The BU Uniform
Written by Anna Thornley
December 9, 2022
I have never worn a school uniform. The closest I’ve gotten was a Harry Potter Halloween costume. My high school didn’t even have a dress code. The debates about clothes at school were limited. A handful of sexist teachers told girls to cover up, and the French teacher thought winter boots were ugly, ripped jeans were ridiculous, and sweatpants were slobbish.
However, school uniforms were always present in my mind. I don’t know whether it was binging Gossip Girl at a formative time or the fact that my cousins all wore uniforms, but the clunky black shoes, navy skirts, and white starched button downs all inspired envy in me. I managed to glamourize the school uniform.
Despite my fascination, I still couldn’t imagine having to wear the same thing every day– or worse, having to wear the same thing as everyone else. According to my parents, since I could talk, I have had strong opinions about the clothes I wear. My style, on the other hand, has not been a constant. Over the years, it has gone through countless, mainly cringe, evolutions. In preschool, the bottom drawer of my dresser was filled with high heels. I collected bags and wore lipstick whenever I got the chance. In third grade, I was all about dresses and flats accessorized with a long braid down my back. In middle school, I experimented with acid wash jeans and heavy eyeliner. The only consistency has been my desire to dress in my outfit of choice; I have always associated my clothes with my individuality.
This fixation on individuality screams America. Most American public schools don’t have uniforms for this reason. My old-fashioned and European grandmother is firmly in the pro school uniform camp. She doesn’t think asserting individualist identity is very important in the first place, and she certainly doesn’t see clothing as a medium for this kind of self-expression. Rather, she sees school uniforms as equalizers– you can’t have a designer uniform.
At BU, seeing designer clothes in class is not out of the ordinary. Spending money is plentiful. “Campus” is one long catwalk. Pavement-goers serve as early trend spotters, and Fitrec informs what brand of athleisure is in at the moment. Scooters and red backpacks carry their own currency.
Even the design of classes along Comm Ave lends itself to constant perception. It is panopticon-like. You can’t tell if someone is looking at you unless you look at them. In crowds of hundreds, you are also no doubt always being perceived. And, unless you risk death by Boston drivers and look at your phone while you walk, you too are always perceiving others.
Sociologist Erving Goffman’s dramaturgical theory explains that all social interactions are performances; life is a stage, and people are actors. Impression management is the way people communicate who they are and how they want to be perceived. Clothing is a tool for impression management– that is, clothing is a key part of an actor’s performance. Therefore, when you put on an outfit and walk to class, consciously or unconsciously, you are performing.
However, performances are made flexible by social context. In class the other day, a girl was explaining that every Friday night she moves between two distinctly different spaces: house shows and frat parties. She talked about the style requirements for each setting. At house shows, it is a competition about who can be more alt. At frats, it’s a basic black tank top and jeans.
The whole point of “basic-ness” is that it’s normative. While it does evolve over time, there is typically one main iteration of basic per moment, for example infinity scarves and skinny jeans back in the mid-2000s and the VSCO girl more recently. This singularity makes “basic” easier to define.
However, as online discourse has evolved from glorifying hipsters on Tumblr to heralding e-girls on Tiktok, there are now different brands of alt. You can be tattooed and goth or coquettish and cottage core and both be alt. And in a capitalist society where consumption is rampant and reinvention is always within reach, altness enforces a pressure to outdo: outdo others and outdo yourself in your expression of uniqueness. This desperation translates into a larger culture of homogeny. Therefore, though one group is obsessed with individuality and the other largely forsakes it for a single accepted ideal, alts and basics are not all that different. Steady and constant consumption to keep up with trends (or anti-trends) bridges their ideological gap, making them almost indistinguishable.
Upon seeing two girls in the CAS bathroom, one wearing airpod maxes and lululemons and the other dressed in arm warmers and cargo pants three sizes too big, it’s not immediately obvious which girl is basic and which is alt. It doesn’t matter– both are likely to have some level of individuality complex. We all do. When the first girl chose pastel over jewel toned headphones and the second bought her arm warmers on Depop, they may have been trying to tell stories about their own originality. But their mass produced, overpriced accessories tell a different story entirely. Ultimately, whether you are basic or alt, you are always wearing a uniform.