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Uniform identity: how uniform affects personal identity

Uniform Identity: An exploration of personal identities and school uniform

My name is Naomi Levy and I am currently a grade 11 student in a co-ed private school in Vancouver, Canada, which, has a rather traditional, standard school uniform; we wear grey pants or green plaid skirts, as well as button up or polo white shirts with ties and blazers depending on the time of year or occasion. For this conference I really wanted to examine the effects that wearing a school uniform can have on a student’s personal perception of themselves and the expression of their identity. For this specific project I was focussing on the more obvious, official school uniform, though this is not to say that there are not many interpretations of what wearing a uniform means, nor does this project speak for all individuals who wear any kind of uniform.

I would love it if you could take a few moments to answer these brief questions before continuing onto the page. Don’t worry, all answers are perfectly acceptable!

What is the uniform like?

The uniform at West Point Grey Academy (WPGA), is relatively reasonable in comparison with other schools in the area. Unlike many single sex schools nearby, the girls are WPGA are in fact allowed to wear pants, which will be discussed later on this page. The standard uniform for ‘females’ looks something like this, with a green sweater with the logo, a green plaid skirt, a button up with a tie or a polo shirt, some blue socks, and black polishable shoes.

 

The young woman you are seeing modelling the uniform is, in fact, none other than Sarah Lee, the inspiration for this project and author of a fantastic essay discussing uniform’s affect on individuality, which is linked below. With Sarah’s original sentiments as guidance, I set out to discover for myself, through interviews and taking photographs of my peers in both their casual and uniform clothes, some possible perspectives on this topic.

 

Who’s Affected?

I really could talk your ear off about how uniform affects personal identity and how this affects the people in the school, but I figured I might as well take it “too the halls”, if you will, to get real students opinions on the uniforms they wear. Here are the answers of four of my peers when questioned about their experiences and opinions of the school uniform. As well as this, I hoped to compare the clothes that these students wore in their free time with their uniform as a visual representation of the differences between uniform and personal identity.

 

Emmeline – grade 11

 

 Do you enjoy wearing uniform? What are the pros and cons to wearing a uniform?

Emma: Absolutely not. It takes away everyone’s individuality. The pros are that it is quicker to get real in the morning, and the cons are that some days when I want to dress a certain or different way I can’t express myself. Uniform is often believed to pull us together as a school and make our community stronger, but it doesn’t really do this a lot of the time. Instead, it sets us apart from public schools so that when we go to events with public schools I feel super uncomfortable because there are certain stereotypes that they have about private school kids.

Matthew: No. I am a boy of many skinny jeans and I have to wear the pants that don’t make me look good and I want to express myself in other ways. The pros are that kids won’t be ridiculed for not wearing “cool” clothes, and the cons are that the uniform isn’t comfortable. When I get to choose what I’m wearing i get to create my image – this is our time to figure out who we are and the fact I can only do that two days a week sucks.

Shireen: In some aspects, yes. I don’t have to think, what I’m wearing isn’t a second thought. It also doesn’t allow you to express yourself and then I look for other channels to show who I am. I am so much more comfortable on casual days because I am showing who I am.

Calais: I understand why we have a uniform: equality. Someone could be picked on for the way they dress. But uniform is not comfortable. It really isn’t true equality, as boys can’t wear skirts, and girl couldn’t wear pants for a while. I understand why I wear it, I go to a private school and I understand that’s part of it, but it’s practical, not comfortable.

 

How do you think uniform affects your school community?

Emma: Kids feel a need to be more of something to express themselves because they can’t through the way they look. Because they can’t show this with their clothes, people are louder, more sassy, and brag about being rich. It not like you don’t know, I mean people wear $27,000 glasses to school. 

Matthew: It’s kinda grey. It gives us something to be united about, but who likes uniform?

Shireen: It’s a big problem because people try to look for an outlet of expression. You get penalized for wearing your own sweater, which sends a bit of a mixed message to the students. It’s not just a dress code; this is a school, not an office. This is when we guide out what our thing is and what we want to do. It’s hard though because we can’t figure out our style while wearing uniform.

Shireen – grade 11

Calais: Uniform gives everybody an equal playing field.There are less distractions, and there are still ways to add you own self into your look through fancy backpacks or shoes. I don’t think it impacts the community that much, or drastically changes it.

How do you think uniform affects your perception of yourself?

 

Emma: In a way, it makes me look more at my physical being, not just in the way I dress. When you wear uniform you might not be wearing clothes that make you feel good; instead you are wearing clothes that don’t look good on you for compliment your body type and you don’t feel confident in. You compare yourself to everyone else you see, and people who are skinnier look better in the same clothes. 

Matthew: I look in a mirror and say “this again”. This is not what we want to be wearing. Right now is when we find out who you are and it’s really important to develop that now as I’m not going to wear uniform in the real world. This is out time to express who we want to be before we can’t anymore. Without being able to express myself how can I view myself?

Shireen: For a long time I didn’t have an idea of style or self expression, so I just went with the trends. I wasn’t sure what to wear on weekends and I didn’t have the chance to experiment. Six months ago I started figuring out what I want to do, and just saying ‘screw it’. I started letting myself wear what I wanted to; I’ll be seventeen tomorrow and it took me that long to figure it out.

Calais: If you asked me last year I would have said I as insecure as I didn’t identify with being a girl – it felt all wrong. I wanted to wear pants but I felt like I couldn’t, but I’m not sure why. Now it’s fine as I currently feel like a girl and am in touch with both the feminine and masculine sides of me, and I am quite femme presenting. I wouldn’t say it hinders the perception of myself.

How does uniform interact with your personal fashion?

Emma: When I’m wearing my uniform I compensate with accessories (I never accessorize normally) so that I can express myself and feel more like me. I also do my hair and makeup more to help express myself without using my clothing.

Matthew: My uniform are the clothes I wear 8:20-3:30 – it starts to get ingrained in you. More often than not I’m wearing my uniform, and I begin to dread wearing it. On casual days, I don’t want to wear a cardigan or something similar to the uniform at school, because it is too close to what our uniform is. The casual days have to be perfect, and in this way, uniform makes my regular fashion never good enough. I only have one or two days a week to express myself, which essentially sets me up to fail because it will never be perfect.

Matthew – grade 11


Shireen:
 I can’t change
my physical uniform too much other than wear comfortable shoes and jackets in the colder seasons. I’ve been in uniform since I was little so I would always change my hair – I recently had it dyed for a while. I really like change and it’s hard to have a uniform that’s the same.

Calais: Uniform doesn’t affect how I dress outside of school as it doesn’t cross over. Uniform has taught me that I am comfortable in femme clothes, and I alter my uniform by wearing slides or hoodies, not to rebel but just because I want to feel more physically and emotionally comfortable. It’s not a matter of expressing myself.

How does style play into your expression of your gender and personal identity? How does uniform play into that?

Emma: When it comes to my gender there are some days I want to be feminine with floral patterns and dresses, and some days where I want to be more androgynous with jeans or somewhere in between. Uniform has strict boundaries when it comes to expressing my gender because I don’t want to wear the pants from the uniform shop as they are not very flattering, but I don’t want to go buy pants for only a short while, so instead I’m stuck showing just one side of me with my skirt, which is the feminine side.

Matthew: Clothes are how you express yourself and how you view yourself, and about finding what you are comfortable in, which is super important. In regards to gender, people are starting to realize what suit them. Fashion allows people to show what’s inside. With uniform you either wear a skirt or pants. Gender isn’t A or B, it’s A to G, and it might not even exist. There are no pant skirts in the uniform. High-schoolers are figuring out how they like to dress but then they have to show up to school and wear pants or a skirt. They have to be a boy or a girl – there is no in between.

Shireen: I wear what I want, and figuring that out -that I have the power to wear what I want and that nobody’s opinion matters – was a bit of  a realization. As a women it’s hard to dress: if you have cleavage, you’re a slut. If you are the polar opposite, you are a prude. It’s always been hard to deal with because my mom is always telling me to wear flattering clothes, but I feel much more comfortable in baggy clothes. There is a pressure to be more feminine, and in school I have to wear skirts.- I don’t feel as confident in the school pants, and these weren’t even an option when I was younger.

Calais: I use clothing to feel comfortable with myself and how I’m presenting, anywhere from androgynous to uber feminine. I wouldn’t say it affects me too much as I’m so used to it, but hearing how it affects other people affects me, and I still care about how other people want to change it even though it doesn’t affect me all that much.

Calais – grade 10

How would you change the uniform? Do you ‘rebel’ against it? 

Emma: In terms of the strictness, the only thing they could do aside from abolishing it, would be to have no rules when it comes to anything else such as shoes, hair, tattoos, anything that people feel the need to get to show who they are when they aren’t able to use clothing. I definitely rebel against it with my platform shoes with stars on them, and I will often ignore the hoodie rule and wear whatever I want.

Matthew: I think they should get rid of the uniform, but if not that it should at least be made looser. We have ‘no tie Fridays’, but those aren’t enough. I should be allowed to wear pink pants or dye my hair, and be trusted to be appropriate. Or maybe we should redefine what appropriate even is. Don’t give me detention or call me out in front of the class for wearing something slightly non-uniform. Clothes are something that you work so hard to feel comfortable in, and having your peers watch you strip it off is dehumanizing. I wear the shoes I like because I spent money on them and I like them, and I wear my jacket until I’m told to take it off. I’m not showing up and burning people’s shirts, but it’s the little victories.

Shireen: I think the school should have more options that relate to the modern style, because nobody normally wears clothes like the ones we wear for our uniform. Also, the uniform fits weird because there is no variety for different body types. Because of this I’m still wearing ripped and stained clothing because it fits me and the new styles don’t. I wear jackets around the school and wear my PE strip all day sometimes because nobody notices, but I don’t do much to rebel.

Calais: For me, I don’t care, but I too think that the uniform shop should do free alternations because they are making uniforms for a school full of different people. If you are making students wear this you should make feel comfortable in their own skin. I don’t care though, but I’d rather not wear it. We don’t have the right to personalize our uniform, but we should. Some people express them through clothes and they should be allowed to with moderation. I don’t rebel, but they need to give more leeway with shoes, jackets, and accessorized.

 

How does this measure up?


These interviews, for me, have definitely illuminated some problems and areas within my own school community that
need adjusting and attending to, but I wanted to briefly compare the uniform policy of my school to the neighbouring private schools in the area specifically in reference to gender.

This aspect of my project was less formal, and really just entailed me asking around and doing a bit of research on the school websites. What I found was that out of the seven private schools in my, five of which are single sex schools, the only two schools that had the option of pants and skirts for their female students (I do not know about their policy regarding male students or non-binary students). One of these two schools was my own, which speaks to the necessity of greater changes in schools as if students in my school are dissatisfied, how must the students in the other five schools be feeling?

So what?

By no means did I begin this project with high hopes of making permanent change in my school community, nor did I even mean to go into this project with a clear bias. So, then, why does this matter? I wanted to put faces and names to the people that are referred to when having a discussion of uniform; these are the people who’s identities are being overshadowed or simply not expressed through a uniform. I felt that if I truly wanted to create change in my community, I had to talk to the people affected in it. With this in mind, I do not see this project as the end of this topic for me; instead, I wish to use this project as a stepping stone to larger projects, and to raising more awareness about the affects of uniforms in schools in terms of identity and expression.

Get Involved!

I hope that this page has raised some questions for you about uniform, and has urged you to think critically about the formal and informal uniforms that you yourself wear everyday. Please post any thoughts, images, and or anything really relating this topic on the padlet below, where you will be able to see everybody else’s posts as well. I’ve also ‘created’ a hashtag: #showyouruniform that you can post pictures of either your personal, everyday uniform, or the clothes you feel most yourself in – it’s okay if your uniform is the clothes you feel most comfortable in – there is not wrong experience of identity or perception of self. Feel free to visit #showyouruniform * Instagram photos and videos and take a look around!

Thank you so much for taking the time to read my page; I hope you get involved and learned as much reading this as I did making it. I can’t wait to see all of your responses and images! Have a fantastic day.

A special thanks to all of the students at West Point Grey Academy, as well as everybody in Ms. Wood’s Gender Studies class (including Ms. Woods) who helped make this project possible; thank you for being my guinea pigs and for letting this project become a reality.

 

 

Sources

Spencer, Stephanie. “A Uniform Identity: Schoolgirl Snapshots and the Spoken Visual” History of Education, vol. 36, no. 2, 2007, pp. 227-246.

Swain, Jon. “The Right Stuff: fashioning an identity through clothing in a junior school” Gender and Education, vol.14, no. 1, 2002, pp. 53-69.

Walmsley, Angela. “What the United Kingdom can teach the United States about School Uniforms” Phi Delta Kappan, vol. 92, no. 6, 2011, pp. 63-66.

Park, Judy. “Do School Uniform Lead to Uniform Minds?: School Uniforms and Appearance Restrictions in Korean Middle Schools and High Schools.” Fashion Theory: The Journal of Dress, Body, and Culture, vol. 17, no. 2, 2013,pp. 159-178.

“‘The Will To Adorn’: What We Wear And What It Says About Us.” Talk of the Nation 24 June 2013. Literature Resource Center. Web. 12 Apr. 2017.

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COMMENTS: 17
  1. April 27, 2017 by Eva Fritsch

    Hi, I’m Eva and I’m in the 11th grade in the United States. This page was so interesting!! At our private school in South Carolina, we have a uniform in grades K-5 to 8th grade. I did not mind wearing it when I was younger but now I enjoy being able to express myself and choose whichever clothes I want to wear. We still have a relatively strict dress code, but I think it just teaches us to dress well for when we are older and have jobs.
    Again, this was a very interesting topic and I really enjoyed reading about it!!

    • April 30, 2017 by Naomi L

      Hi Eva! Thank you, I’m really happy you found this interesting. That’s super interesting that you only wear the uniform for half of the ‘educational experience’ (if you will). What are the requirements of your strict code; I really like the idea of having younger kids dress in a uniform, and older kids dressing in their own clothes, for exactly the reasons that you state. Thank you so much!

  2. April 27, 2017 by Lucytalalay

    This is an amazing project! I love the different perspectives!

  3. April 28, 2017 by emmawpga

    So cool!

  4. April 28, 2017 by Tristan_Miura

    Excellent project. You managed to show different perspectives on a topic that often is overlooked by schools, especially private schools. Love it!

  5. April 28, 2017 by Vivian

    I love your project, Naomi! This is my first year wearing uniform and reading about the pros and the cons was super interesting to me 🙂

  6. April 28, 2017 by Jonah.Price

    I love the idea of this project, it is something my family and I debate about all the time at the dinner table. The different perspectives was a great way to go about this project. Excellent job!

  7. April 28, 2017 by Delaney Molnar

    It’s very empowering seeing it visioned through different people’s eyes and the different perspectives they give. I personally can relate to every single one of them and that is very intriguing to me.

  8. April 28, 2017 by charliewpga

    Amazing how a uniform can affect us so greatly! Very informative!

  9. April 29, 2017 by Jas

    Great project, I liked how much I could relate and look at the past when I had uniforms vs. now. I love the page, nice work!

  10. April 30, 2017 by Aparajita Kashyap

    Hi! Really cool project! I had to wear a uniform from 5th-8th grade, but I don’t anymore, and even though outfit planning was easier in middle school, I still wouldn’t want to return to uniforms. I was bullied in middle school about my hair a lot, and I question if maybe we had not had uniforms, I would have been teased about my clothes instead (which still isn’t preferable, but I would rather be teased about something I can change and that isn’t as big a part of me). Also, what do you think of uniforms that also restrict things like piercings and fun/colored hair?

    • April 30, 2017 by Naomi L

      Hi Aparajita, thank you for reading my page! I’m really sorry to hear that you were bullied in middle school about your hair; that’s absolutely horrible. That’s a very interesting point that you make about being teased about your clothes versus your uniform, and how really having a uniform didn’t change the bullying (I may be putting words in your mouth please correct me if I’m wrong). What do you wear to school everyday? So the uniform at my school technically restricts piercings and fun/coloured hair, though many students disobey this rule. Not so much on the piercing part, but a lot of students have coloured/unnaturally coloured hair, and often these students just get reminded by the administration but they are often not forced to change their hair. Piercings are a bit different in terms of a gender issue, rather than a piercing issue, as boys at my school used to not be allowed to get an ear piercing, or really any piercing, but we have an LGBTQ+ policy in place now that should be inadvertently changing that, as well as there are people in the school who simply just keep their piercings. I think that on one hand I understand restricting piercings and coloured hair if you want professionalism; however, I think that then you are simply feeding into society’s perception of what is professional, and not actually working to change perceptions. I think that’s a common theme throughout this argument: should we be sticking with the ‘uniform’, expectations, and connotations that are enforced on people in our society and add that to our uniform, or should we work to break those molds? Thank you so very much.

  11. April 30, 2017 by Gabrielle Ruban

    Hi Naomi! Very informative project! I go to a private school myself, but rather than having a uniform, we simply have a ver restrictive dress code (follows that whole “professionalism” thing too). I agree with all the points you made about uniforms, I honestly feel like school’s emphasizing such shallow and trivial things like clothing, is only counter-progressive, as students being encouraged to focus so much on attire only diverges from learning and overall self-growth. I don’t personally mind my dress code as much, as it has encouraged me to try to look more “presentable,” but it would be nice to have the option of wearing my graphic tees and patterned leggings, since I do wear those when I’m out of school.

    • April 30, 2017 by Naomi L

      Hi Gabrielle! Thank you, I’m really glad you enjoyed the project. That’s really interesting about your school’s dress code, what exactly are the requirements for your dress code, as this is something I may be eventually pushing for, or rather planting the seed for, in my own school. Yeah, that totally makes sense, it can be hard to have to dress a totally different way for school versus when you’re out of school. Thank you so much!

  12. May 01, 2017 by Masayuki N

    Great project! I have gone to private schools my entire life, but I have never had to wear a uniform. It was very interesting to see these perspectives and to compare my own life experiences!

  13. May 01, 2017 by Ana Bogdanovich

    This was a really in-depth project and I loved how you talked to kids from your school (the side-by-side pictures were really effective)! Great work, this changed my opinion on dress codes!

  14. May 05, 2017 by Ramon Alejandro L

    Amazing project! Loved the different perspectives on the uniform.

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