Wearing a piece of history to school
By Samantha A. McFarlane
School uniforms are one of the few aspects of the educational system that has stayed constant throughout the decades.
From the very formal uniforms of the 1900s to the modernized dress codes of the 1990s, uniforms have always been a source of pride or despair for the staff of the schools and the students who wear them. Though the reasons for wearing uniforms have remained the same, the uniforms themselves have endured many changes throughout history.
Weldon Park Academy, located on Western's campus, is in its third year of operation and has had a uniform from its opening.
"The uniform is a symbol of pride, it is a shared identity among the students and it also cuts down on the competitiveness among the students where clothing is concerned," says Catherine Canhan, assistant Head of School at Weldon Park Academy.
There are 290 students registered at the establishment.The uniform consists of grey flannel pants, white dress shirts and navy blazers for the high school students and for the younger students grey, navy and maroon kilts are worn with maroon sweaters. The difference in uniform is to distinguish between the two different age levels.
Frank Marchese, one of the founding members of the school says "the uniform gives a sense of belonging."
Uniforms at St. Joseph's High School in St. Thomas date back to the early 1900s. From then until 1920, the school had a very formal uniform, says Jean Burnham, former campus minister.
The uniform for girls was a navy pleated skirt, navy overblouse, white collar and cuffs and black dress shoes. The boys wore dress-pants and a navy blazer with a starched white shirt, topped off with a gold bow tie. In the 1970s the uniform changed and now consists of a brown plaid kilt, brown cardigan and a white blouse for the female students.
The uniform switched again in the 1970s and 1980s to a beige skirt and white blouse, and for the males beige pants and a white dress-shirt. "Through the years the uniform has changed a lot and become less formal," says Burnham. As of June 1997 the uniform changed into a dress code, allowing for far more flexibility in what students can choose to wear.
The dress code includes a variety of clothes, including a choice of blue, black, grey or white dress-pants or skirt. The students may opt to wear casual navy pants as opposed to dress pants, while a white blouse or dress shirt is worn with the option of a white turtleneck or golf shirt with a navy cardigan bearing the school emblem.
"Up until the early 1970s it was mandatory for students to be dressed in full uniform every day. Now the only time students must be in their formal uniform is on special occasions and at school masses," says Burnham.
In the 1980s a resurgence of interest in uniforms surfaced from public schools concerned about students wearing designer brands to T-shirts with messages of violence, drugs, alcohol and gang symbolism.
Many schools without uniforms allow a high degree of latitude and freedom in dress, making it easy to categorize and stereotype according to what students wear.
St. John's College in Brantford has been open since 1941, and has always had a school uniform. The uniform consists of grey dress pants, a green and white kilt, white dress shoes, golf shirts and turtlenecks bearing the school emblem, and green cardigans. This uniform has changed only slightly since 1941, up to the fall of this year.
"This year the uniform has changed to include rugby shirts, polar fleece jackets and half zip sleeveless pullovers. The students are allowed to wear these items as part of the everyday uniform," says Pat Lenz, vice-principal at St. John's. The uniform has been modernized to satisfy student wants, and to add some change to the appearance of the school.
Although school uniforms are ever-changing, their main purposes have remained the same in the minds of those who encourage them.
Graphic by Janice Olynich