We are a people who are very partial to conformity – we love to recognize ‘others like us’, more often than not, through cultural backgrounds, dress, mannerisms, food habits, customs, residential location or our alma maters. There is that rush of excitement and recognition when we bump into those who share school and college memories even after years of no contact. And while there may be no special connect with the person you have met up with, there are common recollections of faculty, social functions and of course, the uniform – that unique badge of identity which every school flaunts.
Since I changed several schools through my Father’s army days, I also changed uniforms - some for the better and some for the worse.
My first and best was the uniform I donned at the Convent School in Chepstow Villas, London. Since England enjoys distinctly separate seasons – very cold and not so cold – we had two sets of uniforms, one for summer and one for winter. Summer saw us in cherry red striped frocks with brown shoes, white socks, cherry red blazers and straw bonnets with a ribbon band; winter wear was a woolen shirt topped by a pleated grey pinafore. Black shoes, grey socks, a thick grey coat and a grey felt brimmed hat completed the gear. We even had smocks to cover our uniform during art class or for anything that would cause us to get dirty!! I always felt dressed up and very ready to go to school. It also helped that I had friendly companions and a loving teacher!
When we returned to India, my school uniform was diverted for use as Sunday best, such was the quality, such was the look. And, yes, the winter wear came in mighty useful in India’s very cold north.
My next was a sky blue frock with white collar, cuffs and sash. There was no change for the seasons - come summer, winter or monsoon we wore the same cotton frocks. Since this was a co-ed school and skirts are apt to fly with the breeze, we were also encumbered by commodious bloomers elasticised at the waist and the knees. We could climb trees and indulge in less ladylike gymnastics without loss of dignity or so the nuns liked to believe. In the monsoon, we’d tuck our skirts into the waistband so that we could wade through knee deep puddles without our hems getting wet. We must have presented a pretty picture to the onlooker!! The local students who came from more orthodox families wore white salwars under their frocks and topped the whole off with a white dupatta. How we envied the boys their short shorts and tucked-in shirts.
From the north to the west, and my final school uniform. Here we had white blouses topped by a cream tunic and, since we had ‘houses’ to which we belonged, we also sported ties of the appropriate colour. Mine was blue. How I hated that uniform. The back was plain while the front had a heavy row of box pleats which made the tunic hang in front and ride up behind making it look very ungainly. Also, the cream colour showed up dirt and, in the time of leaky fountain pens and inadequate detergents, we tended to acquire ‘battle scars’ that were hard to erase. I had a strong desire to change schools only so that I could change my uniform! A very impractical and immature solution, but appearance is appearance even to the young, and more so to the teenager.
The most compelling reflection that comes to mind, fueled by glimpses of the current crop of school students, is that no matter how much the uniform attempts to make us conform to a common code of attire, the Good Lord made each of us unique with respect to shape and size and so the ‘uniform’ sits very distinctively on each schoolgirl frame!