There are worse things than a pelmet skirt
Thinking about it now, I realise my convent school uniform was a paedophile's dream
Saturday 20 March 1999
She champions all sorts of good causes and travels the world as one of the new breed of United Nations goodwill showbiz ambassadors, advising bush women in the Kalahari how to dig wells. When she's interviewed by Jenni Murray on Woman's Hour she wears a silver-black business suit and talks a lot about empowerment, but what everyone, especially schoolgirls and the UN goodwill ambassador selection board, remembers most about Ginger Spice is that famous Union Jack mini-dress under which you could see not merely the gusset of her navy-blue gym knickers but also the Cash's name tape stitched into the waistband.
"If a miniskirt can get Geri Halliwell a job at the UN, why shouldn't it do the same for me, Miss Beale?" I hear clever schoolgirls up and down the land enquire; to which only the bravest headmistress would reply: "Because you haven't got the legs, dear."
Mind you, it was pretty brave of Barbara O'Connor, headteacher of Dormston School in Sedgley, to send 22 girls home. Schoolgirls en masse are a terrifying species. I speak from personal experience, having, many years ago, worked as a supply teacher in West Ham. I was supposed to teach English literature but for some mysterious reason they had me down for embroidery, a science about which I know little. Not that it mattered much. I spent more time breaking up scissor-and-needle fights between various classroom factions than teaching lazy daisy stitch.
Where the admirable and clearly well-intentioned Miss O'Connor went wrong was in equating the length of a gym-slip with some of its sex appeal. Believe me, Miss O'Connor, there is absolutely no connection. Gym-slips, irrespective of their length, are sexy. Why else do you suppose a restaurant in the City called School Dinners, where the waitresses wore pigtails, gym-slips and black stockings, did so well? They weren't mini-skirted gym-slips, either, just the regular knee-length jobs like the ones I used to wear at my convent. But they drove the punters wild, firing them to order extra portions of cabbage and steamed roll with custard.
Whether this was the reason that Baroness Brigstocke, former high mistress of my daughter's school, abolished the school uniform when she took over, I cannot say; but no one could possibly describe what those girls wore to school as alluring. Grunge was in vogue at the time and someone once compared the pupils of St Paul's to the tattered remnants of a defeated Turkish army.
My youngest did her A-levels at a Catholic boys' school that allowed girls into the sixth form. It had a uniform, but the girls were exempt though there was a dress code - calf-length skirts and flat shoes. One lunch time she came home weeping. She had been told to change out of the white T-shirt and trousers she had on. "This is a school not a beach, Penelope," said Miss Trubshaw. Thinking about it now, I realise my convent school uniform was every paedophile's dream - because as well as gym- slips and black stockings, underneath our Viyella shirts and purple ties we wore liberty bodices.
I wonder why they were called liberty bodices; they were just the opposite. They flattened our burgeoning chests and had rubber buttons fore and aft at hip height to which elastic suspenders, also with rubber buttons, were attached like pent stays, and which in turn held up the famous black stockings. If you tied an elastic band round your suspender button, and loaded it with a conker, you could fire it from the thigh like a catapult, with devastating results. And when the rubber buttons came off, as they inevitably did, you used a Smartie to hold up your stocking until the warmth of your thigh melted the chocolate, at which point you hoicked up your gym- slip, licked up the mess and substituted another.
The other interesting thing about my boarding-school uniform was that it was very rarely washed. Nor, come to think of it, were we. One bath a week (shared water with three other girls) was the norm. We changed our shirts and knicker linings every week but the heavy-duty gym knickers which we wore over the linings for extra protection (against what?) lasted us until half-term. At least modern schoolgirls, miniskirted or not, are clean, which puts them closer to God than we ever were.
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