I hated my school uniform. It was dull and bulky, comprised of a thick black sweatshirt worn over a white polo shirt that slid against the skin with a synthetic prickle.
There were regulations over the length of skirts and the width of trousers, which we mostly ignored. Belts and blue eyeshadow were also off-limits, but it took the bolder girls among us to defy those rules. Small flourishes of individuality came largely in the accessories: the choice of ballet flat or boot, the stud selected from Claire’s Accessories, the much deliberated over rucksack (when I was twelve, surfer labels had just hit land-locked Shropshire, and everyone was desperate for something christened with a chunky Roxy heart).
For something intended to make us all look the same, my memories of this uniform are very personal. I wore it five days a week for five years. Its restrictions – and slim possibilities for customisation – remain vivid. Many of us feel similarly about our uniforms. Whether we liked them, endured them, or railed against them, they remain intimately enmeshed with those years of adolescence when life is not fully your own and the horizon line of adulthood wavers in the distance.
A school uniform is a symbolic garment. In Series 3 of Sex Education, it represents the straight-laced restrictions brought in by new headmistress Hope Haddon (an increasingly evil Jemima Kirke), with ’70s style maroon and grey blazers imposed to attempt some kind of institutional order. Predictably, the students immediately take matters into their own hands, following time-honoured tradition in shortening their ties and rolling up their skirts. For a few, these new rules are untenable. The introduction of a uniform provides a useful – and empathetic – basis for the exploration of new non-binary character Cal’s (Dua Saleh) gender presentation.
In the fashion world, too, a more thoughtful approach to uniforms is in the air. In true September back to school style, a number of shows this fashion month have centred on this charged form of attire.
A few have drawn purely on its aesthetics, with pleated skirts and plaid a la Clueless or Gossip Girl found at shows including Bora Aksu and Sandy Liang. Such designs treat the uniform as an archetype ripe for reinterpreting, invoking images of preppy polish and beloved teen movies. This is the uniform not as an actual, lived-in item so much as an idealised image of it.
Two designers at London Fashion Week properly engaged with the limits and meanings of the school uniform. At Saul Nash, the choreographer and designer served up a nostalgic look at his own schooling. Inspired by a box of belongings his mother had unearthed featuring the shirt from his last day at school, he began thinking about chronology. “I can only recollect my time at school in fragments,” he explains. The remnant of a uniform was a sensory way in. It made the memories material.
Nash’s collection focuses on the utility of uniforms, as well as their room for manoeuvre. “Although there was a uniform policy it was a constant interplay between fitting in [and] creating subtle nuances which enabled us to express ourselves,” he says. “I think that whilst uniforms were made to democratise dressing at school, I was personally interested in the line between smart and casual. We would blur the lines between the two through the act of altering our uniforms as soon as the school alarms would ring.”
Nash’s journey is a personal one, evocative of North London bus stops and sportswear blended with regimented uniforms. The collection features vivid nylons and precise, laser cut details. It is functional and down to earth – the antithesis, perhaps, of S.S. Daley, who also debuted a school-themed collection several days later.
Where Nash’s inspiration is grounded in autobiography, Daley’s turns to fantasy. It invokes the gilded public school world of Maurice and Brideshead Revisited, complete with straw boaters and long white socks. Daley, who is working class, demonstrates an outsider’s fascination with these rarified aesthetics. The silhouettes are exaggerated, the mood at once campy and romantic. His LFW show took the form of a performance devised by the National Youth Theatre, the narrative exploring the actors’ varied experiences of schooling in state and public settings: capturing both the elation and the savagery of being a teenager stuck in a classroom.
Although fascination with school uniforms is nothing new – one only has to think of the late ’90s and early ’00s sexually cartoonish approach embodied by Britney Spears and St Trinian’s – these collections signal a fresh approach. Right now, the question driving these designs is a relatively serious one. How does our education shape us? What does this tell us about power and class, as well as the intricate politics of teenage conformity?
It’s a question found in Chopova Lowena’s current AW21 collection too, which melded Laura Lowena’s memories of a strict British uniform with Emma Chopova’s US anything-goes clothes policy. Uniform or no uniform, both designers realised that their clothes had been fraught territory. Tweaks to a uniform could signal one’s affiliation with a particular clique. The choice of outfit when all possibilities were open ran the miserable risk of not fitting in. Like Saul Nash and S.S. Daley, these tensions have proved fruitful – offering an interesting (and rather beautiful) riff on the tug between creativity and compliance.