Friday, March 16, 2007

Labels, uniforms, style wars and the bully mentality

I recently posted about my 13 year old son's repeated experience of "happy slapping". A subsequent conversation with the school raised the question of uniforms and labels. The school my sons attend have well over 2500 children enrolled, divided into 6 halls or sub-schools. Many of the teachers have never met each other. Some may well not even have heard of each other. Unlike other British schools, the school does not dictate a uniform. Also unlike other schools, all staff members - teachers, administration, support staff - are known by their first names. The stated reasoning behind this is respect. Respect for the individual, no matter what their role in the community.

It's a wonderful ideal. I wish it worked!

When I spoke to my son's tutor, she indicated that there was a strong likelihood that he was being victimised because of his appearance. This seems very likely. She expressed her regret at this fact, stating that the school taught respect for the individual's right to self-expression - hence the lack of uniform.

I felt compelled to disabuse her. While the school may not impose a uniform, the children have established their own dress code. It is a very clearcut means by which to categorise themselves and one another and each group has a name. It isn't far from gang mentality. The enmity between the groups occasionally escalates to violence, but usually takes the form of verbal expressions of loathing and disgust.

So what are these uniforms? I'll do the best I can (many of the links below are to flickr files - I'm not sure if you'll be able to see them without an account, but I wasn't sure about the rules regarding the reproduction of the photos in my post, so I decided to play it safe):

Chavs. This is the group with the worst reputation for violence. They dress in tracksuits, in the case of the boys, usually worn with the hoods up. The boys wear their hair cropped short, with peaked caps far back on their heads - the peaks pointing almost straight up. The girls' tracksuits are often in pastel colours with a slogan across the butt. They are likely to tie their hair in a tight pony tail - often high on their heads, with a great deal of make-up. They have a predeliction for "blingage" oversized gold jewellery. They often hail from the rougher estates. They listen to rap, hip-hop, R&B. There preference for the Burberry brand has been said to have done the brand harm.

Goths. These kids usually dress entirely in black, and have a rather eccentric taste in clothing. They have a preference for oversized boots with rubber platform heels. They are likely to dye their hair pitch black or a bright colour like red or purples. Both boys and girls are likely to wear lashings of black eyeliner - not necessarily just around their eyes, either. They are likely to listen to death metal music, and are attracted to "dark" experiences and spirituality. There can be associations with vampirism.

Emos. Think goth-meets-punk. Lots of eccentric combinations. Emo boys are likely to have long fringes that hang down over their eyes. Two-tone dye-jobs are also a distinct possibility. Emo being short for emotional, emos are said to be big on self-harming. Boys wear their jeans very low slung - usually well below their butts. Girls may wear trousers, leggings or ripped tights with short skirts over the top, fingerless gloves, thumb rings, black or mismatched nail varnish. Once again there is a tendency towards black eyeliner for both boys and girls, and a pair of ceramic hair straighteners are a must. Music of preference: rock such as My Chemical Romance

Scenes. This is a subset or breakaway group from emos. Not into self-harming (not that all - or even most - emos really are!). The dress is slightly toned down and the hats are different, although you'd probably have to be a teen to tell them apart. Both girls and boys wear their jeans slung low with underwear on display. Note - this does not mean thongs (g-strings) - that would be chavvy!

Grebos. This is apparently a contraction of "greasy b*st*rds" and applies to fans of indie rock and post punk musical styles. Grebos may opt for dreadlocks, boots and baggy clothes and funky hats. Sometimes also referred to as "grungies". These folks are roundly despised by chavs. Just seeing a grebe walk past is often enough to get their blood boiling.

Trendies. These, my sons tell me, are people who wear good quality mainstream clothes. According to them, my husband and I fall into this category. I thought this was a good thing, until I read what the urban dictionary had to say about them! I certainly don't relate to any of the stereotypes. They listen to mainstream pop, read magazines and watch popular television programmes.

And these are the uniforms in evidence in my sons' school - so much for the no-uniform approach. My older son's style of dress is muted enough not to attract undue attention. He tends to be grebo/scene. My younger son, however, achieves some fairly outlandish looks some days. This obviously riles some kids. On four occasions he has had some minor violence inflicted on him by boys he has referred to as chavs. Take any teenager and stand them on a street corner. Ask them to identify the kids that walk past, and they'll tell you without pausing: grebe, goth, chav, emo... Never mind what the kids might have worn yesterday or might wear tomorrow. It's what they're wearing today, right now that, if the "right" combination of factors comes into play, could result in abuse or injury.

I never expected the day that I would think with longing of uniforms, but they are great levellers. Kids from the poorest homes can look as smart as kids from the richest and the punishment inflicted on the parents' bank balances is less severe! Policemen, soldiers, nurses, pilots, firemen, store assistants and countless others wear uniforms as they go about their duties - they seem to manage to express their individuality in other ways.

I'm not really sure that I've had a complete change of heart on this - the proof of the pudding would be my reaction if they decided to introduce a uniform at the school. But for now, because his chosen dress code is making my son a target, I'm wavering...


Anonymous said...

That's a fascinating read. It's hard to believe a school can be so big and so casual with respect to uniforms.

Uniforms are compulsory in Western Australian schools, although schools can apply for jeans to be included as part of the uniform.

You're totally right about uniforms being a great leveller. It would be a fashion contest here if girls, especially, could buy whatever brand-name clothes they wanted.

And as you say, that disadvantages poor families.

It's ironic in the situation you describe that so-called respect for the individual has led to the creation of what is effectively a gang culture.

Anonymous said...

I can't believe I forgot to mention skaters! These kids - almost all boys - wear baggy jeans with big pockets. Often the jeans are cropped to midcalf length. They top these with baggy t-shirts and large "skater" shoes such as DCs. They may wear key chains draped from one belt loop to another. They might wear chullo hats (like the one pictured for grebes above). Music of preference: ska. They are very likely to be found in parking lots and open concreted areas where they practise new tricks on the skateboards.

Uniforms are compulsory almost everywhere else in the UK - this is the only school I have ever encountered that does not have one. In every school that I know of, for kids who choose to stay on after GCSEs to do A levels, the uniform gives way to a dress code. Most schools expect A level students to dress as they would for a white collar job. As far as I know, there is no dress code at this school for A level, either.

As to your point about labels, Michael - it has to be seen to be believed. I have idea where some of the kids get the money for the labels they wear!