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On Uniforms: Self Expression's Continuing Battle with Conformity

Our Perspectives Sure Change As We Age

I have to confess that the only real action I ever took to change a school policy on standards of dress was back in my high school days.

That was a time of great social upheaval when many took action on pressing issues like civil rights and the Vietnam War with marches, sit-ins,teach ins and walk-outs.

My fellow students and I were incensed at the great social injustice we were suffering as victims of an oppressive school administration enforcing a draconian dress code that banned students from wearing blue jeans to school.  If that did not constitute “cruel and unusual punishment” in the time of The Beatles and bell bottoms, what did?

When the moment was right, we struck. One school day, after lunch of course, instead of passing on to the next class at the signal of the bell, we walked out the doors en masse, showing our might and will to the administration in this disruptive but peaceful act of solidarity.

We actually won that battle.  School officials modified the dress code to allow “neat” jeans with no holes or furniture-destoying brass buttons on the pockets. We fought “the man” and were victorious.

Since then, I’ve worn blue jeans more days than not. They are my first choice for the casual comfort they provide. Acceptability of blue jeans even penetrated my workplace to the practical benefit of photojournalists like myself who frequently drop to our knees to get the best angle for a photo on a sports field, pavement or construction site.

We could even throw on a dress shirt, dark sport jacket and necktie with jeans on and “pass” as dressy enough for the office since we were part of that artsy and somewhat eccentric creative crowd.

But there are times when jeans just aren’t the right thing to wear. Formal ceremonies, certain social gatherings, funerals, and meetings where it’s time to “dress to impress.”

Although I’m tempted to wear my blue jeans on trips to New York City, it’s easy to feel like a country bumpkin in jeans as you pass the natives in their three-piece suits or latest imported leather jackets.

Most parents don’t even blink when our kids are required to wear uniforms when they join sports teams, and the kids themselves are often thrilled to get them. In addition to helping recognize teammates are on the field, they constitute an acknowledgment by the participant that they’ve given up a certain level of self-expression in a show of support, commitment and identification with the mission of the organization.

I'd also vote with the camp of parents and educators who say that uniforms in school eliminate one area of distraction and help keep young minds focused on why they are there. Just look at Harry Potter. He's pretty smart and cool, too!

I didn’t wear a uniform until I was well into adulthood and made the commitment to be a Boy Scout leader in the troop that my sons were in.

At most meetings, “class B” dress was acceptable. For our troop that meant a troop shirt, which could be the casual T-shirt with the troop logo on it, or the traditional brown shirt, over jeans, shorts or whatever an individual’s pants of choice were. Full dress “class A” uniforms were only required for formal events like parades, award ceremonies and certain functions at scout camp.

My oldest son Neil rose through the ranks and was elected Senior Patrol Leader of his troop. At one point during the evolution of his personal look, he cut and dyed his hair into a flaming mohowak, and, as far as I know, this was within the acceptable boundaries for our scout troop as long as he embraced the uniform, which he did.

One day he decided to celebrate his Irish heritage by wearing a kilt to school and was promptly sent home.

Today he has 10 years of service to his credit in the United States Coast Guard and has attained the rank of petty officer. Needless to say, the mohawk is long gone.

I am quite proud of Neil, his path in life, and his ability to push the envelope of self-expression while remaining an open minded thinker who is accepting of others who are different than he is. He freely, and proudly chose to embrace the mission of Boy Scouts of America and now the U.S. Coast Guard as well as the uniform and all that goes with it.

But for some reason, my son Neil never liked and never wore blue jeans.

Maybe he didn't know about his father's sacrifice for his right to wear them.

Rob Milne March 31, 2011 at 12:54 AM
I think school uniforms are fine, we always had them. It eliminates the problem of what to get dressed into each morning and the cost associated with fashion. It also promotes a consistent image which can be easily maintained regardless of social structure and affluence, and yes just allows the students to just get down and do the job they are at school for. There are pleny of opportunities for self expression in dress out of school. I have worn a scout uniform since the age of eight, still do now as an adult leader and am proud to continue to do so. if you don't like a uniform, then just toughen up and get over it princesses!

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