A timeless classic, after a fashion: The Catholic school uniform

Jacques Kelly

August 22, 1991|By Jacques Kelly

In a world that seems to change every day, the Catholic school uniform remains unshaken, steadfastly the same, not a seam or hue altered.

The other day I spotted racks of styleless boys' blue trousers and identical white shirts lined up at a department store.

Ah, yes. It's got to be the end of August, the season to buy new school uniforms. Except for the price tag, and a few threads of synthetic fabric, those navy blue pants and white shirts are the same in 1991 as they were in 1956, the first year I was sentenced to this unyielding outfit.

The persuasive power of these clothes is amazing. Once the domain of religious and private schools, the same navy blue, white and plaid garments that have become synonymous with sensible, old-fashioned garb are now being worn by some city public school students.

I can recall, with horror, that first morning my school uniform was set out -- the blue tie, the dreaded collar on the white shirt, the no-nonsense pants and the brown Oxford shoes. At age 6, I was being ushered into a world of conformity, rules and requirements.

The girls wore white blouses, plaid jumpers or skirts and saddle shoes.

The gathering of the uniform parts was an essential ritual of childhood. It began in the last blessed days of the summer. We might be on the beach and my mother would send terror into the hearts of my brother and four sisters by telling us it was time to pack. We'd drive through Denton and Kent Narrows and cross the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. About 8 p.m., by the time we reached Baltimore, the sun would be setting.

Being outfitted for new school uniforms was drudgery. Normally, a shopping trip downtown was a delight. As children, we used any excuse to roam around Howard and Lexington streets. We'd even cheerfully run errands, provided a bribe of carfare and a little lunch money were offered.

But the day to be outfitted for school uniforms was the worst of the year, the one time we'd rather not be downtown. To make matters worse, it was invariably a breezy and cloudless August day when all you could think about was the temperature of the ocean, the size of the waves and the feel of the sand under your feet.

My sisters had it worse than me. They had to get jumpers that were custom-made by the uniform factories in Baltimore's old garment district near the Bromo-Seltzer Tower.

I always accompanied them and my mother on those expeditions. By midmorning, tempers and tongues were out of control. Once we were joined by another family in hopes of making the fittings into a mini-outing. All that we got was a parking ticket -- $7 in 1967 Baltimore -- on West Lombard Street, in the days when parking citations were not slapped on your windshield as often as they are today.

A member of the party, a young mother with several children, was so outraged that the city police force would question the requirements of her day's task, that she marched it over to her father's office in the federal building and told him to have it taken care of. Now. Today.

I think the man secretly paid the fine out of his own pocket. Such was the power of intimidation in his daughter's voice.

He knew also that it was far easier a task to pay the ticket than to get a half-dozen young sprouts fitted into the proper Catholic school garb.

The togs were taken home in very dull boxes. The uniforms made life easier. There was no talk of new fashions for schoolwear. There was no fashion.

Parents also had to buy liquid white shoe polish for saddle shoes and brown paste for the Oxfords.

There was also a lengthy rule book that explained clothing prohibitions and fines for being out of uniform. The laws are still on the books in many Catholic schools.

My sister Ann recently described her last hours under the yoke of a starched white collar.

It was late May, the last hours of school for seniors. Ann walked into the head nun's office to present her with a check for $231, all that was left in the piggy bank of the ecology club.

My sister looked at the clock, felt the heat and casually loosened, then removed, the choking white collar. The nun accepted the check, then said, "That will be 50 cents. You're out of uniform."

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