Uniquely Uniform

I went to a girl’s school. I wore a uniform. For 13 years.

It was, as far as uniforms go, flattering enough and easy to wear. Forest green kilt and socks, crisp white shirt, forest green tie with a gold and white stripe, black lace-up oxfords.

Today, I can say that it was nice. It still is nice. But at the time, it was of course quite unpopular to like one’s uniform.

The parents, though, sang its praises.

We were frequently reminded that the beauty of a school uniform is that you don’t have to worry about what to wear in the morning – and that the daily fashion shows are all but obliterated.

From my experience, I would agree with the first statement, but slightly less-so with the second. There was always a way to change things just enough to stand out and to try to best each other. Though there were strict regulations about everything, from the acceptable colours for hair accessories to acceptable types of jewellery, each of us still managed to make the uniform our own. Some wore non-regulation white shirts, the most popular dared to wear dazzling boxers hidden under their kilts (in place of the demure and modest school-issue forest green bloomers).

For the most part, I preferred to blend in. I wore the boxers because it just wasn’t cool to wear bloomers, but I didn’t go overboard. I wore the kilt just above my knee, not six inches above it, not below it, because that was the rule but – more importantly – because it just looked better that way on me. I wore a few pins on my tie because it wasn’t cool not to. But they didn’t stand out. I wore simple, classic jewellery and hair accessories. Nothing expensive, nothing flashy.

I aimed to please, but not to stand out.

The bigger drawback of the uniform for me was that wearing one five out of seven days dulled my brain in the style-department. So much so that it took me a long time to figure out how to put an outfit together on the days I didn’t wear a uniform.

It wasn’t till I started university, a blank slate, that I had an opportunity to develop my own style.

I went through a lot of trial and error as I tried to make the fads of the day my own.

First, I aimed for the Nirvana groupie look. I wore $5 combat boots from the Army Surplus Store with short, funky, second-hand dresses. I ripped a grey sweater and wore it over a white t-shirt with my holey jeans. I tried to dye my dark hair fluorescent pink.

I moved from grunge to hippie, buying cheap silk patterned dresses at the market and layering beads and strings of bells over turtlenecks in the winter months.

By the time I discovered Celtic Studies and the Celtic Society a few years later, I was leaning more towards Celtic Goth: Docs, a black hooded cloak I bought in Ireland, velvet.

I finally toned it down when I graduated and moved to Ireland. I discovered how to pair slightly dressy t-shirts with jeans or preppy yet unique skirts. I would breeze through a trendy store and find all the “different” pieces they had tucked away in the corners.

Trendy, smart but uniquely me.

I think today I am still the same.

At work, I dress nicely, I accessorize, I wear high heels.

Away from work, I live in my jeans, but I wear colourful J Crew t-shirts and patterned scarves.

I have grown into my own style.

I can put together an outfit.

I’ve created my own uniform.


A House Down the Bohereen

I live in the city, in a century-old red brick house with a classically modern and minimalist interior – white walls, maple floors, clean lines, modernist furniture. There are bright pops of colour here and there, mostly red, and they bring a character and warmth to the white.

It is beautiful and works well with my husband’s and my taste, reminds me of the house I grew up in and suits our downtown Ottawa neighbourhood.

But there was a time I had a style that was completely different. I decorated myself and my home, wherever it was, in bright, sunny colours, little bells, beads and tiny mirrors.

As we grow, we change and our sense of style changes. I would feel silly now roping strands of multicoloured seed beads around my neck, wearing long, flowing silk skirts and drapey t-shirts. It’s just not who I am anymore.

As I was considering this today, I my thoughts brought me back to a house from my days in Ireland, a house I happened upon twelve or so years ago. I longed to buy it, though I never did.

It was for sale for a while, which is what started off this dream of mine. I spent a lot of time visiting houses that were for sale when I lived in Ireland. I think I was feeding my dream of finding some sort of permanence there.

I remember seeing the For Sale sign on the N72, between Killarney and Beaufort, and I had set up a meeting with the estate agent almost immediately.

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The house was a few hundred metres up a small sort-of-paved road that stretched away from the N72. It was nestled against the back of a triangular shaped piece of land which was bordered on all sides by small country roads. The triangle was overgrown and rimmed with ivy-choked trees. It backed onto open, rolling farmland with a view of  MacGillicuddy’s Reeks, Ireland’s tallest mountains, in the distance.

I recall that property so clearly. I can still walk through it all in my mind.

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As the estate agent and I made our way down the road, and then onto the little bohereen that formed the back of the triangle, I saw the crumbling outbuildings before I saw the house itself. They were empty, with open spaces where the windows and doors had once been. The previous owners had poured concrete between the outbuildings and the house, likely in an attempt to gain some sort of control over the boggy, wet land upon which everything stood.

The house was on the other side of the concrete pad, facing out across a tangled mass of grasses, weeds and wildflowers, and the trees beyond. The ground was obviously very wet and needed a lot of care, but I envisioned a little pond in the centre, towards which (perhaps) the excess water could be directed.

Leaving the garden for the time being, I followed the estate agent toward the house.

I noticed that the slates on the roof were chipped, cracked and missing in some places. The door was a bit rickety, too, but the plaster walls seemed to be sturdy. They were gently curved at the corners, almost rounded, giving the house a somewhat organic appearance. I can’t remember now for the life of me whether the house was painted white or a deep blue.

Inside the house, the walls were thick and plastered by hand as well, with the same soft, organic quality, and there were dark tiles on the floor. The main level was one large, open space, with a massive two-sided fireplace standing in the middle of it, reaching up to the ceiling, and functioning not only as a heat source but as a room divider, separating the kitchen from the living area.

There were lopsided-looking stairs in the kitchen heading up to the bedrooms on the second floor. Perhaps calling it a second floor is too generous; really, it was more of an attic.

As I turned around in the kitchen, I spied the garden through the two or three windows that lined that side of the house and imagined standing at a large country sink doing the dishes and cooking on an Aga stove which would fit perfectly in the corner. I imagined a long timber table and eight chairs in the centre of the kitchen. And in the living area, I imagined an expansive white sofa strewn with cushions covered in bright Moroccan and Indian fabrics – azure and mustard and ochre and crimson – and matching plush chairs, all scattered sociably about the room, facing the hearth.

Having looked through the house and discussed its potential – “it’s a good solid base, it just needs some tending to,” the estate agent explained – I went back outside to poke around the garden.

A few months of work would have turned that garden into an oasis. Perfect for writing or painting or escaping.

I think I visited the house two more times with the agent and poked around it several additional times on my own. I really believed I was meant to live there, and there was a time part of me thought I would.

It’s been a long time since I’ve thought about that house. I think my style has changed significantly enough that I would decorate it differently now, but the house itself, as I remember it and as I had planned to restore it, would still be a dream come true.

In writing this post, I Google Mapped the area, to see if I could still find it. And there it was; a little triangle in the road gave away its position. Thanks to the wonders of the omnipresent Google photographers, I was even able to travel up the road and down the bohereen.

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And what did I find?

Someone has bought the land and fixed up the buildings. The outbuildings and the main house have all been connected to form a single, large home. The walls have been re-plastered and the roof slates are new and modern. The corners of the house are no longer organic and rounded; they are clean and neat and rigid. The entire structure is painted a soft peach tone.

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Outside the front door, they have built a raised, rounded patio that faces across the garden toward the Reeks.

It must be a lovely view in the morning and in the evening.

The garden has been cleaned up but remains natural and a bit wild-looking. They’ve planted the odd sapling here and there.

And I’m not sure from the angle, but it looks as though they may have built a small pond right where the land sinks down, so that the water can drain into it.

The house as it is now would probably not turn my head. It’s just not my style.

But I still love the funny little house that stood there before, the house that I can still see in my memory. I think it would always have been a structure that I could have lived in. It would forever have fit my style, no matter how much I changed.

Rated PG

As I watch the school bus pull away, I consider the argument its arrival just interrupted.

Two weeks of school, two weeks of daily arguments about clothes.

My son is a good kid, not nasty or cruel or willfully disobedient; the rules he breaks are pretty minimal. And I know that parents and kids have argued about clothing for generations and generations. I certainly remember refusing to wear hats and gloves, finally grudgingly agreeing to pull them on, only to remove them once I rounded the corner. I also remember trying to wear things my dad thought were inappropriate for a girl of my age at the time.

I don’t like starting the morning with an argument, but it’s not our frustrating exchange that I am dwelling on. It’s actually something about the issue itself that I heard being discussed on the radio the other morning.

An authority on child advocacy was arguing that parents should not interfere with what their children choose to wear. They should instead, she posited, celebrate their children’s independence and freedom of choice in an area that is relatively harmless.

The radio presenter asked her guest whether she would be ok with a parent requiring their child to put on something warmer on a cold day or to take off something they found to be inappropriate.

The answer was no. It is, in her humble opinion, never a good idea to interfere with your child’s clothing choices.

If they are underdressed, they will get cold and may get sick. They will learn from that. If they are wearing something inappropriate, they will equally have to deal with and learn from the consequences. If their colours don’t match, what’s the worst that could happen?

Because of my nature, these kinds of strong parenting opinions tend to make me second-guess myself. And so, as I have continued to argue each morning with my son about what he has chosen to wear, there is a little seed of doubt somewhere inside, nagging me to keep quiet.

Finally, this morning, I stopped to face this little voice and consider what it, and the radio guest, were saying.

And I must say, I really strongly disagree with the view that we shouldn’t interfere with our kids’ clothing choices. I am all for them developing independence and the ability to think for themselves. I equally agree that they need to learn to make decisions for themselves and to live with the consequences.

But saying that, I know from experience that my child isn’t going to learn anything from catching a cold.  He has, in the dead of the Canadian winter, forgotten to put his jacket on over his short sleeved t-shirt when walking from school to his after school program. And he has gotten sick. And then he has done it again.

So, I am going to tell him to wear something warmer if it’s freezing outside. He may remove it as soon as he gets out of my sight, but I have at least made sure that if he gets cold later, he has that extra layer. And hopefully it will sink in and one day he’ll realize he’d rather not be cold.

I also think there is value in teaching your child about colour coordination. If I don’t tell him that an orange t-shirt doesn’t go with red pants, who will? And would it be better that the useful information came from me or from some taunting person three years from now? If I were my son in that position, I would want to know why my mom hadn’t stopped me from going out like that.

Even more importantly, I think parents, as role models and informal teachers in their children’s lives, have a key role to play in showing children how to dress appropriately and not offensively. I am not going to let my child wear a rude t-shirt out of the house (or to pick one out in the first place). I am not going to let him wear droopy pants that hang so low I can see the butt of his underwear. I am going to try my damnedest to teach him that the droopy-seated, accident-in-the-pants look is not a good one.

Hopefully, teaching our kids how to dress at an early age will give them a good foundation for choosing their style as they get older – and help them avoid some of the current ridiculous and inappropriate trends, including dressing disreputably at work.

So, Advocate for Children’s Independence, I must respectfully disagree with you. I think it’s ok for parents to tell their children to put on an extra layer, to make sure their clothes don’t clash and to pull up their pants.

And I don’t think that by doing this, we are deeply wounding their sense of self. Nor are we impinging upon their right to freedom of choice.

It’s called parental guidance. It’s kind of part of our job.