As young people go back to school, here’s a topic for the ages.
I recently did a blogpost on a book by Ursula Orange called Begin Again, (and thank you again Dean St Press) and we looked at the lives of young women in the 1930s, and clothes of the time. But there was a little flashback incident in the book that also hit home – we are big on Clothes Panics on the blog, but this book has a wonderful story from the subset that you would call School Uniform Panics.
My friend Lucy Fisher, in her book Witch Way Now?, mentions the famous Eleanor Roosevelt remark that ‘no-one can make you feel inferior without your permission’. But as Lucy and narrator Anna truly say, ‘Eleanor doesn’t go to our school’. The idea of being at school without the proper uniform is awful, and even the most grownup person must still have the shivers at the thought.
The story in the Ursula Orange book is excellent:
On the day before Henrietta, aged thirteen, went to St. Ethelburga’s, a frightful thing occurred. The shop sent the wrong kind of flannel blouses and there was no time to send them back. It seemed that Henrietta would be forced to appear at her new school, even to travel to her new school, in the wrong kind of blouse. How with such an appalling handicap was she to avoid the frightful blemish of conspicuousness, the worst sin in the whole gamut of a new girl’s crimes?
Everyone tells her it will be fine – the correct blouses will arrive within a week – she can manage till then surely? Henrietta is devastated. But she has an older sister Sylvia, who went to the same school some years before. As Henrietta is in bed grimly considering the prospects -
Sylvia, very grown-up in an evening dress, came up….“I’ve been talking to mummy,” [she says] casually, “and I thought if you’d like it too, I might drive you up to town tomorrow in the car to meet the school train that way. It would mean starting rather earlier, but it might be rather more fun than the train. Also we could go round by the shop and change those blouses. You could put on the right one straight away in the shop. I mean it would save all the bother of sending them back and that sort of things wouldn’t it?”
“Oh, it would, wouldn’t it?” said Henrietta, great waves of thankfulness and rapture breaking over her. “You are an angel, Sylvia.”
And then Sylvia claims to be going to travel up to town anyway (even though it is clear she has no experience of driving in London and finds the idea terrifying) and sits on the bed and chats gently to Henrietta about school and how she will find it.
Not all stories end so happily. In Antonia Forest’s Attic Term (1976), the girls have been allowed to bring their own supper dresses to boarding school. But Nicola and Lawrie Marlow still have only their old uniform dresses – they are the last in a line of sisters and their mother thinks they should ‘get the wear’ out of all the uniform saved up for them. An elaborate plotline follows, where Nicola tries to find an outfit from a charity shop: harmless, you might think, but many things follow from this.
In the Anthony Powell Dance to the Music of Time series, there is something mysteriously wrong with Widmerpool’s overcoat, it’s not quite right: this is in the first book, A Question of Upbringing, at a school which is plainly Eton. If ever tempted to feel sorry for Widmerpool, Powell always gives you a steer in the other direction, but still – not an easy thing to be at a top school in the wrong coat.
I know that school uniforms are going to be a popular topic here because after a recent mention of the Chalet School on the blog (talking about a John Banville book, as anyone might guess) I got into a blissful Twitter discussion of many aspects of the Chalet School, but hugely about the uniform – as many of us fans agreed, we couldn’t remember what happened last week or what we went upstairs for, but we could tell you the details of life at the Chalet School and the different colours of the different versions of the school outfit.
My friend Deborah Machin was one of my earliest blog supporters – I always say that she used to send me encouraging messages & suggestions when I didn’t know if anyone was reading the blog at all. Last year she recommended a marvellous book called Mollie’s Choice by Helen Barber. It’s a school story written now, but set in the 1920s, and I absolutely loved it: Deb was (as she always is) right. It is set in a very recognizable Durham in the North East of England: a place both Deb and I know well – I was at university there. The school that Mollie attends is also very recognizable, apparently, very much an actual school there – though it is entirely fictional, and Helen Barber (who also writes Chalet School continuation books…) is writing now. It is not a posh or exclusive boarding-school: Mollie gets a scholarship there from an ‘ordinary’ home: she has to lodge with a family in term-time. The book is full of details of life, it is a truly wholly imagined world. It is very much in the mode of traditional boarding school stories, though you would never mistake it for a book from 50 years ago. I have tried and tried to work out why I think that, and who exactly it is aimed at, and I’m not sure. But it is a marvellous book, highly enjoyable and very unusual.
And there is a hilarious scene where Mollie can’t find her school beret, and – ever attentive to the rules – can’t imagine how she is going to get home without wearing it. She is caught between two rules: must wear a hat, and must have left the school on time. (She is convinced she will be locked in overnight, starving.) It is a true uniform panic, and beautifully done. Spoiler: she ends up walking home under an umbrella even though it is not raining.
Helen Barber writes a fascinating afterword to the book, about the school – which she attended many years after Mollie – and how she came to write it. I think I must now read some of her Chalet School books. And any fan of traditional school stories would enjoy Mollie’s Choice.
While book-shopping in the Charing Cross Rd last year with fellow GA fans on the way to the Bodies in the Library conference, I found a book by star crime writer Michael Gilbert – but not a murder story. It’s called Prep School, and is an anthology of real-life recollections from boys who went to these schools in the first two-thirds of the 20th century. There is a whole chapter on clothes, in which various famous men, the great and the good, remember in excruciating detail how their ‘darling mother’ sent them to school with no shirts, or only short trousers (the darling mother here was blog love-hate object Vita Sackville-West), or dressed as Little Lord Fauntleroy, or wearing a girl’s sailor blouse. The victims all claim it was character-forming. ‘I was blamed and given a bad mark… so later I handed a ‘bad mark’ [to a fellow-pupil], somewhere in the region of his right eye.’ But actually it just makes for very hard reading. For me the whole book just makes you even less able to understand why the upper classes thought it was a good idea to send their offspring to these places. Gilbert himself wrote The Night of the Twelfth a heart-stopping and engrossing thriller set in a boys’ school, one of my favourites of his books.
And finally, on a personal note…
A good few years ago, at exactly this time of year, my family arrived back in England from the USA, in time for the children to start their new school. Because of a mixup, the school uniform hadn’t arrived in time, and I thought my two children would have to go to their new school in their ‘own clothes’, which the school of course said was perfectly fine.
A good friend had promised to introduce me to her friends, whom I didn’t know at all. On the evening in question – and I can still see them – these strangers walked into the room carrying items of uniform: the mutual friend had told them of my problem and they had all sorted out stuff from their own children, apologizing to me ‘It’s a bit faded’ ‘it’s missing a button.’ You will not be surprised to know that all these years on they are all amongst my closest friends still. Thank you across the years – you saved the day.
Pictures from the 1920s schoolgirl annual in the top picture.
What a great topic, Moira! Anyone who ever wore a uniform to school will know that panic. Even those who never suffered it will have seen others go through it. Thanks for this interesting look at this book. It's all got me thinking about class/socioeconomic differences, and how some girls had to go to school in worn, patched uniforms (or in low-quality uniforms, etc..). Others had the latest, brand-new, expensive uniforms. Funny (and I admit, this is a bit of digression) how uniforms were intended in part to reduce economic class differences, but they really didn't.ReplyDelete
Yes that is so interesting, and I do agree with you. When we live in the US there were no uniforms at our local schools, and although I know all the arguments for them, I was quite happy with that - I thought it worked well and was actually more inclusive. I know that isn't true everywhere, and perhaps as children get older they are more concerned about brand names and so on, but the children in our local elementary were very happy with the way it worked out, and so were the parents. But it is a never-ending topic... with no definite right or wrong.Delete
Fascinating, and I have not read Helen Barber, must look out for that.ReplyDelete
The Chalet School girls must have taken some packing, what with ski kit, and sports things and evening clothes as well as uniform.
This blog reminds me of Kate Ruggles from One End Street, and her precious school hat that floated away. And also of my own best friend at university. In those days we were lucky with our grants, but they didn't stretch very far. I remember it took the combined resources of eight of us to get one kitted out for a first term ball (yes, we had balls). I had to make my school coat do for first year, but my friend, for the first term, wore her entire school uniform, bottle green gymslip and all. Her family had managed the train fare, but that was all they could do.
I am happy to say she carried this off with wonderful aplomb, to the extent of playing the French maid in the end of term hall play, black stockings, suspenders, frilly white apron, but no skirt. Skirt was beyond us to produce. 'I'll be all right if I keep facing forward,' she said bravely and although the scene involved jumping onstage from a curtained window seat in high heels, she kept facing forward, and was all right. To the extent of a standing ovation.
Kate Ruggles's uniform panic was the one I thought of too. Poor Mr Ruggles "making a 7 as looked like a 1" on the grant form asking how many children he had, and Kate having Mrs Beasley's niece's blouses dyed with "Drummer".Delete
My secondary school brought uniform back in my second year - not blazers etc, just school sweatshirts and polo shirts - and it did take away some of the worry about wearing the "wrong" clothes.
I actually had One End Street on my list for including in the post, but I couldn't find a copy of it in time, so I'm glad others have made good!. Her trials were so real in my mind when I was young, I really felt for her. Also the time she 'helped' by ironing something that then shrank? A petticoat maybe that her mother was paid to wash for a rich family. That story seared itself into my brain, I was horrified, seeing myself in her position...Delete
Hilary, your friend in the school uniform is astonishing - it sounds like a story from the 1930s, are you secretly 50 years older than I think you are? But I do remember the tight clothes budget in my student years. When I look though my photos, the same clothes kept appearing on different people as we borrowed and lent freely. You couldn't afford to make mistakes in your clothes-buying. Young people today have hard times in many ways, but clothes are easier...
Susanna - I can see that uniform helps more in secondary schools. We had really strict uniform rules, and theoretically had to have skirts a certain length, and wear gloves and hats (at least to begin with). I did love the freedom when we got the Sixth Form, and we had a dress code (certain colours) instead.
I live in a country that does not have school uniform, and I have to say I am glad for that. (Though I actually wore uniform while living abroad as a rather young chield, and don't remember having any problem with it.) At least in my experience there was no bullying or peer pressure about which clothes to wear. Might have been different among the girls I suppose.ReplyDelete
I tend to come down against school uniform, though there are good arguments either way.Delete
I think there are two separate things - there is a dark side of worrying whether others will bully or criticize you. But even without that, children tend to want to look like everyone else, and feel they will stand out in the wrong clothes. And that could be non-standard uniform, or it could be wearing a skirt when everyone else is in jeans, or vice versa. The decision for uniform or non-uniform doesn't solve all the problems.
I will add that English uniforms seems needlessly formal. Having all kids look the same can be done without making them dress like bank tellers.
Primary schools tend to settle for a sweatshirt and polo shirt - practical and easy. But my local state secondary school dresses them like it's the 1950s - shirts ties and blazers. It's supposed to 'prepare them for working life' but almost nobody dresses like that at the office now - not even bank tellers. Ridiculous.Delete
How we feel for Kate Ruggles!ReplyDelete
A friend once told me how, when she started secondary school here after living abroad, her mother bought her expensive Viyella shirts for school. Of course, Viyella is an off-white colour and all the other girls had ordinary gleaming white shirts. She felt so wrong but how could her mother have known? It was natural to her to buy 'the best'.
That's exactly the kind of story that epitomizes the problem! There is no universal answer. I had a PE shirt that I felt was slightly different from everyone else's, though I'm sure no-one else noticed, but I was a martyr to it...Delete
Oh, yes, our school uniform was so old-fashioned and formal - gym slips, ties, shorts that were really divided skirts going down virtually to your knees, when outside school we were wearing mini skirts. And the effort made to customise it - folding the waist band to shorten it as you left school, fraying the end of your tie. Patent leather shoes weren't allowed and we believed that was because they might reflect your underwear! That now seems very unlikely . . .ReplyDelete
So I wasn't in favour at first, but our youngest wore a school uniform both at primary school and also at secondary school up to 16 - where it was simple and comfortable, black or navy trousers could be bought anywhere, and there was a school polo shirt and sweat shirt. It did make life much easier in the mornings - no discussion about what was and wasn't suitable and I felt it was a good thing that you couldn't tell who was from a well off family and who wasn't.
I love your story about the mother-friends who rallied round!
I think I was vaguely pro-uniform before I went to live in America, where non-uniform seduced me, partly because it was a lot easier on the laundry - you didn't have to have a rotation of clean shirts at all. I see advantages of both...Delete
What I loved about the US elementary (primary) school was that the children DIDN'T GET CHANGED FOR PE. Imagine. At the beginning of the year you were told which days your children would be doing it, and you were asked to make sure that on, say Tuesday & Thursday, your child wore sneakers (trainers) and that girls either wore trousers or wore cycling shorts underneath their dress or skirt. I cannot tell you how wonderful I thought this was, after UK primary where tiny children spend half the lesson changing and changing back, and losing things and everything has to be name-tagged. And the US children were none the worse for this...
I have no experience with school uniforms. Only students at Catholic schools wear uniforms here. No, I take that back, I do remember some middle school nearby that planned to have uniforms, but not sure how that worked out for them.ReplyDelete
I did work with a guy who bought a bunch of t-shirts with a IT group logo on it, all the same color, and wore them because he did not want to worry about choosing clothes every morning. I can see how it would make things simpler, because clothes are always an issue at school and my family did not have much money so once I was aware of it, I did worry that my clothes were not good enough. But it sounds like even with uniforms, it isn't simple.
No exactly - if children are going to worry, and other children are going to be mean, you can't resolve it by wardrobe decisions. Having lived through a lot of both systems I am very neutral. Except for saying if you have uniform it should be cheap and practical.Delete
This is fascinating — a friend told me about your blog because I was carrying on about people not describing clothes enough in murder mysteries, and there are some grand resonances with school stories on that regard. The minute clues and details and intersections with personal relationships...ReplyDelete
How nice - thank you. That's exactly what I like to deal with on the blog (along with lots of other things). Hope you will stick around.Delete
The whole concept of school uniforms is very alien and very exotic to a Swede. Though having always loved clothes and having always been quite "retro" in my tastes, I feel (contarary to Johan above, whom I suspect to be Swedish too) that they would only be acceptable if they were indeed quite formal and quite old-fashioned. I would have hated to be made to wear something simple and practical.ReplyDelete
Right, great comment! I am trying to imagine a very formal Swedish uniform and it is a lovely idea, obviously in my mind it is being designed by Carl Larsson and featuring in one of his pictures.Delete