Binary School

Some people get the whole being smart and wearing a shirt and a tie thing and some people don’t. I am one of those who don’t. The best answer I was ever given was that on relevant occasions you should wear a collar and tie for the people who do get it and think it’s important and these people were family, so I learnt the times when it was expected, when you had to.

The other night I was listening to a radio discussion about the old chestnut of school uniforms. What was interesting was that instead of an advocate of no school uniform against  an advocate of school uniform, one of the protagonists argued for a balanced position, the other for strict uniform.

There is very much a middle position on this, a sensible compromise, so i was very much on the side of the gentlemen who argued for the  middle way. The most practical argument for school uniform is that it is cheap for parents to kit out their children in a school uniform. However there are educational arguments too. On the one hand it teaches that there are occasions when you represent an organisation other than yourself that you are required to dress in a particular way. On the other hand it helps children develop style, by which the child can make decisions on how to wear the uniform, which usually involves some rakish way of wearing the tie.

The gentlemen arguing for strict school uniform argued for no adornment, no jewelry, which seems overly harsh. When I was at school you were allowed one earring per ear, one neck adornment and one bracelet per wrist. Many children at my school wanted to wear more than this, but that there was a compromise, enabled compromise. It allows experimentation with style without the onus to take things to an extreme position.

I very rarely wear a suit, but I do see men who do wear suits stylishly. These gentlemen have a tendency to be Italian, it is indeed rare for me to see people in this country pull off a suit well, yet people seem to persist. I always imagined that this suit wearing thing was just old-fashioned and by the time my generation had grown up, the practice would have fallen by the wayside, but it hasn’t. Enough people still expect people to dress a certain way. Really it takes some effort to get away from these stereotypes. For example I have a bright yellow high-vis coat. Whenever I wear it, I can almost disappear in a crowd, I become unnoticed, I’m assumed to be working. rather than being myself.

Yet there continues to be a dark side to all of this. Particularly women for whom the rules are so much more complex, especially if they are in a public facing role. There have been cases of women being asked to go out and buy high heels for roles that involve traipsing up and down stairs. I have been in a situation where a female host was escorting me in high heels, which is daft and I just felt really uncomfortable.

I get the idea that when you are working you are not supposed to be stylish or express yourself. You are there to be the organisation you are working with, so you wear the uniform to blend into the background, so your personality doesn’t distract from what you are doing. However does this really have any meaning in most modern organisations, as surely we are usually trying to attract peoples interest, to be novel rather than bland?

The middle way is interesting, as those with a developed sense of style seem to have a lot of fun, like children with school uniform of doing just enough to blend in and just enough to stand out. These are the skills that a moderate school uniform helps develop. I at least get school uniform now. I am coming around to the idea that style in clothing and fashion in general is about this finding a reaction to recent past styles, to conform to where things are whilst expressing a difference in a new direction. After all being able to express yourself is important for your own well-being. The difficulty with style is that there are those few who are naturally really thoughtful about it and have a well developed sense of style , whilst people like me blunder around shops wondering how on earth to replace my tatty old garments. You have to wear clothes, it’s too cold most of the time, so having some sort of style is unavoidable and people will make judgements about how you look. So, it is really important that as a society we do what we can to help young people explore this and school uniform does seem the best way of doing it.