Go home and change, now

As long as there are school uniforms, there will be ways to subvert them. HESTER LACEY reports
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Indy Lifestyle Online
School uniforms are designed to be as dull as dishwater; to eliminate personality, level out difference and make every girl who wears them look the same. Slate grey, navy blue, sludge brown or bottle green - they are conceived to be as far from a fashion statement as possible. In the old- fashioned twilight zone of neat pleated skirts and pinafores, even the introduction of (gasp) trousers is a matter for fierce controversy - Professor Claire Hale is taking Whickham Comprehensive in Gateshead to court for sex discrimination because her 14-year-old daughter Jo isn't allowed to wear trousers to school, though the boys in her class are. (So far, none of the boys is believed to be considering counter- suing for the right to wear a skirt.)

However, as every schoolgirl - or former schoolgirl - knows, despite the rules, it's not so hard to subvert school uniform into something more individual without resorting to the law. Subtle tweaks and tucks can transform even the dowdiest of officially sack-like garments. "It's only the very saddest people who don't change their uniform to make it better," says Saskia, 15, who would otherwise be condemned to a French-blue loose- fitting smock-style pinafore. "Taking in a pinafore is harder than just turning up a skirt," she complains. "You have to sew up the side seams as well. But everyone does it, because if you don't you look fat the whole time." She is also careful to wear her sleeves rolled up to show the fake tattoo round her wrist. Milosh Mapondera, 15, says her boarding school is strict on uniform rules, so pupils express themselves in different ways. "People tend to experiment with their hair- have funky hairstyles," she says.

Rather than turning her hems up, Jane Reeves, 16, has let them down as far as she can. Her school stipulates a grey skirt, and Jane's, far from being regulation, is close to her ankles. "I wouldn't wear a short skirt like some stupid St Trinian's stereotype," she sniffs. "That kind of tight, short stuff is a bit pathetic really. In fact, we'd all much prefer to wear trousers." Agreement about the desirability of trousers is something that unites schoolgirls who aren't allowed to wear them. "We've put it up to our school council but the teachers rejected it," sighs Stella Williams, 16. "There should be an option of trousers," agrees Jessica Field, also 16. "It is the Nineties after all. Lots of girls are self-conscious and don't want to show off their legs."

Times must have changed... Remember Grange Hill, where the skirts grew ever more preposterously short and tight? Eventually headmistress Mrs McCluskey flipped and forced the sullen, whey-faced teenager Michelle to sew up the split in her skirt. The split was so spectacular that when it had been fixed to conform with regulations, the skirt became a ferociously-constricting tube and Michelle was barely able to hobble up and down the stairs, much to everyone's amusement.

Taking skirts in and up has always been an old favourite. "I sewed up the seams on mine loads of times, it went down a size every week," recalls one thirtysomething woman, who was foiled when her mother went to wash the offending skirt and found the inexpertly-cobbled alterations. "With us it was ties," says another. "We'd take them in until they were like string, because mods were fashionable then. One girl was suspended because hers was so narrow and she wouldn't change it."

"There was a craze for badges when we were about 14," remembers another. "We tried to pack as many as we could onto our blazer lapels and jumpers. The teachers would make us take them off and slowly, slowly we unpinned them. The minute their backs were turned, they'd go back on. Clanking while you walked gave your real kudos." Jewellery is another contentious issue. Most schools allow only the plainest, so one would-be style queen jumped with glee when a teacher told her pupils with pierced ears they were allowed one hole per year. "I thought it meant that, by the time you were 15, you could have five holes each side," she says. "But this teacher had a strong Welsh accent: what she'd said was 'One hole per ear'."

Some ruses were truly desperate. "At school we weren't allowed to dye our hair, but we'd heard that toothpaste had the same effect as peroxide," recalls one woman, who'd yearned for blonde streaks. "We'd rub this horrible sticky stuff into our heads. It didn't work." For others, make-up was the big issue. "We weren't allowed lipstick, so, incredibly childishly, we'd lick red Smarties and rub them on, so when a teacher told us off we could say 'I'm not wearing lipstick, Miss' and look very innocent. One girl even coloured her lips with red marker pen. It took days to come off."

School uniform is undergoing a revival. A recent poll showed that 70 per cent of adults are in favour of it, whether this is to the joy or chagrin of pupils starting the new school year this week. Many, if pressed, will admit to a grudging affection for it. It makes life easy, says Jessica Field. "You get up and know what you're wearing," she says. Stella Williams agrees. "You can get up and throw your uniform on," she says. "I'm lazy in the mornings and don't want to have to do any ironing."

'NO ONE AT SCHOOL HAS A SKIRT THEY HAVEN'T DONE SOMETHING TO'

STELLA WILLIAMS, 16

We have to wear a grey skirt and grey jumper, white shirt and black shoes. I had to start wearing a uniform when I was 15 (I changed schools) and I wasn't very keen at first. When I went to the shop and tried it on and looked in the mirror I wanted to cry. The skirt was a disgusting length and shape and the accessories, like the massive satchel with all the buckles and the little red anorak, were really horrible. The first thing I did was change the length of the skirt - I took it to the dry-cleaners and had it altered. No one at school has a skirt that they haven't done something to. One of mine is knee-length with a split in the side, and one is quite short with a split in the back. I added a baggy jumper, though it's shrunk a bit since. If I don't have a clean shirt, I'll wear my PE shirt jumper. You get told off if your heels are too high, but I didn't have a problem with that - I'm always getting into trouble for wearing trainers instead.

JESSICA FIELD, 16

I loved my uniform when I first got it - it was all new and exciting. But that feeling only lasted about a week! It's a green pleated skirt with a lighter green shirt and darker green V-neck jumper. There is a blazer, but no one wears it after the first year. I'm not a big skirt- wearer and I didn't want to go to school in a skirt and heels. I do quite a lot of sport, so I started wearing tracksuit bottoms with trainers to classes - the teachers weren't very happy about that. Also my jumper was ripped to shreds, so they asked me to change it but I soon went back to my old favourite. It's a big school, so you're only told off for what they notice. You can wear bracelets, rings and anklets if they don't get seen. I'm starting sixth form now and won't have to wear uniform any more. I'm in two minds about how I feel about that - it's very easy when you know exactly what you're wearing when you get up in the morning.

RUPA TAILOR, 13

We wear a blue checked shirt, grey skirt and blue blazer, a tie and black shoes with no high heels. You can only have one pair of ear-studs. In summer we don't wear blazers and ties and roll up our sleeves. Most people roll their skirts into their waistbands to shorten them. Only simple make-up's allowed, like brown eyeshadow. If you wear too much of it, you have to go to the school secretary, who keeps make-up remover in her desk. We'd like to be able to wear trousers - we set up a petition and sent letters. So far, nothing's happened, but we're still hopeful.

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