Rowan Pelling: Nothing so stirring as a schoolgirl in a skirt

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The Independent Online

How do you like to see schoolgirls dressed? That's not just a question to the old gent with the steamed-up specs in the back row. I feel I speak for a chunk of the nation when I say I like my schoolgirls kitted out in an artfully sabotaged version of the standard uniform - skirts slashed above the knee, blouses unbuttoned to reveal a hint of M&S trainer bra and ties yanked to the navel. The Great British Schoolgirl is at her petulant best when she looks as if she's auditioning for St Trinian's.

How do you like to see schoolgirls dressed? That's not just a question to the old gent with the steamed-up specs in the back row. I feel I speak for a chunk of the nation when I say I like my schoolgirls kitted out in an artfully sabotaged version of the standard uniform - skirts slashed above the knee, blouses unbuttoned to reveal a hint of M&S trainer bra and ties yanked to the navel. The Great British Schoolgirl is at her petulant best when she looks as if she's auditioning for St Trinian's.

There's something stirring to the soul when you catch sight of a pack of female classmates awkwardly blossoming beyond the confines of a mid-calf-length pleated skirt and prison warden shoes. It puts you in mind of Florence Nightingale, the WAAF, Singapore Airlines' hostesses and dental hygienists (have you ever had a male one?) all rolled into a vast, utilitarian brigade - insistently saucy, nonetheless. And it reminds you that the vast majority of women tend to look comely in skirts, however hideously the garment is configured.

So I was sad to read last week that Marilyn Warden, head teacher of Broadstone Middle School in Poole, has decided to ban skirts altogether and make trousers compulsory uniform for pupils of both sexes. The state school claims that the purpose of the ban is to protect the "modesty" of girls participating in such activities as music and drama. Some may feel that any attempt to conserve modesty in an age where kindergarten tots mime pelvic thrusts to McFly hits constitutes a classic case of shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted.

I am perplexed by anyone trying to instill modesty in performing arts practitioners - professions where a rampant ego, sensuality and willingness to disrobe at the click of a PR's fingers are prerequisites. Particularly puzzling is the suggested immodesty of skirts in music classes - do they play the glockenspiel upside down in Poole? Even the most suggestive of instruments can easily be straddled by a willing girl in an A-line skirt, as Jacqueline du Pré amply demonstrated.

The whole joyous point of skirts is the balance between concealment and the potential for disorder and, ahem, easy access. Learning how to modify deportment according to a given situation is the skirt-wearer's rite of passage and most of us master the art at school: moving between grey serge monstrosity and tennis skirt with increasing confidence and subversion.

Forcing girls into trousers will both deprive them of an important part of their education and surely make them far more immodest. At a time when new government-sponsored research shows that young women's sexual behaviour is increasingly resembling men's (more promiscuous, more inclined to make the first move, less troubled by notions of fidelity), the enforced wearing of trousers will only further encourage the rampant ascent of the ladette. Slacks certainly allow greater freedom of movement: you can sit with your legs wide apart, haul a buttock off the chair and break wind with the best of them. They also allow you to expose a huge expanse of pallid, flabby midriff and builder's cleavage.

The most immodest sight I witnessed all week was a young girl in combats yanked down to the pubic bone, exposing a black G-string and sprawling tattoo. But my main gripe against trousers is that so many women look hideous in them. It's the female lot to be predisposed to ownership of a gargantuan arse and no style of trew on Trinny's planet flatters such a shape. Think of Hattie Jacques in wide-leg black polyester slacks rather than matron's subtly arousing starched dress and you'll know what I mean.

And don't get me started on the trouser suit: just because gamine girls look great in a man's tux doesn't mean that you will. Anything over a B-cup and you look more footballer's wife than Marlene Dietrich.

A far wiser way to encourage modesty in our schools is to put both sexes into skirts. Togas, kilts, sarongs and the like have a noble and versatile history as male wear, moving from battlefield to senate or bedroom with ease. And I, for one, would welcome the chance to see more of men's often underrated calves and feet. So let's put our boys into skirts. You may not see an instant outbreak of modesty, but you will probably notice a sharp rise in shame.

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