Teenage girls' alterations to their school uniforms are proving too hot to handle for some, but the home-made tailoring is all to match their peers, writes Finola Meredith
The humble school skirt must be the most constantly modified garment in history. For generations, teenage girls have diligently applied their creativity to transforming stodgy A-line knee-length skirts into cheeky little minis. Those girls unfortunate enough to be saddled with calf-length swathes of pleated tartan - beyond all remedial intervention - can only look on in envy.
As every teenage schoolgirl knows, the traditional method of hiking up your skirt involves rolling up the waistband and hiding the resulting bulge of fabric beneath an untucked shirt. The big advantage of this one is that the results can easily be undone by a swift tug, in the event of an unexpected uniform inspection. More ambitious and risky techniques include ripping out the side seams and re-sewing them to create a skin-tight confection, or inserting a forbidden slit.
In the past, upwardly mobile hemlines were often monitored by matronly teachers who whipped out rulers to check that skirt lengths conformed to uniform guidelines. But lately it seems that, in many schools, skirts are getting shorter, with neither parents nor teachers intervening. Whether combined with dark tights and surprisingly high heels, or chunky knee-socks and thighs mottled by constant exposure to the cold, girls are getting away with wearing skirts their mothers would never have been permitted to wear in their wildest dreams. And now one man is taking a stand against it.
Belfast clergyman Pastor Paul Burns, speaking on BBC Radio Ulster, recently made a public appeal for girls to cover up, in the interests of safety and modesty. Raising concerns about the potential appeal to paedophiles, Pastor Burns said: "These skirts are way above knee level: you can virtually see the colour of their pants if the wind's blowing."
Schoolgirls on the streets of Belfast don't seem impressed with the pastor's sartorial advice. Ellie (16), sporting a micro-mini skirt under her school blazer, says: "That stuff went out in the Dark Ages. If he doesn't like what he sees, he can look the other way."
But should parents be concerned that, by dressing provocatively, their daughters are at risk of drawing inappropriate male attention at a stage when they are only barely aware of their own nascent sexuality? After all, the look of the suggestive schoolgirl has widespread currency: pop stars Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera have blatantly played on the image, pouting and gyrating in skimpy typical schoolgirl outfits, while sucking suggestively on lollipops. And with the recent craze for retro clubs where grown-ups can relive the heady delights of the school disco, unbuttoned adult-size uniforms and all, it's little wonder that girls are eager to experiment with the look.
James (37), a college lecturer, and father of a 14-year-old daughter, lives close to a school notorious for the Lolita-like attire of its sixth-form female pupils. "It makes me feel really uncomfortable seeing 17- and 18-year-olds dressed like that. It does catch your eye, you can't help looking, but then you turn away - you feel like a seedy old man. Why are parents allowing their kids to wear uniforms that make you think of streetwalkers? And the parents definitely know. They drop their daughters off in the mornings; you see these girls with impossibly long legs emerge from mum's car in skirts so short you can see the tops of their tights. The teachers should take some action."
So have some schools effectively given up, conscious that they are fighting a battle not only with disobedient pupils but their complicit parents? Louise McCullough, a former teacher who now chairs a school board of governors, thinks that most schools take a pragmatic approach to the issue in all but the most extreme cases. "Pupils will always find a way to undermine or tweak uniform rules. The difference nowadays is that parents are much more likely to support their children in the challenging of authority. There's often a hostility towards teachers being seen to interfere."
But McCullough believes that one thing hasn't changed over the years, and that's the motivation for customising uniforms. "When students twist their skirts up, or wear their ties with an extra-fat knot, or whatever other fashion is current, it's often said that they are trying to express their individuality. But the reverse is true: what most teenagers want more than anything else is to fit in with their peers. They want to do what everyone else is doing. There is always a subculture of dress-codes among the students: it's a hidden world with its own rules, its own language. You don't want to be the one with the pristine uniform, worn in the proper way, because then you stand out."
Rita O'Reilly, manager of Parentline, the Dublin-based parent-support organisation, agrees: "There's no doubt that it's peer pressure from other girls, rather than trying to appeal to boys, that causes the situation." Schoolgirls' first attempts at transforming their functional uniforms are usually more clumsy and naive than precocious. But it's still overt enough to make some male teachers feel uncomfortable.
Robert Ferguson, who taught English at an all-girls school for two years when he was in his mid-20s, says: "Teenage girls like to think they are quite sophisticated, far too grown-up for school uniforms, so they try to show that by making it as revealing as they possibly can. It's not just the short skirts: they wear tight blouses, with visible bras underneath. They try to capture as many features of clubbing gear as they can, and then reflect that in their uniform."
It seems that when teenage girls glamorise their uniforms, it comes less from a desire to subvert than a deeply-held wish to conform - not only to their peers' standards, but to society's dubious fascination with the sexy schoolgirl.