What Having A School Uniform Taught Me About Personal Style

Photo: Getty Images.
Photo: Getty Images.
Despite the fact that I have thoroughly American parents, I grew up in London and thus, went to a strict, all-girls school. The North London Collegiate School for Girls was quintessentially British: It was founded in 1850 by formidable feminist Frances Mary Buss, and, of course, required an uniform. But there were no cute tartan sets to be found here. Instead, we had muted brown sweatshirts (or jumpers, as they're referred to in England) and the choice between a coordinated pleated skirt or baggy corduroys. The only pop color came from a periwinkle blue blouse, which may sound nice in shade, but in reality, was cut like a boyfriend shirt (before the style was cool). They were just long enough to hit our sprouting adolescent hips in a way that truly escalated self-loathing, even on the slimmest of students.

For the majority of my young life, five days a week, I wore this unflattering, icky ensemble that was rather notorious amongst the London teen set. The boys schools lovingly nicknamed us the “cowshed girls,” often mooing when we approached the bus stop. And to top things off, makeup was strictly forbidden, nail polish was off-limits (there was one math teacher who could even tell if you had a clear coat on), and only flat, neutral shoes were allowed.

For many years, I felt like a victim. #WhiteGirlProblem or not, my teenage self wholeheartedly believed that these imposed regulations were a true hardship. It seemed like my personal style was being stifled, that uniforms were an unnecessary cruelty being thrust upon my already awkward self. From the time you become aware that your body type just doesn't look that great in boot-cut cropped cords, being forced to wear the exact same thing everyday can be pretty tough. Throw in some braces and a healthy sprinkling of acne, and you really have yourself a party.

Worst of all, most of my American friends went to The American School in London, which, most importantly, did not have a dress code. In my eyes, A.S.L. was the pinnacle of chic; the Gossip Girl beauty to my Harry Potter tragedy. I would stare longingly at the beautiful girls boarding the bus next to mine in their Miss Sixty jeans and Juicy Couture terrycloth hoodies. They all looked like they walked straight out of an episode of Laguna Beach, which I watched religiously. The MTV reality show explosion only ignited my indignation: How lucky to be LC or Kristin Cavallari in their tube tops and cut-off shorts, I would muse to myself from my London bedroom. And no, the irony isn’t lost on me today.

Like any good North London Collegiate School student, though, my frustration eventually propelled me into action. Aside from buying a deep conditioner and getting my hands on some Accutane, I decided to take the school uniform situation into my own hands, which happened in two parts; the first stage was on purpose, the second was a happy accident. Stage one is what I like to call "Take Back the Cord," a.k.a., working around the restrictions and making the outfit my own. I ripped buttons off my mom’s Versace coat from the '80s and sewed them onto my blazer; I started wearing custom-made knee socks (someone forgot to put sock rules in the bylaws, suckers!), and chic Mary Janes instead of sneakers. I like to think I was the Elon Musk of dress codes, if you will.

The second stage was more of a happy coincidence; something that I didn’t even realize was happening. And that was recognizing that, when you have a uniform, every outfit outside of school counts tenfold. The weekend became my time. I would copy whatever Kate Moss was wearing. If there was a new trend emerging, I was on it. I read fashion magazines in a way that I don’t think I’m even capable of anymore. I didn't just read them, I studied them. I would go get milk in a velvet blazer and silk pants; I would lounge in anything but sweatpants and hoodies. No opportunity was left unscathed.

Before I graduated, I always thought I would go to college in New York, wear heels to class, and be best friends with Linda Fargo. Instead, I went to school in Northern California (what I like to refer to as the anti-fashion capital) and spent most of the next four years of my life in Levi’s cutoffs and T-shirts. It was a new uniform. A different kind. It wasn’t quite the progression I had imagined, but I didn’t care. That's when I realized that eliminating the gross brown outfit from my wardrobe didn't offer a big sigh of relief. In fact, on most days, I found myself actually missing my uniform and the ease of it all.

When I look back on high school now, I don't think, Damn, I missed all those opportunities to wear Abercrombie graphic tees, I think more about the smart women that I grew up with. And no, this isn't a plug for single-sex schools, but as an aside, I will say that our uniform was an equalizer. It was never about who had the new this or that, there was never any designer comparison. We were there to learn — and that’s what we did. Further, when 5 o' clock hit on Friday, my imagination ran wild with outfit possibilities. Whether I was dressing punk for Camden Market, or posh for King's Road, I could be whoever I wanted to be. Fashion was empowering, as it should be. I would be remiss if I failed to mention that Anna Wintour also went to my high school. I’m hoping this proves that having your wardrobe stifled in your young life can be some sort of catalyst for fashion greatness.
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