My mother has a theory. Actually, she has many theories and, one day, she will start charging me to use them in articles – but unlike “why even number ages sound older than odd number ages” and “tea tastes better in certain mugs”, this theory feels especially relevant this week.
Her theory is that everyone’s school uniform leaves them with a kind of semi-permanent, subconscious wardrobe intolerance. While we all get giddy over the back-to-schoolish feeling of September shopping in general, anything that harks back to your own uniform is anathema. She couldn’t wear brown for a full decade after she left school, she claims, and it can take until well into your adult life before you overcome the negative associations of a bottle-green blazer or mustard kilt or whatever you had to wear for those long, stifling terms. The legacy runs deep; pick up a maroon jumper before enough time has elapsed, and your whole body might break out in hives, convinced it’s right back in double geography, being bollocked for writing in gel pen. Your only choice is to wait it out, or maybe burn sage.
If you spent your formative years in a black sweatshirt, then maybe you only need a year or so to get back on the horse, but a seriously bad uniform can leave indelible scars. And my school uniform was worse than most. A bright red hat (a HAT), navy and red striped tie, navy sweater and a calf-length navy pleated skirt. Calf-length. It’s important for you to know that this was years before midi skirts had made a comeback – the only other people wearing a calf-length anything were Mormon wives.
Being an all-girls school, we generally assumed our uniform had been chosen as a form of sartorial contraceptive. Nobody would fancy us in that uniform – why waste time on sex education? All the more time for hockey, or praying! Unable to make our skirts shorter in the time-honoured way, by rolling over the waistband, the cooler girls had no choice but to rebel by wearing them extra-long instead, swishing around the corridors like a bunch of angry Victorians with Jane Norman carrier bags.
We used to complain that those skirts were like wearing a picnic blanket – hot, scratchy, often covered in sausage-roll crumbs. Our uniform could be a comfort blanket, too, especially for a teenage girl generally at war with her body, grateful to find sanctuary in a shapeless sack for a few hours a day. But it was also – if we’re going to go fully GCSE Eng Lit with the metaphor – a fire blanket, smothering the flames of individual expression whenever they threatened to spring up. I miss plenty about school as a misty-eyed adult, but I can honestly say I’ve never missed that uniform.
I might be craving clothes from a time when simple grades delineated success, not mortgages and Instagram.
Fast forward 13 years of blissful, uninterrupted mufti, and I’ve recently bought a navy midi skirt. It was from a charity shop, so I can’t link you to it, but you can all imagine a navy midi skirt in your mind. It’s crepe, button-down and I’m finding incredibly useful – chic yet pleasingly utilitarian, good with boots, trainers or sandals, works well with a fitted Breton or a lightweight jumper tucked in. But I can’t shake a weird, nagging feeling each time I wear it. An old, familiar urge to roll my socks down and slick on a Bonne Bell Lip Smacker. Then it hit me – I was back on the horse.
Maybe I’d forgotten, or maybe I’ve regressed. Possibly an impending life crisis over reaching the end of my twenties has driven me back to wardrobe safety. I might be craving clothes from a time when simple grades delineated success, not mortgages and Instagram.
But, once I’d got over the initial horror (yelling, “ARGH!” and flinging the skirt across the room like a grenade), it was quite exciting to realise I had finally ridden out the associations. Think about all the style avenues that might be open to me now! I always assumed it was my boobs that made it impossible for me to pull off a crisp white shirt – but maybe it was just school uniform PTSD! I might buy one, now the curse is broken. All those years of determined fashion non-conformity (genuinely, I got to college and started wearing a cravat) mean I’ve always run scared from the whole concept of “uniform dressing” – the practice beloved of business moguls and fashion editors, where you fill your wardrobe with near-identical quality basics and live in variants on the same daily theme. But now I’ve built up resistance to the navy midi skirt, I could finally be ready to try.
Perhaps I’ll give a navy V-neck jumper a go, too, while I’m at it. And an Ellesse backpack. Hell, give me a few months and I might even be ready for a red hat again. I quite fancy colour-blocking a scarlet beret with a pink coat, now there’s less danger of a boy from the boys’ school flinging it under a train.
Not a tie though, obviously. Let’s not be ridiculous. While the negative associations of high school can be burned through in a mere 13 years, the legacy of Avril Lavigne might last for ever.