Thursday, September 10, 2009

The ties that bind

This BBC article about school tie styles brought back lots of memories!

Many British schools are apparently introducing clip-on ties in order to force their students into monotonous conformity "ensure consistency" and "provide an atmosphere of discipline". I think this is a terrible shame; while I agree with the underlying reasons for school uniforms (principally to minimise bullying due to discrepancies in how much parents can afford to spend on branded clothing), there is a proud British schoolkid tradition of subverting uniform codes to rebel against authority and express individuality, and diverse tie styles are a large part of that.
The BBC says "No-one can be precisely sure when the process started - it may even have been decades ago - but it's clear that it's reached crisis point." Decades ago sounds about right to me!

My primary school didn't have a uniform while I was there, and it was only when we moved up to secondary school that we had to learn to tie a proper tie knot. Our uniform consisted of black shoes (not trainers/sneakers), white socks, a navy blue skirt or trousers*, white or pale blue shirt or blouse, navy blue cardigan or V-neck sweater - and a navy blue tie with thin yellow diagonal stripes.

The official uniform code didn't mention shoelaces, and so we expressed ourselves chiefly through that medium. I remember having tartan and then fluorescent laces, while one of my male friends had laces printed with "left" and "right" (and insisted on wearing them on the wrong feet). Our shoes sported a veritable rainbow of individuality.

The official code also neglected to specify tie style, other than saying we had to have our top button done up and the tie knotted just below it. I turned up on my first day, age 11, sporting the traditional tie style that my Dad had taught me and that I'd spent hours perfecting. Only the first-years without older siblings were wearing our ties in this "kipper" style, which immediately marked us out as targets for ridicule.

On the second day, I tied my tie back-to-front, with the narrow part in front and worn long enough to tuck into the waist band of my skirt, and the wide part tucked inside the shirt - just the way the older kids did. My parents both protested, so I retied it the "proper" way - and promptly switched back as soon as I left the house. I wore my tie in this way most days for the next five years, occasionally experimenting with the 1-inch-long-narrow-tie that was the most popular alternative. A few of my friends went for the 2-inch-long-super-wide-tie look, and even unpicked the tie's seams and spread the edges out to get it even wider. (This was, of course, an "ironic" response to the narrow ties of most of their peers). Some of the stricter teachers would make us fix our ties at the start of their classes, but as soon as the bell rang, the styles would magically revert...

Sixth-formers (those of us who stayed on for the optional final two years, from age 16-18) didn't have to wear the uniform. And the school ditched the ties not long after I left, anyway, and switched to a more modern trousers-polo shirt-sweatshirt combo instead. Most kids were pretty happy with the change, but - and here's the important thing - they continued to rebel through the medium of shoelaces.

As the BBC article says, "there will just be other ways to rebel."

*For my first couple of years at the school, girls were only allowed to wear trousers from November to March. This unpopular restriction was finally overturned when we got our first ever female Muslim classmate.


  1. Yep - I did 12 years of schooling in the public (ie government-run) system in the land far, far away with mandatory uniforms throughout. While we all professed to hate the uniforms, they made life easier for those of us that were significantly less affluent than our peers and who couldn't afford to buy the latest fashions (in retrospect, probably a good thing given that I was at school in the 70's and 80's). It was the shoes that made it obvious how much money you had so I finally rebelled, refused to wear the required black shoes and received several detentions for my white sneakers. I then figured that if I was going to get into trouble, I may as well make it worth my while so I dyed them blue ... unfortunately, I dyed them with blue food colouring and ended up with blue socks everyday ... but I had made my (somewhat pitiful) point!

    And don't even get me started on our winter uniform - we had the choice of freezing our asses off in our regular uniform of a (very) short green skirt or we could wear bottle green slacks that were absolutely hideous. I chose to freeze and wear the skirt most of the time but wore jeans in my final year and, yep, detention again. Hmmm ... this was in a country where it's cool (not cold) for 2 days of the year so I guess it really didn't matter that much. And the skirts were supposed to be knee length, but if you rolled them enough at the waist, you could make them into micro-skirts ... makes for some awful class photos!

  2. I couldn't rebel - both my parents taught at my comprehensive.

    My dad did tell me that one of the previous heads went on a campaign against (IIRC) ties. Of course, that meant that the students rebelled and put their effort into stranger tie styles. But that was what he wanted: they didn't notice that the rest of their uniform was boringly standard. And no doubt everyone got some enjoyment from the little contest.

  3. hm, i was always jealous about not having school uniform - it was never a law back home. Actually, it was illegal to ask for a uniform.... it was therefore free range of bullying "you don't have levi's jeans" in junior high school .... fun times...

  4. In home country we never wore uniforms but I did an exchange where I wore a lovely checked navy blue skirt and 'cute' baby-blue shirts for a whole year - and even if I do like the theory that you shouldn't be able to tell the poor from the rich, there will ALWAYS be tell-tale signs. In my OZ school it was the shoes (DocMartins for the priviliged ones). Otherwise it could have been the bag, the haircut, the jumper, jewelly, the mean of transport, the sport you pursued.. whatever.
    So for the sake of individuality, I love the use of ties and shoe laces for showing personality within the uniform code! We only ever wore our ties for school photos and if going to another school for a debate or something.

  5. PiT, we all did the rolling up of the skirts too (technically the hem was supposed to be just above the knee at the shortest!) I've always preferred to wear trousers whenever possible though.

    I love the story about dying your shoes with food colouring!!! What happened when it rained?

    Bob, my sympathies. My Mum was taught by her Dad for four years in primary school, and she hated it so much that she made sure she left my secondary school (where she'd been teaching part time) before I started there. Of course, all the teachers still knew her, and almost every one of them said "oh, are you Ann's daughter? You look just like her" in my first class with them. That didn't put a target on my back, no sir.

    Interesting thought that rebelling against ties made students ignore the rest of the uniform...

    Chall, yeah, sounds delightful. Although, as PiT and Lisbeth said, there were other ways to discriminate based on clothes and accessories. Banning trainers helped with the worst of the shoe-related stuff, but bags and jackets were tell-tale signs. I had a most un-trendy satchel-style bag, that also (the shame!) squeaked as it swung on my shoulder. Most other people had backpacks. My Mum wouldn't let me get a backpack until the other one had worn out... of course, when she was out of town or when I knew I wouldn't see her as I left or as I got back to the house, I took a backpack!

    Lisbeth, that must have been a strange experience, coming from a country where no-one wore uniforms!

    We had to wear our ties "kipper" style for school photos. On really hot days, teachers would occasionally declare a "no tie day" and we'd be allowed to unbutton our top button too!

  6. I love the story about dying your shoes with food colouring!!! What happened when it rained?

    I ended up with blue socks AND blue feet ... and white shoes. And everytime it got hot (which was every single day), a little bit more blue seeped out of the shoes and into my socks. I lost count of how many times I dyed those damned shoes back to blue. Sigh. I never learn.

  7. The worst thing was making sure that I had whole stockings and clean shirts - for a jeans and t-shirt type of girl, this was no small task!

  8. I never had a uniform in high school. I remember the first year of university, my roommate always agonized over what to wear each day because she was use to wearing a uniform and not having to decide on clothing. It was only then that I thought maybe a uniform would have saved a lot of time that I spent/wasted trying to pick out "cool" clothes.

    It was a big news item the other week around here when the Catholic School Board for the city of Mississauga (just outside of Toronto), just decided to get rid of the kilt option for girls because no one was wearing them in the appropriate manner, i suppose

  9. Lisbeth, I still struggle with that ;)

    Liz, luckily I had enough practice at picking out clothes in the sixth form! Not that I ever really spend more than a minute or two deciding what to wear on an average day (sometimes it shows).

    I think kilts look good as part of school uniforms, I'd have preferred that to some of the nasty skirts with horrible prickly fabric that I used to wear...

  10. We wore uniforms at my Catholic high school. Every once in awhile, though, our principal would bestow upon us a "Free Dress Day". To me, Free Dress Days were forceful reminders of why I was grateful to spend 99% of my school time in hideous polyester ensembles of polo shirts and Dockers. I didn't own any designer clothes. I disliked most of the clothes I did own. (Especially since I didn't possess a satisfactory number of grungy flannels . . . lol) I wasn't wholly indifferent to this fact that made me anomalous in yet another way.

    I couldn't afford Doc Martins, designer bags or an endless array of accessories, either. Still. Clothes were the biggest deal. I appreciated being able to roll out of bed and effortlessly pull on the same thing everyone else was wearing. High school sucked enough as it was.

  11. A friend of mine went to vet school at Auburn in the 70s. She was the only woman in her class. Auburn women were required to wear skirts or dresses. So the day came when she had to wrestle a large animal to the ground... She hiked her skirt up around her waist and did it.

    The next day the vet school was exempted from the regulation.

  12. We started out with (the ugliest) uniforms which were promptly abandoned as the USSR fell apart. I was one of the few kids on the poor end wishing we still had the ugly uniforms and my hand-me-down clothing (from a male cousin!) wouldn't stick out so much. But oh well, I am sure if it weren't for clothes, there would always be something else to pick on.

    I am surprised to hear you gals got to wear ties with your uniforms!

  13. Juniper, I remember No Uniform Days (as we called them) too - usually for charity (you had to pay a pound or two to wear your own clothes). I used to call my friends to find out what they were all wearing... standing out a little bit, but not too much, was a fine art, and one I rarely pulled off.

    My Mum was very anti labelled clothes and trendy bags and shoes, but many of my friend were in the same boat, so it wasn't tooooo hideous. But yeah, uniform days were much less stressful!

    Ridger, that's a great story! I'm sure all subsequent female students would love to meet your friend and thank her. But really - the 1970s??!!

    ScienceGirl, there's always something. I have to smile though at the image of young Ukrainians finding something negative about the breakup of the USSR... As the oldest child I avoided the hand-me-down uniforms, but my sister was not so lucky.


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