Who wears the trousers? Not most Irish schoolgirls
While many schoolgirls are happy in their regulation skirts, others bemoan the lack of choice – as does designer Louise Kennedy, who has sketched her solution for us
Grace Walsh, Jess Crowley, Michaela O’Shea and Nicola Power of St Paul’s Community College, Waterford city, wearing trousers. Photograph: Patrick Browne
Designer Louise Kennedy. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien
It’s a Wednesday evening and Lisa Phiri and Kamile Kibar are standing at the bus stop outside their school in Dublin, the long skirts of their uniforms blowing in the chill wind.
The 16-year-olds have just won three basketball games for Presentation Terenure and are heading home. The students all wear trousers out of school and say the skirts they have to wear as part of their uniform are a daily irritant.
Kamile says she can’t wait to get changed into her own clothes after school. The skirt is “flimsy, uncomfortable and ugly. It gets caught in things and makes it difficult to move around easily or run – they are not practical,” she says.
Fourteen years ago, Julie Mellor, chairwoman of the Equal Opportunities Commission in the UK, described trousers as “smart and practical for the rigours of school life” and said there was “no reason for girls not to wear them”. Yet the majority of Irish schools still don’t offer the choice of trousers, despite the discomfort expressed by students such as Lisa and Kamile.
School style, like all style, is subjective, and some students are more than happy in their skirts. Sarah Evans is a Leaving Cert student at Rathdown School in Glenageary, Co Dublin. The 18-year-old loves her school uniform and finds the skirt and jumper combination “relaxing” to wear. At home, she wears mainly tracksuit bottoms or jeans, but not having the option of trousers at school doesn’t bother her.
She believes a skirt is the best option for girls her age. If the option of trousers were made available, she doesn’t think many of her fellow students would take it up.
She didn’t always love her uniform, however. Like many Irish schoolgirls, she once had to wear a kilt to school. Along with the fear of accidental exposure, the garments are often made of scratchy rough material and designed with no pockets. They are also tricky to wash and iron – “pleats from here to infinity”, as my mother used to grumble.
Sarah was in sixth class when the kilt was phased out after students objected to it as “outdated”. She says she was relieved to be starting secondary school with her more modern skirt.
But, however well they’re made, some students will never be happy with school skirts.
Jessica Spencer (19) who left St Mary’s Holy Faith School in Killester, Dublin, last year, says she and her fellow students found the skirt- based uniform uncomfortable, especially in the damp and cold Irish climate. Many of the students resorted to wearing leggings – even pyjama bottoms – under their skirts, risking punishment for these sartorial rule-breaks.
Trousers can be an option, but they’re only offered to female students in a small minority of schools, including St Paul’s Community College in Waterford.
Lynda O’Shea, public relations officer for the National Parents Council, says her daughters took up the option of trousers for “comfort and warmth, and also so the boys wouldn’t be able to pull up the skirt or in case they fell or tripped up.”
O’Shea says that only one or two girls in the school wear skirts. Her main gripe with school trousers for girls is the quality and fit. She says most of them are made for boys, are of poor quality and have to be replaced once or twice a year.
Barbara Ennis, principal of Alexandra College in Dublin, maintains that the argument for trousers for girls in school is “political correctness gone mad”. She views school trousers as “not particularly flattering for young women”, and argues that, “while fashions in trouser styles change [skinny, bootleg, flared and so on], skirt styles do not”.
“A uniform,” she insists, “must remain static.”
Indeed, the style for female students has remained mostly static since schools in Britain adopted uniforms and Ireland followed suit. Uniforms were dull in colour and consisted of a skirt for girls and shorts for boys. Boy’s uniforms evolved to include trousers, but girls were stuck, for the most part, with skirts.
Britain, it seems, is now beginning to move with the times. There, a large percentage of secondary institutions now allow female students to wear trousers to school.
Dublin-based designer Louise Kennedy thinks this gender-specific form of school dressing could do with some rethinking.
She agreed to sketch designs for a new Irish school uniform for female students, an outfit that would be practical in all weathers and for all activities. Kennedy took into account the issues raised by the students who contributed to this article, as well as using her own experience in designing uniforms for other organisations.
In her design (left), Kennedy focused on “comfort and ease of movement”.
“Versatility is key,” she says. “It’s also very important to look smart yet remain modern and contemporary.”
Kennedy describes the wine-coloured uniform from her own school days as “extremely heavy, and the skirt unflattering”. It is the reason wine-coloured fabric never appear in her collections.
Kennedy chose trousers for the design, saying they are “universally accepted as part of the female wardrobe”. She opted for a jean shape, as “the market demand has developed so many style options to fit all body shapes”. The colour she chose was a “dark midnight”, and the material stretch twill. The denim used is hard- wearing and flattering.
The oversized “boyfriend” jacket is a “wool-Lycra blend fabric, so it would be hard-wearing and comfortable to wear”. The round-neck top is a navy and white jersey colour mix block. Jersey was chosen as it easy to wear and washable.
Perhaps this elegant sketch might be taken into account at future school board meetings when the subject of what young women wear to school is debated. In the meantime, Lisa, Kamile and their friends will continue to wear “uncomfortable” skirts to school and hope that one day they are given a more practical alternative.
“Everyone in every school should have an option,” says Lisa. “You might want to wear a skirt, you might want to wear trousers, but you should always have a choice about which you put on in the morning.”