Teenage Resistance Never Goes Out of Style: bending the school uniform code

Plaid skirts. White button down shirts. Neutral cardigans. Bowties. Any of that ring a bell? For those who spent their middle and high school days in a school with a uniform code, it probably doesn’t bring back pleasant memories. In fact, within the walls of any school, it is clear that there are those in control and those being controlled. We all had to follow (at times, arbitrary) rules in our educations, but uniforms codes were probably the worst. Principals and teachers hold power and dictate what is allowed and what is punishable when it comes to uniforms. The system of beliefs disseminated by school authority and regulated by hallway codes and detention are often at odds with students’ attitudes. In Subculture, the Meaning of Style, Hebdige notes that in society, there is often a ruling class who control the masses using “dominant ideology,” a system of beliefs that dictate the actions of the masses (150). In this case, the ruling class composes of principals and teachers and the masses are the students. Part of the ideology of educators is that schools should be egalitarian—a place without hierarchy and where students are rewarded based solely on academic merit, without the distractions of other factors that take away from a focus on education. School uniforms are one of the means through which the dominant ideology of homogeneity and egalitarianism are reinforced in educational settings by those in positions of power. They are however, continuously challenged by the resistance of female students who retaliate against dominant ideology and the suppression of their individuality through deliberate style choices which seek to disturb the symbolic visual consistency that uniforms seek to uphold.

Adolescence is a time for individual expression and dress is often a way in which objections to dominant ideology is broadcasted. In “The Language of Personal Adornment,” Roach and Eicher note that the aesthetic presentation of body through dress “carries a number of other messages, frequently of social and psychological significant” (110). Style is not just aesthetic—it is symbolic. Every item of clothing can have a message—especially in a uniformed environment, where a rule-abiding student technically has no say in what he/she wears every single day. In that case, slight adjustments to one’s uniform and even light accessorizing stands out so much more—deviant visual cues speak volumes in a space where everyone is supposed to look the same. Hebdige explains that youth subcultures are “symbolic challenges to a symbolic order” which are “expressed obliquely in style” (154 &151). Uniforms communicate the ruling class’s emphasis on homogeneity, which stifles the ability to express one’s individuality, social standing, and economic standing through style. Thus, subverting uniform code communicates resistance to that ideology and support of the opposing ideology that celebrates difference. Every student who breaks uniform code is part of the subculture that challenges the ruling classes of educational spaces, and their method of protest is not picket lines, marches, or impromptu speeches—it’s style.

Female students assert their individuality through the display of their bodies by altering and styling their uniforms to emphasize sexuality. For instance, the practice of rolling up/stapling/taping uniform skirts by adolescent girls is very common. In her article: “Confessions of a Former Skirt Hitcher” for The Telegraph, Rhadika Sangahi shares that she spent her middle and high school years rolling up her uniform skirt, from the school sanctioned “two inches“ above the knee to “six inches.” Many other girls in her school did the same thing. Sangahi notes that girls didn’t necessarily do this to attract any specific guy, but that “On a subconscious level, I think we wanted to start looking like sexual beings – hence we picked the obviously sexy image of short school skirts. It is embarrassing to admit with hindsight, but this female rite of passage was part of growing up.”

Source: The Telegraph
“Confessions of a Former Skirt Hitcher” by Rhadika Sangahi

Part of the purpose of school uniforms is to eliminate distractions like the female form and sexuality so students can focus on education. Roach and Eicher note that dress has long been used to emphasize and symbolize sexuality: “Male and female have historically been differentiated by their dress, however, bodily adornment of the sexes has not only been used to distinguish one sex from the other but also for the purpose of sexual enticement” (119). Uniforms subject both boys and girls to clothing that’s long, loose, and not very formfitting in an effort to de-emphasize their sex appeal. Skirts in particular, are always subject to a certain length in order to avoid a provocative aesthetic. When everyone’s wearing non-form fitting uniforms, sex organs (especially female ones) are hidden from emphasis and display, and thus, every girl is homogenous in their lack of displayed sexuality. Thus, shortening uniform skirts are ways in which girls emphasize their individual sexuality and rebel against the ideology of homogeneity.

Source: Mad Men. Screenshot via Netflix

Resistance is also displayed through the act of accessorizing: girls broadcast their unique individual fashion sense and knowledge of style by adding personalized touches to their uniforms. Accessories like different colored socks, headbands, earrings, and various ways of tying bow ties are all ways of tweaking the uniform and still adhering enough to the code to avoid punishment. For example, the uniformed students in the picture below display their individual styles by wearing different colored socks. They all look slightly different, even though they’re supposed to achieve visual homogeneity in uniform.

Preston High School students in uniform
Preston High School students in uniform

Roach and Eicher state that “A new item may affect mood by reinforcing an individual’s feeling of uniqueness and providing a break from the sameness of appearance that an individual had been presenting for a period of time” (110). This feeling of uniqueness amidst the sea of uniform “sameness” makes a girl stand out visually and makes her feel like an individual. Having a sense of fashion is a unique quality that not everyone has. Thus, a girl who accessorize in this manner is calling attention to the individual taste she possesses which her classmates may lack. Through the discourse of style, she’s resisting against the notion that school is only a place to display academic smarts—she’s telling the educators that she her tastes are singularly unique and superior.

Even girls who don’t have strong individual styles can use the Internet to find troves of videos on styling school uniforms. YouTube videos and style guides like the ones below teach students to look stylish and wear current trends in school by accessorizing correctly. Even if they don’t follow fashion trends as much as their peers, these cheat-sheet guides allow them to accessorize properly to still enjoy the social benefits of looking stylish and being in-the-know about fashion in front of their peers while in uniform. Knowledge of fashion grants the a girl cultural capital and elevates her social status, allowing her special treatment from peers and even staff—this hierarchy goes against the egalitarian, merit-based manifesto that uniforms seek to enforce.

Source: YouTube

Source: CNN via YouTube

The blatant display of luxury objects are also ways in which teenage students resist against the ideology of egalitarianism. Girls often accessorize their uniforms with luxury handbags and designer shoes in order to show off their wealth. In the photo below, a student from Trinity High School, an elite private school in Manhattan, holds a trendy designer bag while in uniform.

Source: Colliers Green Focus via 2011 Awards Ceremony. Photo taken of Trinity Catholic High School students
Trinity Catholic High School students at a 2011 Awards Ceremony

In our society, “acquiring the most expensive clothing is often a way of achieving differentiation through rarity, which usually commands social admiration” (Roach and Eicher, 111). Thus, accessorizing with luxury goods differs from accessorizing with trendy or unique objects: instead of asserting cultural knowledge of trends or unique style taste to gain social status, luxury goods are used to gain social status from economic capital. This encourages a hierarchy in schools—one in which social status can be based on a student’s personal wealth. As Han, Nunes, and Dreze explain in “Signally Status with Luxury Goods: The Role of Brand Prominence,” “Wealthy consumers high in need for status use loud luxury goods to signal to the less affluent that they are not one of them” (15).

Gossip Girl pilot episode  Characters sitting to the left and right have matching Ferragamo handbags
Gossip Girl pilot episode
Characters sitting to the left and right have matching Ferragamo handbags

A still from the T.V. show Gossip Girl, shows three affluent students, two of whom have matching Salvatore Ferragamo ostrich handbags in different colors ($3,500 by special order) speaking to a scholarship student with a vintage, designer-inspired handbag (she cannot afford a true designer bag).

Since uniforms are supposed to promote an egalitarian environment, blatant display of economic wealth to rise in the social hierarchy demonstrates directly resistance to the imposed ideology where wealth should not be on display and should be considered a factor in a student’s identity.

Through methods like display of body, assertion of individual taste, knowledge of trends, and display of economic capital, adolescent females resist against uniforms and their ideology of homogeneity. They fight against the suppression of individuality by tweaking and accessorizing their uniforms. Though educators have always tried to enforce egalitarianism through visual consistency, teenage resistance—through the visual symbolism of style—seems like a trend that’s here to stay.

Works Cited:

Han, Young Jee, Joseph C. Nunes, and Xavier Drèze. “Signally Status with Luxury Goods: The Role of Brand Prominence.” Journal of Marketing. 15-30. 2010. Print.

Hebdige, Dick. Subculture, the Meaning of Style. NY: Routledge, 1998. Print.

Roach, Mary E., and Joanne B. Eicher. “The Language of Personal Adornment.” Fashion Theory: A Reader. By Malcolm Barnard. London: Routledge, 2007. N. pag. Print.

Sanghani, Radhika. “Confessions of a Former Skirt Hitcher.” The Telegraph. 26 Sept. 2013. Web. 1 Apr. 2015.

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