Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Back-to-School Dressing: Uniformity

That's me, headed out for seventh grade. 
(The original Instagram!)

For back-to-school dressing in seventh and eighth grade at Our Lady of Mercy School in Baton Rouge, there was only one decision I had to make; should I get two-tone brown oxfords or black and white oxfords? The rest of my uniform was decided for me. It was a dark navy wool pleated skirt, a white short sleeve polyester and cotton blouse and white knee socks. That was it for style, except on Holy Days we jazzed ourselves up with a navy clip-on bow tie and a navy wide wool headband with the school emblem. It was not much different for the boys; their uniform was a similar short-sleeve white shirt but with drab grey pants and black belt. This uniform made them all look like little janitors. 

The girls' uniforms were punishing in the way they looked and felt. They were not cute. And at the ages of twelve and thirteen, we wanted to be cute. They made us all look shorter and wider, which is never desirable, especially for us pre-teens when we were already self-conscious about our bodies changing. And the way the wool felt! I'm talking 90 degree hot, humid Louisiana weather in a classroom with no air conditioning. 

There was no latitude for personal expression. No accessories were allowed, not even purses. I was never clear on the reason why. Was it because with a purse we could carry contraband? But this was before the thought of any type of drug or cigarette crossed our minds. Or was it because we would've been able to carry makeup and a mirror? Heaven forbid that we would make ourselves more attractive by using Bonne Bell Strawberry Lip Smacker. The no purse law and the fact that we had no pockets was a personal trial and a stressful challenge especially once a month. We were told we could get supplies from the principal, Sister Virginia. Sure! As if I was going to make myself more conspicuous by asking Sister Ruth for permission to leave the class, walk to the principals office and ask the principal for a Kotex. That would've been confronting two nuns too many. So us girls had to be clever in how we smuggled in what we needed for the day. 

Sister Ruth, wearing her formal habit. 
Normally she wore the more forbidding all black. 

Sister Ruth, our teacher and enforcer, monitored our every move and gave me the feeling she knew my thoughts too. We had the classic Catholic school rule: your skirt had to touch the floor when you knelt and if not, you were sent home. I don't remember having to kneel down to prove that my skirt was long enough, but she did take me out to the hall once to tell me that when I sat down at my desk, I was pulling my skirt up too high and showing a few inches of thigh and there were boys in the room! No salacious intent or flirtation on my part; I think I was just trying to cool off in the stifling room.

We did rebel against this draconian dreariness when we weren't in the classroom; as soon as we were on the playground or the school bus, we would roll the waist of our skirts to shorten them. Our skirts would be a few inches shorter, but then we'd have a big roll of wool around our waists. Our efforts to look cute were defeated at every turn.

In spite of this early fashion trauma, I like the idea of a school uniform. I like the tailored neatness of them. And I like that all the wearers start from the same place, as competitive dressing can be an extreme sport.

And things have loosened up, I just found Our Lady of Mercy School on French Toast, a school uniform site. White oxford shirts and navy sweaters are still required, but now the girls have a choice of pants, shorts, skorts or jumpers. Sister Ruth would flip her wimple, but at least there's more room for personal choice. I bet they can carry purses too.


  1. What a sweet post and what a sweet picture. When I was a girl, I admired my friend's uniforms, those who went to parochial school. Isn't that silly? We seem to ever long for what we don't have and fail to appreciate what we do have. The grass-is-greener syndrome and the way of the world, I suppose.

  2. This is SO touching. Thank you for sharing your experience. There are certainly pros and cons of school uniforms and you've presented this beautifully.