August 25, 2010

Get in Line: Uniform Culture

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There is a great legend about the men of the University of Coimbra in Portugal, one of the oldest universities in the world: men wear a uniform of short capes. As the story goes, for each broken love affair the student puts a single rip in his cape, leaving the real heartbreakers walking around in tattered threads, macho pride intact. Apparently they still wear the capes for special ceremonies at Coimbra, but the university uniform, and sadly this poetic ripping tradition, is pretty much dead.

Uniforms signify not only the military significance of “blue team vs. red team” or us vs. them, but they also signify who is a player and who is on the sideline. To wear a uniform is to sign up for battle. To wear a uniform is to consider oneself part of a concerted effort. In this vein, some charter schools in the US require uniforms. But the catch is that first-year students are only given their first uniform once they have reached certain academic goals. There is pleasure in the crisp formality of a forced dress because it implies membership, but there is more pleasure in breaking the code.

At a local prep school where I grew up the boys had to wear a suit and tie to class. They circumvented this by wearing thin oxford shirts with the t-shirt of their choice visible beneath — or, if they were cool, they donned the “Hell Raiser Blazer.” Each week upper level students conferred the prized jacket on the boy who had raised the most hell the previous week and only he could wear the coveted navy blazer with a bright red “B” emblazoned in dripping paint on the back. Beyond A Separate Peace style antics, messing with standard-issue uniforms is a fashion subculture in itself. Case in point: The most creative street fashion of the last few decades have undeniable been wild permutations of the schoolgirl uniform in Tokyo and British school plaids coming out of London’s grunge scene — Vivienne Westwood’s life source and Marc Jacobs’ original inspiration. But fashion always comes full circle, and this case is no different as Vivienne Westwood sells vagrant-look plaid gowns for thousands of pounds sterling and the runways for this fall were filled with sky-high penny loafer heels, leather schoolgirl skirts, and fur-trimmed backpacks. Rebellion is too sexy to keep secret. Everyone wants in, until someone finds a way out again.

So as we come back to school, we are allowed to each choose our outfit each day according to preference, no robes or capes required — not even a blazer. With no official standard there is nothing to break free from. It’s like that first night when you realize you don’t have a curfew anymore, but is there anywhere to go anyways? I hope so. The truth is, given the freedom, we don’t really choose our clothes. Walking around Cornell, there are basically a set of uniforms for each subculture, from the chic Korean kids in black smoking outside Olin to the Mann library crew in leggings to the line outside Johnny Os filled with black bandage skirts and silk tank tops. Here’s to the girl with the huge peasant feathers in her hair in CTB last weekend, here’s to the guy with the white linen suit and black Air Force Ones on Ho Plaza. I would give them the Hell-Raiser Blazer, except they already have their own uniforms.

Original Author: Amelia Brown