From school tops to bespoke tartan or tweed work outfits, Jane Bradley asks if fashion conformity is still necessary
My daughter believes that all clothes come from the loft in carefully stacked plastic bags. Rather than brands, she categorises outfits based on the (older) friend who gave them to her.
“I want to wear my Annabel dress,” she will say one morning. Or “I only want to wear a Katrine outfit today.” Increasingly, as she gets older, I’ve noticed that the bags of hand-me-downs kindly donated to us by generous friends are in better and better nick. We haven’t had to buy any new clothes for months. No more do they have scuffed knees in the leggings, stains on the sleeves, nursery-acquired paint marks on the front which won’t come out despite any amount of washing. They are pristine.
And I’ve realised that the reason for this spick and span presentation is not that my friends’ offspring are infinitely cleaner and tidier than mine, although this may be true – it is that the children who are passing clothes on to us are now at school: they hardly ever wear their real clothes because they are in uniform for more than 30 hours a week.
The school uniform is a financial godsend, especially for parents struggling to make ends meet, unable to afford outfit after outfit of fashionable new clothes. It is a social leveller.
The cost of a basic outfit for youngsters at a school which uses some kind of ordinary colour scheme – those at schools where the uniform consists of pricey saxe blue blazers or khaki and purple kilts can look away now – is plummeting by the year, making it a highly economical way of dressing children.
This summer, Lidl has so far taken the first prize for discount uniforms, offering a full school uniform of a polo neck, jumper and trousers or skirt for just £3.75.
The school uniform is a funny thing. It takes away the stress from parents who have to do nothing more than wash and dry a couple of cycles of easy care clothing every week.
Yet, for parents of young children, it is an end of an era. The pretty striped dresses and cute, dinosaur printed T-shirts become weekend wear only and the pre-nursery fight over dresses or jeans, shorts or trousers, will come to an abrupt end.
Your child will be yours no more, they will be part of the system, following the Curriculum for Excellence, taking part in daily rituals of which parents have little understanding or knowledge.
They will be school children – most of their waking hours spent doing something outside of the home, with others dressed just like them.
Uniforms, experts claim, make people feel included, part of a team, a member of a group. Institutionalised, others argue.
The front door photograph on a child’s first day at school, all gummy smiles and smart new uniform, is a rite of passage.
Yet I always wonder why we feel the need to carry that childhood sense of belonging forward into some aspects of adulthood.
In many societies, school uniforms are unheard of, youngsters preferring to use their choice of clothes to assert their independence, their individuality. Or in some cases, a uniform is reminiscent of a bad time in the country’s history – Nazi Germany, for example. Or Communism in eastern Europe. Yet here, we can’t get enough of them.
Earlier this week, Clydesdale Bank revealed a revamp of its staff uniform. The bank has made a huge fanfare over the redesigned togs – appointing Glasgow-based designer Aimee Kent and a Yorkshire mill to weave the fabrics for the clothing, which will be worn by both staff at Clydesdale and sister institution Yorkshire Bank. For the Scottish banks, we are told, the tartan will draw “inspiration from Glasgow’s vibrant international culture and world-famous architecture”, while the Yorkshire tweed took into consideration “cotton mills, the textiles, the rolling hills and fields, coastlines and David Hockney’s art”.
They’ve clearly put a lot of thought into it. Yet, is it really necessary for bank workers, in this day and age, to wear a uniform?
The argument would be that it makes it easier to spot who is a member of staff and who is a customer, but that is surely a tiny obstacle which could be overcome through the use of a subtle name badge, as is done in many clothing shops or restaurants.
There are some professions which of course, require a uniform. Police officers and military need uniforms, for example. It wouldn’t do a lot of good to see the law wandering around in a pair of board shorts and a Hawaiian shirt.
Others, such as firemen, need specific items of clothing to do their jobs. It is also useful for doctors and nurses to have scrubs or a white coat thrown over their outfit to keep it clean and hygienic – but even hospital doctors usually wear their own clothes underneath, their shoes often a nod to their personality. Or, in the case of my doctor friend, who accidentally went to work wearing odd shoes one day, her non-uniform attire created an ice breaker for her now-husband (also a doctor) to make conversation with a girl he’d had his eye on for some time.
But in a bank? Or a fast food restaurant? Is it really necessary?
Of course it’s not, but somehow people like uniform. They want to belong. In London last weekend, I spotted numerous people – obviously ex-volunteers from the Olympics – wearing their London 2012 official jackets. They still want to belong, even to something which has long ago finished.
Even in jobs where uniforms are not standard, they are often adopted. A few years ago, I visited Google HQ in California. No uniform required, yet all of the tech geeks flocked to the on-site merchandise shop the minute they signed their contract and grabbed themselves a Google-branded sweatshirt, which they paired universally with jeans and trainers.
It wasn’t a uniform, per se, but it might as well have been. Of course, the mainly American employees won’t have had a chance to wear uniform when they were at school. Perhaps they’re just taking their chance to grab that rite of passage.