The Joy of Dressing in Uniform

by Olive Soki-Kavwahirehi


design by Michelle Leung

As part of the transition between elementary school and middle school, I, along with my future classmates, was invited to attend an information night in the infamous “tiger dome” - a.k.a the high school gymnasium. The MC - probably a guidance counsellor at the time, though I can neither confirm nor deny the fact - spoke of the school’s values and activities that would guarantee a lively high school experience. Near the end of the presentation, he invited three students up to the stage. One by one, in single file, marched in this army of dress code-abiding students, all sporting ill-fitted, pleated khaki pants, and permanently sweat-stained white polo shirts. Each serenely holding a paper cut up into thirds to give the appearance of well-prepared q-cards, they politely took their turn giving generic speeches to convince us of the convenience of the uniform.


Although the school seemed ok, the overly enthusiastic testimonials, which later on felt more like propaganda, weren’t very effective. They had asked a group of teenagers who spent their high school careers altering and despising the uniform to convince a crowd of younger kids to take pride and embrace the same uniform. It didn’t quite land the way the school wanted to, but rules were rules, and my only consolation was the silent vow I made to never settle into wearing the same clothes twice after I graduated.


Flash forward to the summer after graduation, I was ready to go all out. However, as time went by, my aspirations took a backseat and I slowly started noticing patterns not only in the clothes I wore but also in the way I paired them. Maybe the speeches eventually made their way into my psyche, conditioning me to think in terms of “uniforms”, but by August I had developed a catalog of what I liked to refer to as my summer uniform.


At first, it was fueled by excitement. I bought this beautiful pair of Bass Weejun loafers in April for my birthday, and jokingly vowed to wear them for the rest of my days. Surely this started out as a joke, but July came and my loafers became a part of my identity in a very strange and unexpected way. I’d worn them so often the thought of wearing any other shoe felt like treason. Many other items in my closet make up what I now like to call my personal uniform: 505 and 550 Levis, some of the best fits out there in my opinion; a heavy floor-length wool overcoat, the weight and the way it drapes over me is the main selling point; and a thrifted Danier leather jacket. All of these items speak to me on some level and make up who I am on the outside. Though there is a sense of comfort in the ritual, it doesn’t necessarily mean I’m either settling for familiarity or choosing to limit my choices. Instead, I see it as a home base. A base that can be decorated, shifted and stripped down. A home that allows me to feel at ease and go about my day without worrying about the way I am perceived. Because in these clothes, I know who I am.


This signature look has in some way become synonymous with my identity. And once I started thinking about my recycled outfits as personal uniforms, I developed a whole new level of appreciation for the “personas” people around me had constructed for themselves. All being much older - and perhaps wiser than me - my style icons all appear to have found what works for them while never really settling for anything ordinary. In fact, the items that speak to you and externally portray your beliefs and interests at once become bigger than what they were originally intended to be. They become an entity beyond the ordinary - something that somehow encompasses’ the images and ideas you presently subscribe to.


As Rachel Tashjian wrote, “You must exert control over your clothing if you want to use it to define yourself.” To me, the key to gaining said control is recognizing that my prized possessions are an extension to my person, something that only I can bring to life in the way it is intended to exist in my orbit. You have the power to breathe life, meaning, and purpose into your clothing, and to think of it any other way brings you further and further away from your conceptual uniform.


With time, these self-ascribed uniforms become more than habitual ensembles, and age into a state that captures your true essence. Taking ownership of your style allows you to seamlessly morph in and out of its phases with the same fluidity granted to your interests and identity. It’s the beauty of time. It allows us to completely embrace our reality, while promising change in the near - or distant - future.


The best example of a public figure who has mastered their conceptual uniform is Tyler, The Creator. The rapper/producer went from religiously wearing low-top vans, button-up shirts and floral patterns to wearing vests, cardigans, and ushankas with the same unwavering devotion. When attending a Louis Vuitton show during Paris fashion week earlier this year, Tyler was asked to point out his favourite item in the outfit he wore to the show.. He replied, “Uh… this sweater I made, I wear it all the time. It’s my favourite thing. And these pants! I’ve been wearing these for two years straight”. Stunned, the fashion vlogger repeated “two years?”, to which Tyler casually replied, “Yeah I'm a sicko”. What might appear to be an unreasonable and surprising habit is unquestionably natural to him. Like his music, the rapper tends to gravitate towards garments that reflect his commitment and love for his opulent lifestyle. No matter where you look in his style evolution, his clothes have always been one with his present - or past - self. His style, like any uniform, is representative of something greater than the threads and fabrics that bind them together.


Repetition and uniformity aren't the villains in our stories, denial and narrow mindedness are. Separating the idea of academia and boundaries from uniforms helped me find comfort and joy in something I once saw as cruelly restrictive. Rituals create foundations in our daily lives that can be built upon and remodeled. And observing those habits can be just as revealing as peering into the window of any soul.


If I learnt anything from that 7th-grade assembly it is that one should cherish their uniform and wear it with pride, as it is the face and image of the institution to which it belongs. Meaning that your personal uniform, whether it be a pair of Bass Weejun loafers, a baby blue vest, or a Canadian tuxedo, should be worn with pride. You are the defining factor - the institution if you will - that brings life to your uniform, and if that isn’t something worth celebrating, I don’t know what is.


 

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