Ah, you know where you are with a good uniform. More precisely, you know who you are. Because whoever you are, a uniform makes you part of something else, something bigger than you, and possibly possessed of more clout – think Hitler’s Blackshirts.
Well no, that’s a bit of a negative vision, though there’s something about a military uniform worn by a large number of men, marching to an insistent beat, faces inscrutable, to strike fear in many a heart. For women, I think, a uniform is less sinister.
Uniform seems to have played a huge part in my life. My mother fell for my father, she told me, because of his dashing Naval uniform. She had known him before the war, growing up in Londonderry – spotty youth, brother of a school friend, not impressed. Then he turned up at her door in the London blitz, all Navy great coat and bright buttons, and no doubt a twinkle in his brown eyes, and that was it. Hence my very existence. And let’s not even think about the impact on the women of wartime Britain of the American Forces’ uniform. It must have been – indeed, in many cases was – irresistible.
My village primary school had no uniform – they did not, back in the Dark Ages – but the move to the grammar school meant serious clothes, in particular a navy blue beret with the school badge, including motto in Welsh, on the front. Or the back, which was where irreverent Sandra always wore it, jauntily defiant and daring prefects to catch her, which they seldom did because none travelled on the train in which Sandra and her mates regularly nicked my beret, rolling it into an impromptu rugby ball to chuck around the carriage all the way home.
I was so proud of my beret and all the rest of the uniform that I could not understand Sandra’s attitude – which rather marked me out as a total conformist and future head girl. But Sandra seemed to have escaped from a different clan; her attitude to uniform was completely in accord with that of friends from primary school who had gone to the local secondary modern school. Both uniforms were navy blue, but there the similarities ended: the grammar school uniform, with its white shirt, was worn in good order most of the time, while the secondary mod children wore blue shirts, their uniform mostly in no particular order at all. They felt, and looked, like a different breed, or clan, or even gang, and wearing the uniform with a kind of casual contempt was almost a badge of honour in itself.
Today, it seems introducing a uniform, even for tiny children, is the first response of a new head taking up post in a new school, particularly if the school has been in difficulties. It is so common it’s hard to argue with the logic: it must be seen as a force for unity, welding all these children from different homes and different ethnic backgrounds into one happy breed of brothers and sisters. A united front with which to face the world happily.
It’s a pity, then, that a national newspaper’s recent picture of five girls in a very distinctive school uniform should show them looking almost glum. In all fairness, the scarlet cloaks and Victorian straw bonnets, to modern eyes suggesting Jane Eyre, are on the extreme edge of school uniforms, even in independent schools. But it’s a shame not to be seen head held high and smiling, proud of the uniform of the Red Maids’ School in Bristol, because the story of that uniform is, in its own way, inspiring.
The school was founded in1634, five years after the death of its founder, John Whitson. In his will, he bequeathed money to found a school “for forty poor women of this parish, their parents being deceased or decay’d”. A school for girls was then unusual, and no one knows why he chose to provide for at least some of the orphan girls of the Bristol streets. Perhaps it was because he had three daughters, one dying as a baby, one aged 12, one aged 21 in childbirth. A rich man – merchant, mayor of Bristol, MP – with no sons, he left the money to found the school, and decreed that the girls should “go and be apparelled in red cloth”. They still do, and they still are.
On Founder’s Day in November, the almost-ceremonial uniform of cloaks and straw bonnets comes out and the girls process through the streets of Bristol, with mounted police escort, from the founder’s tomb in one church to the cathedral for a service of thanksgiving and celebration for his life and generosity.
On such a day, it is a source of great pride to be a Red Maid and lead the parade – the traffic stops! It is a very big deal. The trouble is that there may just be some girls, teenagers as most of them are, who would rather curl up and hide than wear a Victorian bonnet in public, no matter whose life is being celebrated.
Some of our oldest schools still sport uniforms from similarly different times, to the point where a visitor from Mars or Massachusetts might be baffled by the quirks of these schools’ kit, compared with the clothes worn by other children. Eton’s ties and tails, the yellow stockings and clerical gear of Christ’s Hospital and Harrow’s famous boaters come to mind. It’s as if they have become more than a uniform: they are a positive badge of distinction, a reminder of a different age and of their school’s long history and heritage. These schools pre-date Shakespeare: “Of course we look antique!”
Perhaps the value of any uniform is to signal above all that the wearer belongs: “I was just me, but now I am one of them – look!” To come across someone wearing your old school tie in a far-off airport is to feel an immediate connection, a familiarity.
“I wonder, was he in my year?”
“He’s far too old!”
“Well, I might have known his brother – or his son!”
The tie – just the tie! – links the wearer to the school and declares his allegiance to it and those who also attended it forever. And it makes him a member of that society – I almost said “club” – as long as he wears it. You may even find the fine sub-grouping of the particular house tie or team tie, so you can say, not just “Did you go to school X?”, but also “I see you were on the rugby/fencing/tennis team – do you still play?”
A Red Maid is unlikely to be sporting a Victorian bonnet when she enjoys Ladies’ Day at Ascot in her adult life, but her partner may well wear his school or regimental tie, and, come to think of it, maybe this is one of the reasons women lag behind men in the whole game of social connections which we are told helps you to get on in life: women do not wear ties.
Maybe there’s a lesson there.
Hilary Moriarty is national director of the Boarding Schools’ Association