Uniform - function, cooperation and the world of work.
Last time we talked about some of the things that we ask of a uniform: that it’s recognisable, practical, collective… and that it ‘prepares us for work’. The last few years have shown us radical changes in working life, which is now much more varied in location and hours than ever. So time to re-think? Might a uniform in fact lead unhelpfully to ‘uniformity’... If a school uniform prepares children for working life, does that suggest that life is about learning to conform?
We’re wondering, ‘if a uniform suggests a group of people working together, don’t we want that group to co-operate rather than conform?’ As anyone who’s tried to coax a child to do anything knows, it’s much easier to be co-operative when you feel comfortable and warm (but not hot). Do our current school uniforms make children feel that way? Further, it’s not just each other we need to live with peacefully, but also with the earth we share. Are our school uniforms co-operating with our planet’s well-being?
Sadly, we’ve found school uniforms causing problems on both of these fronts. How ‘green’ is a school uniform? And does it suit a child’s body and the activities they undertake at school?
On the plus points, uniform is designed to be worn many, many times and rarely changes much for years on end (the complete opposite of fast fashion!). It’s also easily shared between siblings and friends, making a re-use model practical and logical. However, digging deeper, if we try to scale up this re-use model, we quickly face problems.
Regulation outfitting for most schools features a school badge on at least one item, but often several (the shirt, the sweatshirt, the cardigan, the fleece, the jacket, the blazer). These badges try to sum up a school’s values in one image, which works well on paper (literally, on letters from the school!). On clothes, however, badged uniform rapidly becomes a huge stock of clothing that can only be given out to one group of people in a major city that needs to become a wide-scale green economy.
Next up: design. Many school uniforms still feature a blazer and formal trousers or skirts. While these make us think of a world ‘executive suits’ and board meetings… how practical are they for children and young people every day? And, for that matter, how many people still wear suits to board meetings? For us at the sorting end, we see blazers being donated that have hardly been worn. Their tailored shoulders and vented backs simply don’t have the ‘give’ needed for a rapidly growing body; ever-lengthening arms soon start to emerge from their fitted sleeves as the cuffs start to chase up almost to elbows. In less than a year it’s just unwearable, and that’s not to mention the impractical fabric (modern blazers are rarely made of rain-repellent wool, and life without a hood in Glasgow is soggy to say the least). Tailored trousers split at the knee, skirt seams burst as someone takes a flying leap in the playground. In real terms, formal school uniform has limited re-use value and can generate significant waste. And we haven’t even touched on the cost of blazers or the requirement for senior blazers from S3 onwards with expensive braiding.
We all know that the world of work has changed a lot, especially in the last 2 years, and along with that what we prefer to wear to work has changed too. Some aspects of school uniform have changed along with that (as we’ll discuss next). But for those of us trying to build a green economy for our children to enter after school, these formal features of the uniform need to re-considered. We hope to see schools thinking imaginatively about how to express their values, to think about how formal clothing works in practical terms, and aiming towards creating a feeling of working together without generating materials that can’t be used beyond the walls of their particular world.