Growing up, I had a dress code in elementary and a uniform in high school, and was always jealous of the back-to-school shopping ritual. (Did everyone in public school wear floral off-the-shoulder bodysuits, jean vests, and Z Cavaricci, or was that just my Saved by the Bell crew?) Still, I didn’t find the uniform cumbersome. It was more like a comforting baby blanket. Those pleated skirts and itchy, V-neck sweaters were my safety net, and having a prescribed outfit every day forced me to establish my character through action first; fashion came later. There was no pressure to compare myself and my material possessions to everyone else and theirs. Plus, imagine the time I saved getting ready in the morning! I cherish the tattered pleats of my youth, and think they actually allowed me quite a lot of freedom. Let me explain.
I could be nerdy, artsy, a bookworm, athletic, and that came from my two places: my personality, which I was learning to develop unencumbered by a wardrobe of choice; and the details. Like any uniform-clad schoolgirl, I had to be thoughtful and creative when hacking my outfit to express my individuality while staying clearly within the bounds of school rules.
Dress code limit-pushing accessories helped tell the story I wanted to share with the world, and this is how I dabbled in self-expression into my teens. I channeled Demi Moore as the brooding rocker Cassandra in One Crazy Summer by wearing dream-catcher necklaces, rope bracelets, and ball-chain chokers. I still showed up to Our Lady of Mercy Academy just under the morning bell in my school-girl gear, only I had my skirt rolled, my bun messy, a flannel shirt around my waist, a one size smaller oxford shirt to hug my new curves, and a double-breasted camel pea coat over it all. I was a pinch of Lolita, Ali MacGraw, and Kim Gordon all at once. I was bending those regulations to my will, like Helen Hunt in Girls Just Want to Have Fun. I mean, she made uniform tweaks a science.
For non-school clothes, I lived for the Delia’s catalogs and shopped entire outfits off of mall mannequins, harnessing another prescribed style and learning to refine my own aesthetic by continuing to tweak the add-ons. Eventually, the details took over to become my look.
My first-date outfit is one of the first I remember putting together entirely on my own, and the ensemble was a clear bad-girl parallel to my daily uniform. On that glorious evening at the Glen Cove movie theater, I wore a box-pleated skirt, dark tights, Doc Martens, a flannel with a white tank top peeking out from underneath, and deep navy eyeliner around my entire eye. I had taken the components of an outfit I had grown to understand, and set them to a soundtrack of Smashing Pumpkins.
The confidence one gets from working on what's inside before learning to care about the outside accompanies us as we age; the love of a uniform sticks with us and we almost yearn for some accepted outfit of armor. Only now, the purpose evolves from matching the masses to something different. How many adults wouldn't love that freedom from having to think about an outfit every day, to have pieces pre-selected that already support the identity we'd like to project? President Obama himself boasted to Vanity Fair about his closet full of blue suits, saying the reliable getup frees him up to focus on the million other more important decisions of his day.
I think of my version of revolutionary minds and they each have their uniform, but like me (and Helen!) they bend the rules to suit their mood. Anna has her bob and tweeds, but you'll still see her in tennis sweats first thing every morning. Karl's tied his hair in a George Washington pony for decades, but he jazzes things up with his now-iconic studded glove. And, Kate Moss has her I-haven’t-slept-in-days-yet-I-still-look-flawless thing going on, and she somehow brought leopard print back from the Peggy Bundy end of unacceptable. These looks, like the individuals who crafted them, are curated through years of hard work.
Today, I still have my core style that is an exercise in simplicity, and a constant fight between comfort and look. Of course, I'm still tempted by trends and I compile my wish lists the old fashioned way: September issue pages spread across on my bed. I've chosen dark jeans and tweed jackets to replace my stretched out V-necks; camel capes with leather skirts that stand in for my pea coat and box pleats. Whether it is bright palazzo pants and bib necklaces or a pencil skirt with brogues, I am happiest in clothes that make me feel creative and unique. And, I will always have a place in my heart for ugly shoes.
Now that my kids are in uniforms at school, I see the cycle beginning again. I wonder what Sophie’s smock dresses and Peter Pan collars may evolve into as inspiration for her own look as she gets older. I wonder if Henry’s navy blue polos and khaki pants will leave a bad taste in his mouth or make him appreciate a good haberdashery. Right now, their outfits are contributing to a sense of camaraderie and belonging among their new peers. I can’t wait to see how they use them to begin standing out.