Part 2: Uniforms
Last week, we took a shallow dive into how the Irish school system works, grade to grade. But we all know the most fascinating part is the human interest bit: so what are Irish school kids experiencing? More specifically: what are they wearing day to day? Since the United States isn’t big on uniforms, it can be a bit of a shock to see the universality of the school uniform in Ireland—a mainstay since medieval times. Let’s learn more!
The school uniform has a long history in Ireland, but the image you have in your head of a blazer with a crest and a matching tie isn’t quite where it started. While the history of the Irish educational system is a complex one—from bardic schools in medieval times to the repressive hedge schools of the 18th century—our first solid records of what Irish school uniforms actually looked like come out of rural Ireland in the first few decades of the 20th century (thanks to invention of the camera!) Before WWI, boys were generally the only ones receiving much of an education and wore long shirts (dresses, really) called petticoats, with a short coat (similar to the brat you’re still allowed to wear for Irish dance.) Petticoats are similar to both the ancient léine or tunics worn in ancient Ireland, a precursor to the kilt. This is our best look into the past uniform of the monastic schools that dotted Ireland years before!
After petticoats went out of style and until the 1980s, younger male students wore shorts and knee socks with a blazer, button down, and tie until 12, 14, or even 16 depending on the school and parental preferences. Getting to wear pants to school was considered a sign of manhood within the community, and while this is now considered outdated, the wearing of a school uniform (often with the crest of the school) is still considered a way to help students feel they’re part of said community. It’s often cited as a reason to keep uniforms up through college, as the wearing of the school colors and crest can create camaraderie and school spirit, lets the students see their place as a part of something larger than themselves—possibly increasing empathy. (Fun fact: that's the same reason SRL has its students where our school colors of red, black, and white--why many Irish dance schools do!) It’s just one of the positives cited for school uniforms, with others including: easier to get dressed in the morning, less distracting, less bullying, and easier to enforce for the teachers, among other pros.
Female uniforms have transformed the least over time, generally consisting of a skirt or pinafore—with sweaters and button downs for the younger girls and a button down, tie, and blazer for those in secondary (or at least the senior cycle) of school. Knee socks or tights are generally also required. You may have noticed something there...I didn’t say pants. That’s right, at the majority of Irish schools, female students are considered in breach of dress code if they come to school in pants—even if they’re the same pants the male students are required to wear. This had led to a movement in Ireland calling for gender-neutral uniforms across age groups, citing the fact that pants aren’t revealing (in fact, are less revealing than the short skirts that are standard,) and are perhaps less comfortable for many students.
Then again, school dress codes have been in the news for years now, with female students protesting the policing of their bodies, and many believe school uniforms are a remedy for that problem. Many parents in Ireland, however, disagree, citing the strictness of the code as an undue stress, particularly for the youngest students. We’re not talking about rules like the fingertip-length skirts and wearing the correct tie—these are more trifling rules, like what color hair tie’s in your hair, that many Irish parents find arbitrary and an unwarranted burden on both them and their student. That’s to say nothing of the cost—while many underfunded schools in economically disadvantaged areas in America have less expensive uniform options, this doesn’t generally follow suit in Ireland. With a tradition of the school’s crest emblazoned upon everything, many Irish people have found the costs prohibitive—especially as a breach of those rules could lead to their student not being able to remain in class to receive their education.
And then, there’s what every kid cites as the biggest negative about school uniforms: a lack of independence and identity. There’s a lot of back and forth about the truth of this, with some saying that wearing a uniform for twelve plus years takes away a sense of independence and makes the transition to adulthood harder. Similarly, Ireland, whose population is currently 12% non-Irish citizens, is also facing backlash over the perceived forced assimilation the traditional Irish school uniform has on students from other countries and cultures.
Whether you’re pro- or anti-school uniform, they seem to there to stay in Ireland, especially as their usage across the world increases (and, we have to say, a little kid in a tie is always pretty cute.) Who knows, all our dancers might be heading off to school in a plaid skirt this time next year. Where do you land on the school uniform debate? Let us know in the comments!
This post is part of a series. You can learn more about the Irish school system, which we covered last week, here. Check out the blog every Monday and Thursday for more posts about Irish history, dance culture, community news, and spotlights on our dancers, staff, and families—among other fun projects! And don’t forget to dance along with us on both Facebook and Instagram.
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