multi-storied #4: Uniforms.
I continue to tinker with the idea behind this newsletter. What should it do? At some point, I will want it to contain original writing—writing that isn’t published elsewhere. We aren’t there yet, but in the meantime, I thought it might be a fine idea to include pieces that have been published but that aren’t easily available to read online. Here’s one, written two years ago for a Vogue anthology titled Dress: An Anthology Celebrating Clothes and Style.
For a dozen years, my wardrobe was occupied chiefly by the uniforms it held: three sets, one after the other, for the three schools I attended. Other clothes were secondary—ragged T-shirts and shorts to wear out to play or at home, and the stray decent shirt, with a collar and perhaps even long sleeves, to slip into on semi-formal occasions. (There weren't many.) For a third of the year, roughly speaking, the school uniform was my default appearance. This is, of course, the case for anyone who went to a school that required a uniform. But there cannot be too many other people whose sense of couture, well into adulthood, continues to be defined by the uniforms they wore a decade or more ago. My wardrobe today betrays that readily—gives up, like a weak criminal under nasty interrogation, the fact that I have never really learned how to dress for my post-school life.
Ironically, perhaps the nattiest I've ever been dressed was in my first uniform, at a school in Delhi. During the winters, little boys were instructed to wear Lincoln green blazers, grey sweater vests and grey woolen trousers, white shirts, and green ties; girls switched out the trousers for skirts. At assembly, from the stage, we must have looked like one giant rock covered with moss. The school shop sold two types of ties: the regular kind, and the kind with a band of elastic that you could just clip under your collar. Regrettably, I chose the second: I was lazy, and I didn't think I would ever grow up, so I reckoned that knotting a tie was an unnecessary hassle. Even today, I leave my ties pre-tied; at best, I might undo one, summon up a YouTube video, and tie it up again in front of a mirror. In this regard, I am in no way my father's son.
One of the first set of books I ever read starred a boy wearing a very similar uniform. In Richmal Crompton’s rich and gloriously funny “William” series, her schoolboy hero—Mister William Brown, as he sometimes introduced himself—was clothed in a blazer, a tie and a sweater-vest, and in shorts, knee-high socks and black shoes. Additionally, he had a school cap, a shallow dome of cloth that sat askew upon his spiky hair. For William, the uniform was something to be fought against. He swung his blazer over his head, muddied his boots, and allowed his socks to pool around his ankles. He found alternate utility in some items: He filled his cap with water so that he could carry tadpoles and little fish, and he deployed his tie as a makeshift slingshot. His pockets ripped at the seams because they bulged with stones and hard-boiled sweets. Every morning, he was sent to school with a shining face and tidily combed hair; every evening he returned, encrusted in grime, mud and happiness. The entropy of the uniform corresponded to a rise in William’s well-being. The very essence of boyhood rebellion was captured in the way William treated his uniform.
Even at William’s age, though, I never regarded the uniform and its various discomforts as any sort of imposition; there are, within the Indian schooling system, only so many discomforts and impositions you can balk at before wearying of the endeavour. Putting on a uniform was a thing to do be done, just as going to school was a thing to be done, as was completing homework, brushing your teeth, or submitting to a bath. Outside of fiction, a child quickly discovers how limited his agency is, and recognizes just as swiftly the parts of his life that are non-negotiable. He reserves his energy for smaller contests that might potentially be won. Inexplicably, that wisdom in picking battles wanes, rather than waxes, with age and time.
In India, the modern uniform is a cultural imposition as well—yet another artifact of British rule. We have no detailed information about what children in ante-colonial India wore to school; pathashalas, maktabs and madrassahs presumably had dress codes, signals to distinguish the scholastic world from the temporal. The oldest school uniform in England today is the one worn by pupils at Christ’s Hospital, a school in Sussex: mustard-yellow socks, a brown leather belt, white shirts, and a long coat that looks as if it was nicked from the stores of a wizarding academy. This "Tudor look" has been the school's regulation attire for more than 450 years; since 1987 though, Christ's Hospital admits, a streak of anarchy has crept in, and "Dr. Martens have [become] the perfect accompaniment to the Tudor uniform." The shades of blue and yellow were chosen, in part, because those dyes were inexpensive; Christ's Hospital was a charity that gathered up "fatherless and poor children," cared for them, and educated them. The fee to send a child as a boarder to Christ's Hospital today runs to around £10,500 per term.
The impulse to clothe these foundlings and waifs identically was an understandable one. They came into the school with few material possessions of their own, in any case; the uniform was a symbol of leaving the misery of their previous lives behind, as well as a method to knit the students together into a shared new life. Those reasons had also created the academic uniforms of another, earlier sort of student—not a child in school, but a novitiate monk. Hence the robes: two pieces of unstitched cloth for the young men in Vedic pathashalas, the orange cloth swaddling Buddhist monks as they moved between the eight lecture halls of Nalanda, the coarse habits of the Carthusians, the Benedictines, and the other residents of the great, hushed monasteries of Europe. The robes shredded vanity and dissolved differences; they turned the mind upon itself, away from matters of the external world.
I was grateful for the anonymizing power of uniforms when my family moved to Jakarta, just as I was entering the fourth grade. My sister and I were enrolled in an international school, because expat children weren't permitted—as far as I remember—to attend regular Indonesian schools. Our uniforms: batik shirts, in blue and black for junior school, and grey and black for senior school; dark blue shorts or skirts. We had, furthermore, a separate kit for physical education: white, collared T-shirts, and baggy shorts made of some Klein Blue synthetic that I came to detest. The very notion of changing clothes in school—not to mention the compulsory showers after games—was utterly alien. A fine way to discomfit a sheltered Indian boy in the earliest throes of puberty is to strip him and shove him into a communal shower hall with dozens of his naked peers, nearly all of them taller and broader than him.
In other ways too, this school was an unfamiliar universe. The boys were devotees of different music, watched different things on television, played different sports on weekends. When we met outside of school, they wore intriguing T-shirts emblazoned with the names of bands—not just bands, but bands they knew well and had listened to, a connection between leisure and leisurewear that had never existed in my conceptions. These were not feats I could pull off. I owned three audio cassettes, all bequeathed to me—along with her tastes—by a cousin, and most of those musicians didn't feature on T-shirts. I loved to read, but nobody was making streetwear feat. Richmal Crompton or characters out of the Soviet Union's Raduga Publishers' books; I'd seen a lot of Doordarshan but only one-and-a-half English movies, the half because my father dragged me out of "Coming to America," realizing it wasn't quite right for a seven-year-old; again, these experiences were never quite captured by decals on fabric. My batik shirt, though, looked exactly the same as the ones worn by my Australian friends. For them, clothes were ways to express their individuality; for me, clothes offered a ruse to blend in. The uniform was a profound source of comfort.
I remember none of this, I should mention, as a distressing experience, or even one that troubled me consciously. I adjusted the way most children adjust: honestly and without deliberation, acquiring new aspects to myself and sanding down old ones. But I did indulge in one trick for a year or so, which may now be revealed in these pages.
A brief interlude to say: “A Dominant Character” released in the US on July 28—and on that very day, the New York Times published a banger of a review of the book. The science writer Jonathan Weiner called it “the best Haldane biography yet. With science so politicized in this country and abroad, the book could be an allegory for every scientist who wants to take a stand.” All of which is to say: Folks in the US, buy the book! Also, buy other books! No better time to support writers!
Right: Back to the drama of the school uniform…
Jakarta was hot and humid; you always wore perspiration next to your skin. Our classrooms were air-conditioned, and the constant alternation between the bone-chilling indoors and the sweaty outdoors triggered (or so doctors and my parents believed) frequent colds and subsequent asthma attacks. One of these doctors suggested that it might be a good idea to wear a singlet—a good, old-fashioned Indian banian—below my shirt, as a sort of layer to absorb the sweat before it cooled on my chest. (The science of it still sounds vague to me.) Anything is worth trying once. I was bought a set of singlets and told to wear them.
Rapidly, the boys in my class found out, and my singlets came in for some withering mockery. We were twelve or thirteen at the time, and so, without surprise, the most frequent jape involved comparing the singlet to a bra, which the girls around us were just beginning to wear. After about a week of this, I resorted to the only act of sartorial rebellion I have ever committed. Every morning, upon getting off the bus at school, I would proceed to the boys' room, where in a cubicle I would shuck my singlet and bury it within my bag. Every afternoon, as soon as I returned home, I slipped the singlet on again when I changed out of my uniform. This became a wholly unexceptional habit of my school day. As far as my parents were concerned, I was diligently protecting my chest; as far as my classmates were concerned, I had stopped wearing my boy-bra. When it became clear, after several months, that the presumptive treatment-via-singlet wasn't fending off my chest congestions the way it was supposed to, the idea was dropped altogether. I never wore one again; in fact, when I shifted schools in the ninth grade, after we moved to Madras, I suddenly became the only boy in my class who didn't have a banian on under his shirt.
Our uniform in Madras was the simplest of the three: a white, half-sleeved shirt; white or blue canvas shoes; blue shorts that turned, in our final years of school, into blue trousers. (I welcomed the trousers so much—as cover for my legs, spindliest of all the boys’ in my class—that I continue to favour pants over shorts to this day.) In this school, there was no fussing about with seasonal sub-routines; there was no distinction between regular clothes and PT clothes. I was thrilled. Without knowing it, I think, I sublimated that simplicity into a platonic model of how to dress. Some of my friends from the same Madras school are even further along the spectrum than I am, to the point that we might be accused of upside-down vanity—an inattention to appearance that is as scrupulous and conscientious as an attention to appearance. All our wardrobes, I’ll wager, bear some manifest hallmarks: sober colours; lots of jeans; cotton shirts that are either plain or checked; clothes that are worn for years and years, as long as they continue to fit and aren’t conspicuously frayed. To the dismay of the women in my family, I still wear some shirts—out in public!—that I bought eighteen years ago, when I set out for college.
The uniform prescribed by our Madras school resembled something a production-line worker might wear at a factory, and that analogy was, in a way, appropriate. Like so many other high schools around India, this was a hub of industrial-strength cramming: memorizing volumes of information, so that you might do well in your fortnightly tests, which would enable you to do well in your term-end exams, which would enable you to do well in your finals. We were at school from 8:15 a.m. to 2:45 p.m., with a 20-minute break for lunch; then we went home, spent the late afternoon doing homework, and, on several evenings a week, attended supplementary tuition lessons. The weekends were for extended homework sets; holidays were consumed with homework. The school—to be fair, the education system—denied the concept of any sort of rest or respite for pupils. If we wanted to do anything else, we had to hack the time for it out of our days, like an inexperienced surgeon forced to extract an organ from a patient with the help of just a sharp rock.
I struggle, then, to work out why I was so happy during those years—or why, to be more precise, I regard those years, in retrospect, as among the happiest of my life. My tentative conclusion, at least until I reach a new one, is that I associate happiness with a requirement to have to make as few decisions as possible. Our matrix of decision-making explodes the moment school ends, and it seems to keep growing through the better part of adulthood—a ramifying symphony of minor and major judgements to make, factors to consider, things to worry about. Whom to meet, where to stay, what to do next Friday night, how to deal with love and death and taxes. These questions and a million others are the very stuff of human existence; we live only by trying to answer them. But it strikes me, frequently, that we expend our days in the process—that we are so besieged by these questions that we are unable to devote ourselves to the one or two or three things we care most truly about. It sounds incredible, but what I seem to cherish in those final four years of school was the inability to control my own life. The big and middling decisions were being made elsewhere, by others; only one thing was required of me—that I perform creditably at my studies. This state of affairs was, paradoxically, liberating: It released me to enjoy the smaller weave of my life. Like a Mondrian painting, my childhood had clean lines, and I miss them.
How dangerous and unwelcome this preference would be in its political parallel, I realize. It would spiral quickly into tyranny, in which citizens are content to give up their independence and the state seizes their powers. I’m unable to square this difference between the ideal mechanisms for the lived life versus the political life. But as children, we knew no other way to be except in a condition of what the Stoics called amor fati—a love of fate; that, it turns out, may be the most sensible way for us to live. “Do not seek to have everything that happens happen as you wish,” the Stoic philosopher Epictetus, who spent his youth as a slave, wrote, “but wish for everything to happen as it actually does happen, and your life will be serene.”
My amor fati has mostly crumbled since I left school, but one filament of it has somehow survived in the clothes I possess. They have imported forward all the principles of the school uniform. Everyone is, really, equal. Clothes don’t make the man. A pair of dark blue trousers is magnificent in its own way. Forgetting what people are wearing can be a virtue. To relinquish control, in many circumstances, the greatest blessing of all.