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My old school, the army, Girl Guides, McDonald’s, Manchester United Football Club. Probably the only thing these five institutions have in common is the fact that they require their members to wear a uniform. Whether they are enforced in order to create a professional atmosphere, to generate money or to show who you’re meant to be kicking the ball to, all uniforms are meant to cultivate a sense of community and solidarity.

But do they actually achieve this? By trying to make everyone look the same, do uniforms actually divide and exclude more than they unite? To answer this question, I’ve looked back on a small selection of the uniforms I’ve been forced into over the last decade and whether they’ve made me feel ‘part of something’.

Secondary School Uniform

The fact that it was all a rather unfortunate shade of brown certainly brought about solidarity among students as we all shared a strong sense of embarrassment. Of course, the official uniform was one thing, but if you wanted to fully conform and ‘fit in’ like most adolescent girls are inexplicably desperate to do, you had to follow the unspoken rules of the unofficial uniform. These were three-fold; roll your skirt up to your underarms, buy the biggest jumper possible and follow whatever ridiculous hair trend was popular at the time - the worst being the American Apparel neon-lycra scrunchie phase in Year 9. Although not particularly fetching, I did form an inexplicable emotional attachment to my uniform and felt positively nostalgic when I put it back on on my final day of Year 13 after two years of wearing my own clothes. Overall, I don’t resent the ugliness of the uniform; in fact, I find it rather comforting to look back on, either because of the memories associated with that particular shade of brown, or because I am finally free of its mantle.

Morrison’s

During my brief spell in the Morrison’s cafe I did everything in my power to detract from the shirt’s delightful shade of green and charming little hat I had to wear for every shift. That meant piling on as much jewelry as possible (I got two more piercings during my time there) as well as painting my nails every week. Even spilling bleach all down myself seemed to improve the overall impression as I almost managed to pull off an edgy, Depop tie-dye look. Much like brown, for me, green has incredibly strong memories associated with it, but they are far less positive, mainly due to the enforced hairnet that accompanied the shirt. Nonetheless, I learnt that no matter how much you despise your uniform, accessorizing can generally come to the rescue. Or maybe I’m forcing myself to believe that mantra, as I have five piercings which I now feel bound by habit to fill.

“Although we are all wearing our own uniforms, far from a tribal mistrust, I feel a connection with the other students simply because we are all dressed exactly how we want to be.”

Sports Kit

In my experience, even when you hit 18, all female sports uniforms seem to be suited to the body of a twelve-year-old athlete. Barely-there skorts, playing tops that left little to the imagination and netball dresses that could very well pass as tank tops do not create a sense of community; they make you uncomfortable, self-conscious and so preoccupied with tugging and readjusting that you’re unable to concentrate on where the ball is. Consequently, I can’t explain the surge of excitement that I always feel when a coach announces that they’re about to hand out new kit. Of course, this euphoria is quickly subdued by the realisation that you’ve paid for a vest, dress or pair of shorts that could barely fit a child. Unfortunately, sports kits can’t be modified, so my biggest sartorial take-away from this uniform was that feeling confident in whatever you’re wearing has a surprisingly profound impact on your wellbeing, so (converse to any real fashion guru’s advice) comfort should be at the forefront of your mind when purchasing a new item.

University Uniform

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Mountain View

Dress-coded: experiences with school uniform

A slightly different interpretation of the word ‘uniform’ but, arguably, if you exclusively dress in the same clothes or style for a while, it becomes your uniform. Personally, I appear to have gained a reputation for putting minimal effort into my appearance at Cambridge, to the extent that the idea of me writing about fashion must be pretty comical to my friends. I have discovered that it is easy to feel bound once you’ve inadvertently created your signature style (mine consists of oversized knitted jumpers, frayed boyfriend jeans and soggy hair) and I’m certain that if I turned up to hall in a skirt and makeup I would be responsible for several heart attacks.

Despite my perceived lack of wardrobe freedom, I’m pleased I committed to ‘minimalist grunge’ (a charitable title for my aesthetic) rather than the totally artificial effortlessness mastered by the rest of the Sidgwick students, because I don’t know how long I could have kept that farce going for. Although we are all wearing our own uniforms, far from a tribal mistrust, I feel a connection with the other students simply because we are all dressed exactly how we want to be - if they feel their best in intimidating ankle length black coats, or in corduroy dungarees and a panama, more power to them, I am more than content in my mum’s shapeless cable knit paired with grey stained trackies.

Clearly, a uniform can mean so many different things that it’s hard to tell whether it unites or divides us. We’ve all had to wear something that makes us want to gag either at its sartorial deficiencies or the sheer discomfort it inflicts on us, but if the wearers have the opportunity to make it their own, to personalise it to the extent that they enjoy (or can tolerate) wearing it, then it has the potential to create that sense of belonging that we so desperately yearn for.

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