Thursday, November 20, 2008

Our Lady of the Divine RSS Feed. Part 2: What Not to Wear


Here’s the closest approximation I can find of a St. John the Baptist girls’ uniform, circa 1977. Ours weren’t the classic American prep school uniforms consisting of kilt, blouse, Shetland sweater and saddle shoes. We wore round-collared blouses underneath our jumpers; the blouses were an ugly light blue and the only variation permitted was long-sleeved vs. short. Girls were expected to wear slips (despite the absolute opacity of the heavy plaid fabric), and knee socks. NOT ankle socks. (Word has given up on me; it failed to pick up that last “sentence” as a fragment. Bitch knows better now.) Saddle shoes were not worn in the 1970s; we wore loafers (saddle shoes had returned to vogue by the time my younger sister started Catholic school in 1993). Boys wore navy blue pants (usually referred to by the nuns as “trousers”), a blue shirt (dress collar, not Oxford-style), with a tie whose hideous plaid matched that of our uniforms. Many of these ties were of the clip-on variety, which was actually favored by the nuns, since they didn’t allow for any unsightly loosening. Seventh and eighth grade boys were expected to wear jackets (referred to by the nuns as “sportcoats”).

So that was the uniform. The uniform itself wasn’t that interesting; what was interesting was the many and varied ways we found to individualize our uniforms. Like running in the schoolyard, all of these attempts at stylishness or at least distinction from one another were forbidden, but our teachers and nuns wisely decided to enforce the rule only in response to egregious violations. Pins were particularly popular; when a nun or teacher noticed that some of the girls had six or seven distinctly non-religious accessories pinned to their uniforms, a temporary crackdown would ensue. Then, one by one, the pins and other trimmings (a small ribbon sticking out of the cuff of the kneesock was another favorite accessory) would reappear.

Uniforms were sold unfinished by a company called Bendinger’s. Every August, Bendinger’s would be overrun with Catholic school families, and busy seamstresses with mouths full of pins (I wonder if they ever swallowed them) and tape measures around their necks would curtly order us to stand on stools to be fitted. You’d always run into four or five of your classmates, getting a preview of how they’d changed over the summer, and comparing tans by holding forearms side by side (“you’re so tan!” “no, I’m white! YOU’RE tan!”). Relative affluence could be determined by the fit of a new uniform. Thrifty mothers like mine would order the seamstress not to cut the uniform too short, so you could “grow into it”. Some girls had perfectly tailored uniforms that fell exactly at their knees every year. Others, like my sister and me, would have uniforms that were slightly too long, and then either just right or slightly too short the next year. Two years was about the maximum lifespan of a St. John the Baptist girls’ uniform jumper.

Our jumpers were not the (marginally) more attractive and practical drop-waisted style with large box pleats on the skirt, favored by our rival schools St. Mary’s and St. Lucy’s. No, ours had a split bib, a waistline that sat on the natural waist, and knife pleated skirts; the pleats were about 1” wide, and they required frequent pressing. Not as frequent as might have been necessary had the fabric contained any natural fiber whatsoever, but it didn’t, so the pleats could stand up to a lot of abuse. Look at the picture again; we did wear that little tie that snapped underneath our collars. The waistband buttoned at the left side, and rosaries were hung from that little button placket. We had to go to Mass once a week before school; each grade had a different day of the week. First and second graders were exempt. When I first started going to mass with my classmates, girls had to wear a head covering. We all had these synthetic veils; a square of fine nylon netting, not unlike cheesecloth, trimmed in nylon lace. This was folded into a triangle and pinned to your hair with bobby pins. We never wore head coverings at Mass with our families on Sunday, and gradually, the requirement to do so at “school mass” disappeared, unlamented. It could have been worse. According to my mother (who was never a 100% reliable source of school-related information; she tended to exaggerate the relative severity of her Catholic school experience compared to ours, but on this detail, she was telling the truth), grade school girls and high school freshmen in her day had to wear BEANIES. ALL DAY, not just in church. Needless to say, the girls very much looked forward to tenth grade and release from beanie oppression.

It got cold in Philadelphia in the winter; I remember it as much colder there than here in Maryland, just 100 miles or so south. We all walked to school, and on the coldest days, we wore jeans (straight-leg; a brand called “Flare” was very much in favor) underneath our jumpers The nuns despised the look of pants worn under the uniform skirt, but they tacitly acknowledged the necessity, as walking in below-freezing temperatures with bare legs was more than even they could reasonably expect (although I suspect that a few of the older ones thought that we should just endure and “offer it up”. We were frequently urged to “offer up” our sufferings to Jesus on the cross. Too cold for a skirt and kneesocks? Offer it up!) We took the pants off in the cloakroom before the bell rang, and put them back on at the end of the day.

I don’t have a strong opinion on whether or not kids should wear school uniforms; I see arguments on both sides. I certainly had a strong opinion when I was wearing one; all of us girls hated the uniform and “what-we’d-wear-if-we-didn’t-have-to-wear-these-stupid-uniforms” was a frequent topic of conversation. Some of the bolder girls threatened occasionally to come to school in street clothes, just to see what Sister Bernice or Sister Pauline would do, but no one ever did. Sometimes I spend 45 minutes in front of a closet wondering what to wear…I don’t miss that jumper, but sometimes I miss not having any decisions to make.

18 comments:

pistols at dawn said...

I am very pro-teenage girls wearing Catholic school girl uniforms, because I think it aids in their development of later deviant character.

From my experience, anyway.

enc said...

I went to schools where gymsuits were required, but other than those, we wore no real uniforms. Those gymsuits were pretty weak in the style department, but they were easy to deal with. There was no time wasted making decisions, and that sped things up.

I've worn uniforms for work, and though they made me feel like a number, wearing them certainly got me out the door faster.

I think if I had to wear a school uniform for 8-12 years, I'd go out of my mind.

FranIAm said...

No decisions! That is a big thing and it is a great equalizer.

DCup said...

I kind of envied the Catholic kids with their uniforms. Not that I would have traded my Black Sabbath concert t-shirt, Levis, flannel shirt and sneakers for anything, but still - there seemed to be a certain sense of confidence in those uniforms.

Matty Boy said...

It goes without saying that I love the way you write, CDP. Okay, maybe I should say it.

I love the way you write.

But I was watching a new Sarah Palin interview (I know, it's a sickness inside of me) and I started thinking, this is why the run-on sentence has such a bad reputation.

Just sayin'.

CDP said...

Pistols--I'm thinking that acquaintance with you is a larger contributor to eventual deviance than the school uniform, but that's just conjecture.

enc--I think that they look adorable on kids now, especially girls, but I really did hate wearing them.

Fran--they are a huge equalizer. I also think that they can encourage rather than inhibit development of individuality. If you're forced to wear the same thing as everyone else, you have to rely on things other than clothing to show your individuality.

dcup--there definitely was the kind of confidence that comes from just not thinking about how you look. It's no small thing

Matty--thank you. And I guess that's something I have in common with the Governor...tendency toward run-on sentences might be congenital.

BeckEye said...

So, the Catholic high school girl fantasy that most men have isn't really based in reality. Like most of their other fantasies about women.

Whiskeymarie said...

I'm kind of grateful to not have to think about what to wear to work. I throw on a pair of black pants, grab a chef coat and put on black shoes. I can get dressed in three minutes.

I would have died if I had to wear a uniform in high school, but I'm o.k. with it now.
Plus, it makes non-work dressing that much more fun.

CDP said...

Beckeye--I never really got that fantasy, but I guess that's why I'm not a man.

WM--It's amazing how I'm TOTALLY fine with imposing things on children that would have outraged me when I was an actual child. Mwah ha ha!

susan said...

I recall one old fashioned store in Providence that only stayed in business because it had the sole contract for providing Catholic school uniform components to its otherwise unwilling customer base.

dguzman said...

I think I love you, CDP. Your writing is poetic, and your humor disarming.

But I guess I can just "offer it up," bitchez, 'cause you're married!

CDP said...

Susan--Bendinger's actually laid people off for part of the year; they were really only busy during the summer.

Dguzman--yes, I'm off the market, but thank you! I'll take love however it comes.

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