On crop-tops, man-buns, modesty and school uniforms

30 Mar On crop-tops, man-buns, modesty and school uniforms

First published in the NZ Woman’s Weekly 29.3.21


Given I am about to share my sartorial advice, a little heads-up seems in order because I’ve just looked down to see what I am wearing.

Currently: my Level 3 Lockdown leggings under a pair of shorts I bought without trying them on whose label said they would fit me but whose actual dimensions suggest they could fit two of me (which I didn’t return because the voluminous-ness of them provides my husband and I with much mirth, plus I like to eat so it’s good to have things to grow into) and a washed-out t-shirt I acquired decades ago as a handy declarative for protest marches which forthrightly states, “I’m against it” – just like that, but in capital letters.

So this piece is not being written by a fashionista. Grab a pinch of salt and read on.

At various points throughout each school year, there will be news stories covering the apparent lack of coverage on the bodies of students in the student body. These will be the stories about girls. There will be other stories with hair-raising headlines about afros, cornrows and man-buns (which, in case you’re confused – and why wouldn’t you be – are just buns like ballerinas and nanas wear but for some reason get a special name when people who aren’t women wear them). These will be the stories about boys.

Both these types of stories make me roll my eyes so hard I almost tip backwards (so it’s lucky I’ve got my active wear on) but there are some attitudes involved that are worth having a chat about.

First, let me say I’m a fan of school uniforms and not at all opposed to dress codes. Parameters are good and having a set daily outfit can be equalising and democratic. If you’ve got a school uniform that is reasonably priced, suited to the local climate and sufficiently unisex to make everyone, regardless of gender, feel comfortable about how they’re being asked to present themselves to the world, fill your (regulation) boots. The fewer decisions to be made before you leave the house, the better, I say.

Second, schools can be good at listening and evolving. Back when I was at high school (post slate-and-pencil, pre-computer) a bunch of us lobbied for long trousers to be a winter option for girls (and junior boys) because tiny polyester tartan skirts (and shorts) are a stupid idea when you live in a place with heavy July frosts. Our principal could see the point of that, so uniform options were widened.

But once you’ve got your kids wearing the same clothes as each other, it seems a reasonable idea to allow people to also express their individuality. Much of adolescence is about working out who you are in the world. What are you like? What do you like? How are you different from Oliver or Olivia? Which things matter to you about your culture or ethnicity or values? We talk a lot now in corporate environments about “bringing your whole self to work”. We’re going to be better at that as adults if we start learning about it in our teens.

So as long as a boy’s hair isn’t a health risk (I am attempting to imagine this) or stops him seeing or hearing what’s going on the classroom, I fail to see any problem with how he arranges it on his head. Perhaps if school authorities object to a hairdo, the owner of said hairdo could be given an opportunity to argue their case before a jury of their peers – make it a teaching moment and a chance to speak up.

But the perennial issue for girls, it seems, is “modesty”. Already this year a senior mufti-wearing high school student has been told that the clothes she wears (crop-tops, thin-strapped singlets) were saying too much about who she might be (or could be assumed to be) and that this would “distract” her male teachers and boys. As though the sight of a shoulder might stop you being able to cope with calculus. 

Here’s another teaching moment: if you want to know how a woman feels towards you, ask her – not her clothes. I spent a lot of my parenting years wishing that my daughter would put more clothes on. My mother wished the same about me. I expect my daughter will have the same thoughts about my granddaughter before too long.

Every generation has two sartorial aims – to not dress like their mothers, and to dress like each other. It says everything about fashion, and nothing about behaviour or character.

Eventually, they will do what we all do – design our own “uniform” for daily life to streamline the business of getting out of the house on time. A little bit of fashion maybe, a dollop of personal expression and increasing nods to comfort and practicality. Which is how I ended up here in my Lockdown leggings and balloon-like shorts, not fretting about what young women wear because eventually they’ll all get cold and put their cardies on.