Gendered uniforms have always been restricting to women and incompatible with alternative gender identities. Schools are now creating gender-neutral uniforms to combat these issues and hopefully bring an end to gender-based uniforms.
It was only when World War Two made it necessary for women to have the freedom to move and work like men that it was considered normal for women to wear trousers. In the case of gendered uniforms, giving women an uncomfortable and restricting uniform that differs from her male counterparts is undeniably symbolic of the inequality that still exists between men and women.
School uniforms around the world still require female students to wear skirts, but schools without uniforms have even harsher restrictions on female dress code. Schools defend these restrictions on the basis that they reduce ‘distraction’ in male students and increase safety. Such arguments echo those used in victim blaming cases and suggests to male students that they are not completely responsible for their actions. These schools are also well known for sending their pupils home to change, demonstrating that their appearance is held as more important than missed schooling. Unless you believe that sending girls home protects the poor male students’ schooling from distraction.
While one may expect adults to be free to wear what they please, gendered uniforms are still regulated, with women being forced to wear heels to work. There are many reported complaints of this, a notable English example being Nicola Thorpe, who was fired for refusing to wear heels to work. A popular response to these complaints was to point out that men’s uniforms are also regulated, as men must wear ties. Ties, like heels, give no practical advantage to one’s work and in fact have no use. However, unlike heels, wearing ties should not physically hurt or limit one’s movement.
The physical limitations that gendered uniforms can cause begin at a young age. Skirts can even make sitting cross-legged, as we all have done in school, an uncomfortable position for girls. It can also discourage young girls from playing, as climbing on jungle gyms could be immodest. This could even result in them being reprimanded, as young girls are taught to link modesty with safety. Meanwhile the boys enjoy the freedom their uniform provides.
A further issue with gendered uniforms is that they may not be appropriate for people questioning their gender. This can make identity issues more difficult, especially while students are still developing their identity in school.
Dunedin North Intermediate School in New Zealand is working to resolve this issue by starting with the youngest generation. Students are now able to choose between shorts, trousers, and kilts, allowing them to explore their gender identity without being self-conscious of their clothing choices speaking for them. The school has stated that they hope the ‘flow-on effect’ of gender uniforms being abolished, will be that students are comfortable with questioning their gender, even in the difficult school environment of low self-esteem and high social pressures.
These changes stemmed from students’ complaints against being ‘forced’ to wear skirts. This movement towards non-gendered uniforms could mark the first generation of women lucky enough to avoid being ‘forced’ to wear heels to work. Abolishing gendered uniforms will be a step towards reducing the expectations and limitations that gendered uniforms can cause, particularly for women, as gender neutral uniforms become the norm in future generations.