Fashion, Comformity and Self-Expression

Dress Code

Fast Fashion is making us want more, spend more and waste more. Accessibility through low costs and an abundance of styles has boosted our need for newness and we’re topping up our wardrobes at an expedient rate. It taps into our need for conformity and our desire for self-expression, but at what cost to our mental health?

I hated my school uniform.

Polyester navy skirt ‘at least 2 inches below the knee’ that was neither straight nor A- line; prison-blue shirt that gaped open at the chest no matter how many sizes up you went; bulky, formless jumper; heels no more than 2 inches high, which Mrs Wilson would measure with a ruler if there was any doubt; finished off with a thick, boxy (not in the Chanel sense) wool blazer that smelt like dead sheep when it got wet.

It wasn’t flattering on anyone. On me, it was disastrous.

I wasn’t the most conventionally attractive of teenagers… in fact, forget the ‘conventional’. I was short, chubby, had bad skin and a severe, bluntly finished bob, in thick bushy hair which I used to ‘style’ with one of those god-awful comb hairbands that went out with snapbands and never came back; it made my hair stick up around my face in an arrangement I thought was feathering akin to ‘the Rachel’. It wasn’t.

I could still be described as all of those things, minus the dodgy hairband, but my grooming skills have developed somewhat since. And having read back over that last paragraph, I’m making a mental note for a future article on how women talk about their appearance and how this teaches younger women to hate themselves. We’re all guilty.  

Anyway, it was only when I became a teacher that I learned to love uniform. I worked in rough schools; the sort where kids openly tell their teachers to ‘get lost’ only they don’t say ‘get’ or ‘lost’. Working in schools with vast socio-economic differences between the students, where kids could be incredibly cruel, I became a staunch uniform advocate.

Why? It’s the ultimate leveller.

No one’s clothes are more expensive than anyone else’s. No one’s clothes are more fashionable than anyone else’s. They are all the same. It creates a sense of togetherness, rather than reinforcing a social hierarchy or class system which supposedly no longer exists.

It also has a hugely positive impact on behaviour; if you’re at your door asking students to tuck their shirts in before they enter your classroom, they’re far less likely to push the boundaries any further. Thus dramatically increasing the likelihood that learning will take place, as opposed to chairs being thrown and students trying to escape via a second floor window (true story).

So it is with wry amusement that I recently find myself as headteacher of an international secondary school that doesn’t have a uniform. In fact, it has no dress code whatsoever, save for the insistence on closed-toe shoes for safety reasons, which seems a bizarre place to draw a line. In an earthquake prone environment, I feel helmets would be the more appropriate safety-wear.

I’ve got a fight on my hands if I want to make a change: my colleagues who passionately argue against uniform say we should allow students to express themselves freely, let them learn to be individuals, that too many rules and restrictions give teenagers something to rebel against.

But if we’re relying on our clothes to express ourselves, aren’t we letting the fashion industry do the talking for us?

And is there really such a thing as an individual when it comes to fashion? I remember the ‘goths’ from my own school days who considered themselves to be non-conformists, sticking both middle fingers up to the world, judging those of us who looked ‘normal’ as ‘unimaginative sheep’, whilst all looking exactly the same as each other, barring a few differences in off-black lipstick shades.

There’s a boy in my current school considered quirky, different- he wears straw hats, denim shirts, bracelets up one arm, draws arty patterns up the other… I think it only works because he’s French… but he looks exactly like Harry Styles.

A girl, who wears misshapen sweaters over pretty floral skirts with ripped tights and biker boots, is considered to be hugely idiosyncratic by her peers and even described as ‘effortlessly cool’ by members of staff, looks a lot like Lily Allen.

It is those students, the ones who look unarguably cool, the ones who pull off eccentric with a sophistication that I couldn’t even aspire to now, nevermind when I was 15, that are popular, who the other kids aspire to be. Not because they’re the most interesting, intelligent, hard-working or kind, but because of how they look, because of the image they manage to convey through their clothes.

We’re never entirely going to get away from that. Some of the aforementioned students would still manage to make a school uniform look like it belonged in a Hoxton Square speakeasy.

But at least with a uniform, we could send the message that it doesn’t matter to us as educators, as the people responsible for helping them develop their minds- not their image. It would tell them that we don’t care about what you’re wearing, how pretty you are, how effortlessly cool you look. We care about how you express yourself through the way you treat others, what you create, your ideas, your opinions.

At least in school, clothes can’t matter.

According to the World Health Organisation,

“Factors which can contribute to stress during adolescence include a desire for greater autonomy, pressure to conform with peers, exploration of sexual identity, and increased access to and use of technology. Media influence and gender norms can exacerbate the disparity between an adolescent’s lived reality and their perceptions or aspirations for the future.”

With suicide as the third leading cause of death for those aged between 15 and 19 worldwide, we need to take these issues seriously. In her brilliant article, Giving Fashion the Finger’, Anna Cox articulately expresses the impact on our mental health of that battle between individuality and conformity (I suggest you give it a read rather than me attempting to badly paraphrase) which, as illustrated above, is all the more poignant in adolescents.

Of course, uniform is only part of the answer.

Whilst we can create a safer space for our young people in schools, we can’t shield them from society altogether, so we must also teach them to approach their environment critically, starting with the media.

Whether it’s teaching students not to take every tweet they read as gospel or developing their understanding of how certain groups are represented in the broader media, be it by gender, sexuality or ethnicity, ensuring our young people leave school with the ability to read, watch and listen with a critical ear, and yes, a certain degree of cynicism, will also give them a better shot at being mentally fit and healthy.

If it was as simple as teenagers learning who they are and trying to express that through clothes as a creative medium, then sure, it’s as valid a means as any art form. But the fashion industry, with their sophisticated marketing techniques (read: manipulation), taps deep into our psychology of wanting to be different, wanting to be special, whilst also want desperately to be liked, to conform.

Every 20th century decade had a distinct look, now anything goes, and that’s no accident; nor is it a sign that people are increasingly free to express themselves.

It is a danger to mental health, one that we have a responsibility to protect our children from.

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