School uniforms may be thought of as representing in material-cultural form the point in which the forces of two great upheavals, epitomized by the industrial and French revolutions, converge. However, despite encouraging the uniformizing of students (as well as workers and citizens), these two momentous transformations often work at cross-purposes. The industrial revolution was an economic project that eventually required formal schooling to learn radically new habits for rationalized labor. School uniforms came to symbolize the person as interchangeable and modular. Meanwhile, a more political project, the French Revolution (and other similar revolts of the same period), encouraged self-determinism and individuality, ideals that were often contravened by dress uniformity (in addition to demanding uniformed students—that is, workers-in-training—the industrial revolution immeasurably facilitated the spread of student uniforms through mechanical standardization and mass production). The tension between economic production and political liberation continues to shape debates about school uniforms: Some argue that school uniforms increase social order while others contend they run the danger of violating a person's right of self-expression. To what degree school uniforms actually do the latter, along with threatening a student's autonomy, self-worth, and dignity is, of course, debatable. In any case, contemporary discussions about school uniforms also reveal deeper concerns about student performance, school safety, the maintenance of social order, and the relation between the individual student (citizen-in-training) and the state.
From a more abstract perspective, one way to view the role of uniforms is by considering the person vis-à-vis uniformed dress. In regards to appearance and bodily regulation, one's person is either impressed upon (by societal rules) or it gives off impressions (by subjective intention). There are, then, two angles from which self-presentation practices associated with uniforms can be approached. The first is "person as a mannequin": one's body is inert, a passive object with clothes hung on it by others. The self is under control; one dresses for others. Roles and social status are imposed. The second angle is "self-governing": one's body is animate, something active, a self-regulating entity. The self is in control; one dresses, as it were, for one's self. Personal style and individuality are expressed. Arguably, one's appearance is a mixture of both these forms of self-presentation, but it is worth highlighting the self-governing perspective in order to illustrate the role of individual agency. Such a maneuver is necessary to account for what might be termed "resistance" (though not necessarily of a well-thought-out, explicit kind). For example, Japanese schools are known for enforcing uniform regulations, and yet many students routinely flaunt the rules by affecting a slovenly look, donning nonregulation articles, and even altering uniforms. Such dress practices are not political statements about the state, capitalism, and "the system," but rather personal expressions of insolence aimed at teachers, parents, and what is perceived to be the old-fashioned style of the older generation.
Here the difference between dress codes and uniforms needs clarification. If "uniformity" is a crucial component of any definition of uniforms, it is prudent to envision a continuum of dress codes, dress uniformity, and uniforms. In many places, there is debate about how much uniformity is desirable, and regulations vary widely. Some school policies are very liberal, requiring that students follow a dress code that does not require uniforms, while others ask students to don uniforms, and still others mandate that all students wear uniforms (though students are allowed to opt out for religious or personal reasons). Policies can even go further; in Japan, some schools are notorious for strictly enforcing, in military-fashion, every component of dress, including skirt length, hair style and color, and book bags.
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