Each year like clockwork, we welcome (with unfailing regularity) the start of a new school year. My son is not quite three-years-old, and so I can’t claim to have yet experienced the panic of fulfilling exhausting book and accessory orders; nor can I rapport with the potential quandaries around school selection and waitlists, or the often time-consuming enrolment process. I can however identify with the importance and excitement of owning a new uniform, and observing curiously how it makes the wearer feel.
Like most things in life, the novelty of ‘the new’ soon becomes a state of familiar condition. I remember being young and donning my first school uniform – the flash of the camera and widened smile still vivid in my long term memory. I was excited, nervous, proud and enthusiastic; although surprisingly more than anything, I felt a sense of belonging. Seeing other children file out of the school gates in matching outfits – like a wave of soldier crabs moving across the sand – made me feel like I was a part of something. More to the point, it allowed me (a relatively shy and reserved child at the time), to move through my first few years of schooling without being singled out in any way.
Robert Baden-Powell was a writer and Lieutenant-General of the British Army in the late 1800’s – he famously said; “the uniform makes for brotherhood, since when universally adopted it covers up all differences of class and country”. These words were crafted with strength and merit, however still have an affectionate consideration today. The uniform does indeed give us an identity in one breath, and anonymity in the next; we are able to learn and grow without assumption and judgement around material possessions, wealth or culture. The third dimension of the uniform is pride and purpose – it may have been worn by someone important to you, or could be a sign of achievement and/or heritage; causing us to again feel connected to something bigger than ourselves.
My son recently acquired a day care uniform in the form of a printed t-shirt and hat. Not usually a fan of the morning drop-off, I observed his mood change when he was given the option of wearing his new clothing. And just like that, something wonderful happened. I watched him grow in confidence as he greeted the other children wearing similar t-shirts; placing his pillow and bag in his pigeon hole willingly and with measure. He still didn’t want me to leave right away, but when he did accept my farewell, it was with an embrace that lingered less urgently.
I’ve been fortunate enough to experience many different uniforms – I suppose that’s what occurs the older we get! There’s your first job uniform, the high school uniform, the college sports uniform and graduation gown. There’s the uniform that lets people know you’ve just been to ballet class, the hospital gown and slippers that indicate day surgery, and the many unique and novel ones we get to wear in the name of dress up parties and themed events. Ribbons, trophies and badges become uniform accessories, and wedding gowns and suits mark the start of new family traditions. For those of ethnic backgrounds; there are sacred uniforms that express ritual and tradition, there are the many masks and headpieces that initiate celebration, and there are physical ones we mark our bodies with to communicate self-expression or a cultural rite of passage.
“When you put on a uniform, there are certain inhibitions that you accept” – words once spoken by the 34th President of the United States, Dwight D. Eisenhower (1890-1969). Whether you’re painting your face and colourfully commending your favourite football team, walking the catwalk in the latest designer threads, or protecting your community as a member of the police force; we all rise to meet the responsibilities our uniform expects of us. To assume it is merely a costume is a trivial concept; it becomes part of who we are and how we choose to be defined in the world at large. In essence, it’s a skin; capable of change and evolution, but a reflection of our choices and unique interests. For Superman it was a cape, for the Dalai Lama it remains to be a modest three-part robe, and for my son it is currently a printed t-shirt – the power will always reside in the wearer’s state of mind.