I’ve long been of the view that if skirts were sensible and practical attire, men would wear them. I have a couple myself for state occasions. They’re all very well, but the ones that don’t flap about in the wind restrict the movement of your legs. Then there’s the shoes issue, and tights, and before you know it you’ve spent a fortune and need to get up half an hour before a man just to get dressed in time. However, consenting adults must do as they wish and many a fabulous teacher totters about in heels and a pencil skirt (though not at Tallis where the bridge is a heel-trap).
School uniform lists and dress codes torture themselves over skirts because they present huge issues that can only be solved in ways unacceptable to a thinking person. We say ‘skirts must be of a reasonable length’ – but what’s a reasonable length? A shorter girl can get away with a skimpier skirt than a taller girl simply because the amount of leg on show isn’t as noticeable. And then there’s the leg itself. If you conform to skeletal media expectations is the leg acceptable, but if you’re a bit fatter should it be hidden? And why must it be of a reasonable length? Obviously, one that drags around the floor may constitute a trip hazard, but that’s not the issue, is it?
The reasonable length is to do with what’s underneath the skirt, and not wanting to see it in school. What’s wrong with bare legs and shorts to cover up your pants, if you’re not allowed to wear shorts as uniform? And why can’t we wear shorts, ask the boys? Girls can wear skirts.
It is a serious issue. The article that attracted attention said that due to oppressive behaviour in schools, girls have to wear shorts under skirts to protect their dignity, because boys assault or abuse them. We’ve got pretty good in schools at stamping out overtly racist or homophobic attitudes and language, but are less good at old-fashioned sexism. Girls in many schools think they have to get used to being groped or having their skirts lifted so it’s no wonder they wear shorts. But the skirt is just the presenting issue on the front of oppressive attitudes in society. As long as we collude in the policing of women’s bodies then boys will think it’s OK to make girls’ lives miserable with their looks, words and hands. Girls ought to be able to wear short skirts in school without fear of molestation, as their mothers and sisters should be able to walk down the street without fear. Human beings should be able to go about their business without intimidation, no matter what they look like.
Don’t misunderstand me, it’s not quite a free-for-all. We wouldn’t like bikinis or swastikas or balaclavas. But we should make sure our dress codes don’t perpetuate the idea that women’s bodies need closer attention than men’s. Boys’ uniform is easier to set and enforce than girls’ because the basics, the clerk-class jacket and tie, is menswear. Skirts are not designed to be practical work attire so once we start policing them, that can of worms is all over our laps. Once we start specifying acceptable coverage for girls – like some of the fancier academies with their tartan regalia - we add a second inequality. At £45 for a skirt while boys’ trousers are two pairs a tenner from the supermarket all of a sudden girls’ education is more expensive than boys’. How is this legal?
You know that I think that school uniform’s prime function is as a community builder, with a secondary aim of relieving parents and children from unaffordable consumerist fashion demands. Uniforms should be simple, cheap and practical. They should be the same for girls and boys and we should think very hard about how we describe our standards. And we should put some serious time into working towards a world where girls and women are safer than they are now. It’s not the shorts, it’s the sexism we should worry about. Perhaps our new HMCI can turn her mind to that: understanding equalities doesn’t require school experience.
In other news Tallis are at the opening of the Switch House at Tate Modern as I write so more on that next time. And the exams are drawing to a merciful close. Shouldn’t we reconsider GCSE?