Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Frocktober #3 - Why I've chosen my high school uniform as my final frock

Obviously, I have covered some of my reasons for doing Frocktober in the first place. I then followed that up with a few of my experiences as I wore frocks every day and what I was, and was not, enjoying about it all. Anyone who has accessed my photo album on Flickr or Facebook will also have been catching the stories behind the frocks, how I've come about them and what I make of them. So I hope you've all been enjoying the frivolities!

One thing that is glaringly apparent when perusing the photos is this: I have not even remotely managed to find a "style", with the exception of one frock which comes close (will leave that to your guess work). Those that know me best have particularly enjoyed seeing these pics, mainly because they know how much I am loathing having to pose for a photo every day wearing something I feel rather uncomfortable in. It has been remarked to me though that people who don't know me wouldn't necessarily get what the big deal of these pics actually are as, on the whole, I have managed to carry the garments off. Rest assured then, those watching from afar, that I am not dramatising for fun: this really is a month of incredibly strange behaviour by myself and does not come naturally to me at all.

So I have kept to it, and have challenged myself often. Wearing a red leather and strapless number into work was dicey. A floaty number on a windy day was, at times, "Marilynesque". Every day has been a challenge, with some more challenging than others. So considering this, exactly how was I going to lift the bar for the final day of Frocktober and challenge myself just that little bit more? Well, by wearing my most loathed of all frocks ever for an entire day, of course! And it was with this school uniform and the enforced wearing of this item for 5 years that this whole feminist-analysis-of-garments-thing started. So it's being reclaimed for a damn good cause!

By way of explanation, I must return my gentle viewer back to a time before the internet had broad domestic use and telephones existed purely via landline and had rotary dials on them. It was 1989, and after quitting years of classical ballet training, I had chopped off all my hair and ditched what was, in my estimation,a very girly first name for a more "tomboyish" nickname (I have, obviously, reclaimed the "hippy" first name since). See, at 11 years old I had already decided that I wasn't particularly comfortable with being girly and so took a stance. Dresses and skirts were pretty much ditched as well, and because we had a bit of freedom at my Canberra public school as far as the dresscode went (regardless of how hard Mr. Bennett tried to get us to wear our "uni-forms"), I used some of that freedom. Mind you, it was the 80s so I did wear bike pants as outerwear, but the thought was there. It was pretty much the same when I got to high school in Canberra. My hair was still short, and verging on a "mullet" really, but I made it plain to those around me: I wasn't comfortable with being seen as a "girl". I didn't want to be a boy mind, I just felt limited at a very young age by the social trappings of girldom. 

It wasn't all fun either; not being girly. I was given my first bra at a family Christmas and was so mortified that I hid and sobbed to the point of where I was made to apologise to my poor Aunty, who had gotten it for me on my mother's advice, because the folks were embarrassed by my reaction. Additionally, I got mistaken for a boy more than once, and was accused of being a lesbian back before I even knew what the term meant. I also remember a few rather cruel incidents. The key here though is that these moments were not enough for me to change my ways and fit the mould.

Then we moved to Melbourne at the end of year 7 and suddenly that freedom I had in self-expression went away. My school had uniforms and as a girl I was expected to wear a gross, tea-towel-like dress. For winter it was a skirt and shirt, and for sports we had a netball skirt and tshirt. I loathed it. I had two dresses, and the one I have on today was bought 2 sizes too big (it's now 3 sizes too big. YES!) because not only was it the 1990s and baggy was in, but Mum wanted it to have room to grow. Yes, there were trousers and shorts available for girls but they weren't widely worn at that time. Also, they were distinct from the boys' uniform because they were green rather than grey, and my long-suffering mother was certainly not going to be encouraging the wearing of them when it came to me. So there I found myself forced into socially-appropriate girls' attire by school rules and regulations. And I really didn't do too well at it, as earlier posts may attest.

It's interesting to me that uniforms in school are allegedly used as a great equaliser. There is some view that they are good because they level the playing field somewhat by providing a code that fosters collectivity and equality via common identification and removes visible signs of class disparity between students. Yet this is not the case, at least not in my experience of them. For starters, the uniform enforced gender differences visibly and socially. Visibly by, of course, framing distinctly who was male and female just in case there were any students who may blur those boundaries without these feminine or masculine garments. Socially, well as I have mentioned before, dresses are so structured that they dictate how a girl may sit and how she can move. As dresses also work in opposition to, rather than with, the body's natural structure, due care must be taken in the event of gusts of wind and the like to ensure that modesty is preserved. Oh, and they can be hoisted upwards in cruel pranks. If the boys ever had to worry about how they sat or moved in their grey shorts and trousers, then I call me "surprised". So whilst uniforms may create class equality in one respect, they reinforce gender disparity and therefore the most social and formal environment for young people, "the old school yard", reinforces the social construction that is "gender" at a most crucial time of a young person's development. 

I haven't noticed this changing much since I left school way back in 1996. Most school uniforms still have a distinct "male" and "female" form, and the girls whose bags I am now tripping over in the aisles of our public transport system in what can only be described as a "passing of the teenage baton" are, more often than not, still in dresses. Moreover, in these allegedly more enlightened times when society is apparently more up-to-speed with transgender or non-binary identities, it still doesn't seem to have shifted the dresscodes to unisex in most instances. Why is this? I am not naive enough to believe that if gendered garments were removed from school grounds that gender disparity would cease, but I do think that it would perhaps enhance the equalised environments that schools so believe they strive to achieve.

Yes, I did rebel, although admittedly it took me a number of years before I had the self-confidence to do so (high school really is a horrible place, generally, regardless of any dresscodes). I wore boots frequently with my uniform in later years (Blundstones and some other generic type back then. Nice) and on one open microphone day held in our school quadrangle, I did take to the stage to encourage girls to not shave their legs or armpits. But I also did conform by growing my hair long and observing ritualistic depilation (usually...). On weekends I tended to get around in hippy cheesecloth stuff, and long, floaty garments which, whilst still "feminine" were unstructured and allowed free movement. And the moment I left school, I broke up with formal, structured dresses altogether and my weekend wear became everyday stuff at uni. 

This month has been a month of me re-embracing these structured garments I so loathe in the name of a great cause. Despite all my whinings and whingings, I reckon I have done a pretty good job of it! So, in my estimation, the only way to end this month was to go that extra yard and pick the one frock that I have loathed always, and above all others, as my grand finale piece. Plus nothing says "Halloween" quite like a school frock. Thanks for coming on the journey of Frocktober with me, and please, continue to give generously to what is a fantastic cause run by fantastic people. The link to my donation page is on the side panel.    


1 comment:

  1. "whilst uniforms may create class equality in one respect, they reinforce gender disparity and therefore the most social and formal environment for young people, "the old school yard", reinforces the social construction that is "gender" at a most crucial time of a young person's development."

    You've eloquently described what I couldn't at the time. At an age where I was coming to terms with being sexualised and having my value measured by my ability to be decorative, the clothes we wore at school made me terribly uncomfortable. I did not understand the argument that school uniforms were meant to be an equaliser. I did not feel like I looked the way I was "supposed to" in a school uniform, and my creativity and self expression were stifled by it.

    I grew up in an affluent family so I had never experienced what it was like to be poor or to not feel that I belonged class-wise, so I never had to worry about navigating those social expecations, and I do see the value of uniforms from that regard. But I feel that these uniforms do play into the way our society teaches young women what their place is at a very early and difficult age.