For the past few months now I have been riddled with a question: is it weird to wear school uniforms when you’re an adult?
In South Korea it is common to dress in high school uniforms when sightseeing or going on an excursion. On a hot summer’s day, attractions like Everland or Gamcheon Culture Village are filled with an array of people, men and women, university students and pensioners, dressed in this way. Many of my friends have even recommended I try it myself, when sightseeing, to experience what it would have been like to be a South Korean high school student, from a few decades ago. For them this is a fun experience, but when I first heard about it, I couldn’t help but question it.
As a foreigner, I was shocked to see adults dressed in this way and couldn’t help but find it strange. When asked why I found it peculiar, I had no answer. Why did I find this surprising? Thinking about it, we have been conditioned, by the media, to feel uncomfortable when seeing people dressed this way in public, because of the sexualised binary of school uniforms: the innocent vs the sexy. On the one hand, we view uniforms as the representation of childhood, and on the other, we associate them with sexually charged fantasy. These two contrasting images end up leaving us feeling confused and uncomfortable, wondering where the problem lies. The answer of this is of course the media, these are the ones who taught us to associate adults who dress in this way as acting on fetishes or desire, opposed to reliving their youth.
It’s not surprising that we think this way, when looking at how Western media has illustrated uniforms, there is a clear agenda for us to see them sexually. The media abuses these items of clothing to make celebrities seem ‘fresh’ and ‘sexy’. Take Britney Spears’s song Hit me Baby One More Time, 2007 British comedy St Trinian’s, and near enough any adult’s Halloween costume store: each of these seems to promote the sexualisation of schoolgirls. The result of this being, children sexually harassed and effectively punished because of our twisted view on clothing. Young girls are told to cover their ‘distracting’ shoulders and lengthen their skirt, all in the name of modesty.
Many schools have gone as far as to ban parts of this uniform, skirts for instance, in an attempt to combat these issues. The Guardian’s Ellie Mae O’Hagan, correctly notes that skirts are not the issue, it is the mindset of the perpetrators. Using the example of upskirting she expands: “upskirting isn’t a phenomenon because we have skirts: it’s a phenomenon because there are too many [people] who believe that they have the right to take illicit photos”. Uniforms are not – and should not be – what we have problems with, instead our frustration should be with those sexualising them.
How do we combat this issue? For starters I would argue that the concept of the ‘sexy high schooler’ needs to be wiped from the media, any kind of sexualisation of minors promotes paedophilia, no matter how you look at it.
Next, we need to revise how we treat uniformed children, you cannot tell them that they are dressed distractingly or choose to ban uniforms in an attempt to remove the problem. Uniforms instill a sense of community and shared identity, reminding students that they are all equal; removing the uniform would lead to embarrassment and conflict as not all families can afford the same types of clothing.
Another possible course of action would be banning all inappropriately sexualised costumes – school uniforms and Disney princesses, for instance – however this could prove to be difficult as individuals could simply make the outfits themselves.
Ultimately, Britain needs to reform the way we view school uniforms.