban school district, that the lack of uniforms did cause us a lot of undo stress over the years. You would think that stress might be caused by my daughter but in our case it was our son! Especially in the area of footwear. I can remember that the “in” sneaker one year was easily $250 that we the parents were expected to pay. I handled the situation by having my son work through the summer to earn at least half the money for the shoes. This helped him to appreciate the shoes more and we didn’t have to break the budget so my son could be part of the “in” crowd.
So yes, in short I agree that school uniforms are a great concept!
Thanks, Keith. And great way to handle the ‘need’ for $250.00 sneakers. I love it. – BGT
I enjoy this blog very much. As my husband and I do not have children, we attempt to pass the wisdom on through leaving your book conspicuously out and about for the dear nieces and nephews who spend time with us.
As a counselor in a high school, I can only say that young women’s dress can be disturbing, distracting, and reveal poor self worth through the choices made. While young men can be disheveled, or too casual, none compare to the girls in their tights-worn-as -pants ( without
undergarments), bare skin everywhere, and a face full of makeup. This causes significant social problems, and disrupts learning, at the very least. My school is in a wealthy suburb.
Luckily, this description does not fit every girl, but my heart breaks for those who are in this category. To paraphrase Nietzsche, we are free to choose our actions, but not free to choose the consequences, such as what people think about us.
Thanks so much for your work.
Thank you, Lisa Ann. I appreciate your kind words, and I sympathize with what you experience on a routine basis.
I’ve donated copies of The Old Money Book and The Old Money Guide To Marriage to school libraries in the past. If you think this might be an idea for your school, please chat with your school’s librarian. If the conclusion is that it would be a good thing all around, I’ll be happy to forward copies with my compliments.
Thanks again. – BGT
Thanks so much, Byron! I will do that.
I think that is a wonderful gesture! It’s my opinion that there should be an entire curriculum focused on these types of teachings.
Thanks, Holly. Much appreciated. – BGT
I fully agree with the concept of the uniform in both private and public schools for all of the reasons. It’s sad that public schools have had to resort to uniforms to keep the bad behavior at bay. How times are a changing. When I graduated high school in the mid-80’s, we did not have this type of problem to worry about.
I wore a uniform throughout my school days. In prep school I had to wear a cap (cricket-type cap) and in high school I wore a straw hat – Fred Astaire style. There were about six different blazer badges which obviously denoted different positions or achievements. Interestingly, none had an inscription one could read to understand the meaning. Osmosis was key to knowing ! They were pretty strict about it and we also had randomly sprung haircut inspections about every six weeks. I however learned something interesting about uniforms from a friend, a retired school teacher of more than 35 years service.
She told me that if she took a class on an outing, say to a museum or gallery, and she allowed them to go in ‘civvies’ the children were “wild” and hard to control. However, if they went in their full school uniforms, they were much, much more orderly and disciplined. Somehow the ‘unifying’ affect of the (uniform) transformed the group.
Thanks, David. I’ve heard other teachers comment about the effect of clothing on behavior. It’s confirmed…again! See you around the holidays. – BGT