JOY! On Wednesday, my children will return to school. But every time I prepare to punch the air the counter-thought arrives. Despair. They need new uniforms.
I use the term “uniform” loosely. Pupils of today do not, much to my dismay, have to follow strict regulations regarding skirt lengths and tie knot dimensions. Hats no longer change with the season (which is just as well as I can barely stretch to an H&M beanie, never mind a straw boater for summer and beret for winter).
At my 16-year-old daughter’s secondary school, as long as there is a white shirt and tie on top, shorts, leggings, black jeans and short skirts are all acceptable. As if the question of skirt (versus shorts, leggings, both) was not vexed enough, in comes American Apparel (AA) with an eye-poppingly inappropriate advert for what it calls its “back to school” range of thigh-skimming mini skirts.
On the racks in the shop these look (as do most of AA’s clothing) like overpriced slivers of nothing very much. Photographed for the company’s look book, they are provocative in a way that sits very uncomfortably with the Curriculum for Excellence.
In the most controversial shot, a very young woman is leaning into a car. Her pleated tartan skirt is so short that it reveals the very tops of her twiggy legs. No face, head, other features. Just skirt, legs and a hint of pants.
Another shows young models beside lockers, and on sports fields, in little leather skirts, cropped tops and other flimsy garments that look likely to melt in the chemistry lab.
Now AA is famously raunchy and almost all of its advertising material features young women, legs and undergarments in some combination. But there are still so, so many things wrong here. These skirts are not being sold to wear on a hot date. They are specifically tagged as school uniform, which should be practical, comfortable, sturdy. (And, if they want me to buy it for my kids, cheap.) It should not expose the midriff or the upper thigh.
It should be free of identifying marks and look pretty much identical to what every other kid is wearing, so as not to mark out those whose parents can’t afford the frankly bonkers prices charged by whatever other temple of nonsense teenagers are currently desperate to advertise for free. (And credit here to AA, whose garments, for all their faults, do not feature enormous logos.)
School uniform should also be of a style that works for all body shapes so as not to make those who don’t fit the unrealistic model template feel even worse about themselves than they do already. Here, AA falls down a hole because its sizes are tiny and its styling impractical for anyone with a body mass index of more than 20.
If all this makes me sound like a typical grumpy parent, desperate to suck the fun out of everything and dress my offspring in second-hand Chairman Mao suits, it’s because the relentless sexualisation of young women has worn me down.
Hard as my children may find it to believe, I was actually young myself. Once. I hated my own school uniform, including its many different hats, with a passion. Not because it failed to make me a perving target for random passers-by. More because it was generally hideous, uncomfortable and old-fashioned, in frozen pea green, with a skirt that Ann Widdicombe would find frumpy. My instinct was to accessorise it with Dr Marten’s boots, not slash the skirt to a foxier length. I didn’t want to be hot. I wanted to be cool.
In a culture where hot and cool have become interchangeable, AA, for all its sleazy faults, is not the real culprit.
It is simply operating within a culture where the quest for sexual allure starts in the classroom and sexualised imagery is so commonplace that selling an item called the Lolita miniskirt as suitable for school uniform does not seem out of the ordinary. Singling out one company, even one where the founder has an alarming track record of sexual harassment, labour and abuse lawsuits and was removed from his position by members of the board last month, is a little unfair.
In fact, some of the loudest criticism of AA has come from the very publications that, on subsequent pages, drool over celebrity bodies, praise their provocative outfit choices, then scoff at their “wardrobe malfunctions”. This gives a confusingly mixed message – at school young women should work hard while wearing clothing that makes them just attractive enough. Then, to succeed in the adult world, they should immediately adopt a rigorous grooming regime and find a style of dressing which makes them sexually attractive without being threatening.
Is it possible to find AA’s imagery horrible and seedy without buying into that unhelpful and restrictive double standard? I think so. Wanting young women to get on with their studies in suitable, comfortable clothes is very different from judging them for their choices when they grow up. There is enough pressure from exams and hormones without expecting teenage girls to walk to school while conforming to a highly-sexualised ideal. Plenty of time to look hot once they have passed their Highers. «