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Pop Quiz: School Uniforms

Growing up there were two things I was pretty sure would survive a nuclear war, cockroaches and my school uniform.  When thinking back about them in terms of fashion the only word that comes to mind is durable.  Made from plaid polyester fabric that when new was stiff enough to stand on its own.  My favorite one was a jumper (a dress that goes over a blouse) that had been passed down through 2 or 3 families before me and was finally approaching what one might call soft.  Day in and day out we wore these clothes, everyone dressing the same. The only choice we were given was to the kind of shoe we wore, and if we wanted to wear a cardigan, but to be honest I didn’t mind.  I got up in the morning, threw on the uniform and headed out the door.  There was no fuss and no worry about how cool my clothes were, though I did worry a great deal about how cool my shoes were.  I was recently reminded of this a few weeks ago as I was listening to a Fresh Air interview with Tim Gunn.

During the interview the topic of school uniforms was brought up and this is what Tim said:

You know, at the time I found it [wearing a uniform] to be very restricting, and I felt something like a prisoner, but I have recalibrated thinking about the uniform. I find it’s very democratizing. You don’t have to get up in the morning and think about: What am I going to wear? And for girls in particular, I love a uniform because the fashion pressures on teenagers and younger women are extraordinary.

And living in New York City, I love the private schools that have a uniform, and I have to say I have something of a disdain for those that don’t because the fashion competition is ridiculously stupid. In fact it’s absurd. I live in an apartment building with a lot of teenage girls who go to private schools, and I am always supporting the ones in the uniforms.

So my question to you is: How do you feel about the school uniform?  Is it freedom from fashion pressure? Or is the conformity of a uniform oppressive?

The Pop Quiz is a question posed to you, the Scholars of Doubt. Look for it to appear Monday, Wednesday, and Friday afternoons (ET).

Feature Image Riki in School Uniform by Sadasiv Swain

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Jennifer teaches science in a public school in Pennsylvania. She lives there with her husband and two dogs.


  1. March 3, 2014 at 3:06 pm —

    You’re right, it sounds like a great idea. In fact, why restrict the life-simplifying boon to students? Let’s say everyone has to wear a uniform. Surely we would all benefit from the “democratization”, everyone would be saved from their uncontrollable urge to compete over fashion, and people would support all the students in their buildings.

    I get a little irritated that people assume that all the reasons adults don’t like the idea don’t apply to kids. It’s very easy to write off the value of “personal expression” discussing in the abstract.

    • March 3, 2014 at 5:59 pm —

      Timmyson, to unpack what you are saying. You believe that school uniforms are oppressive, you exaggerate the level of oppression and equate it with an authoritarian society that forces all members of that society to wear a uniform. I think your analogy is a little over-reaching. I think a better analogy would be a work uniform. Many adults are required to wear them, some even proudly wear them. While some adults may be irritated by the fact that a uniform is required I think most recognize that their personal expression is just that personal. Now adults are not school children and work is not school, but I think that this is a better parallel.

      • March 4, 2014 at 10:43 am —

        Jennifer, I think you’ve failed to show the distinction between students and society at large. All the advantages you cite for uniforms apply just as well to people outside of schools.

        The personal expression limitations are just as present in students as society at large. Personal expression through fashion is one of those things that’s important to people, but we buy into the idea that it’s frivolous and that we shouldn’t care that much, which makes it difficult to argue against. I think this is one of those situations where if you look at how people live their lives you get a better idea of how they actually value things than what they say about their values.

        Furthermore, I think it’s worthwhile to note which adults are required to wear uniforms. I’ve never attended a school with uniforms, but my impression is that teachers and administrators do not wear uniforms. It seems to me that high-status professions do not wear uniforms and would not tolerate it, while low-status ones do.

        • March 4, 2014 at 5:07 pm —

          The distinction between students and society at large is that children are not adults. School is not life. As an adult woman when I am in a room and a pack of women snicker about my clothing I have the tools to deal with that. I do not spiral into a self-loathing crying jag in the bathroom. I am not trivializing the need to express oneself through ones clothing, but rather I am saying that clothing and fashion are extremely important and to some people it overwhelms almost everything else. It becomes so important and takes up so much of their head space that there is little room left for learning and school should primarily be about learning.

  2. March 3, 2014 at 8:59 pm —

    Australia has mandatory uniforms for school, private and public, primary and secondary. The sky did not fall. I don’t know about the benefits, kids still find ways to define hierarchy, fashion, class, etc. it also sucked if the uniform looked silly on you. But I think its appropriate for kids as it reinforces a sense that school is separate and distinct from home life. Whether that makes it more respectable or seem arbitrary depends. Also timmyson are you American? Americans are so obsessed with freedom and oppression rhetoric, yet I get the distinct feeling most wouldn’t know it if it curb stomped them

    • March 4, 2014 at 3:22 pm —

      I’m Canadian, so I’m a little American. I like to think that I consider freedom and oppression to an appropriate degree. 🙂

      The point I was trying to make is that whatever adults say about how unimportant non-uniformity might be among students, their own preferences indicate how important they actually feel it is. Sometimes that means they will give up freedoms for very small conveniences, sometime not.

      I also don’t think that the sky will fall, I also don’t think that it’s the panacea that Tim Gunn thinks it is (disclaimer: I haven’t done any research into his views aside from skimming the attached article). I’m skeptical of the benefits (just as you say), concerned about the costs, and annoyed at the infantilization of kids’ desire (need?) to express themselves.

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