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Uniformity Gets a Touch of Personality : Private-School Students Test Dress Codes With Fiery Hair, Flashy Jewelry

<i> Seipp is a Beverly Hills free-lance writer</i>

Students at Our Lady of Corvallis High School, an all-girls school in Studio City are required to dress in identical gray skirts, white or yellow blouses, uniform sweaters and penny loafers. Becka St. Jude, a 17-year-old senior, wears the uniform unfailingly. But she has dyed her hair in a fiery array of reds and oranges. The school has asked her to cover it with a gray scarf. “I’m a model for Vidal Sassoon,” St. Jude said. “They make me wear this stupid scarf that I don’t want to wear. It’s a kind of punishment. Well, . . . I think it’s a punishment.

“The way you dress is your personality, and they can’t change your personality,” she went on indignantly. “My personality is having different hair. They have no right to intrude on your personality,” she said.

Our Lady of Corvallis is one of a number of private schools in the San Fernando Valley that require uniforms. At the coeducational Buckley School in Sherman Oaks, the dress code has been a tradition since 1933, when the school was founded.

No Distractions

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“It lets the kids get on with the main job at hand--which is their studies, instead of thinking about clothes,” said Michael B. Courtney, dean of students.

At Campbell Hall School in North Hollywood, school publicist Carol Heyes commented: “We are a college-preparatory school, and we want to set an example of discipline.”

The concept of school uniforms began in Britain in the mid-1800s. Boys at public schools wore uniforms for the same reason that military men did: They reinforced conformity. And conformity means control. In “The Old School Tie, A History of the English Public School,” Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy writes: “A uniform does what it says--makes one form; . . . making you easier to control and also stamping you with the image of the institution.”

Uniforms at Valley schools most often consist of gray or tartan skirts for the girls, gray or tan trousers for boys. Students often have several color choices for shirts, sweaters and blazers. But these options fall within traditional school colors.

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Signs of Individuality

Nevertheless students find ways--sometimes very small ways--to stand out in the crowd.

Melissa Althen, a classmate of Becka St. Jude at Our Lady of Corvallis, lets her shirttails hang out over her gray skirt.

“I hate being so proper,” said Althen, a cheerful, good-natured teen-ager. “You’re at school, you want to be comfortable . . . you just wear the shirt out.”

The senior also wears a distinctive medallion hanging at the end of a long chain. “Jewelry always helps,” she said, “because it’s not what everyone else wears. Because everyone else is exactly the same except for hair or makeup or jewelry or whatever.”

Over at Campbell Hall, the uniform code is not as strict. Seniors are allowed “free dress” on Fridays, and students can sometimes be awarded the privilege for special achievements, such as coming up with the best costume at the school’s annual Halloween party.

Even within Campbell Hall’s uniform regulations, options are available. For instance, in winter, girls must wear a tartan skirt--it echoes the Scottish roots of founder David A. Campbell, an Episcopal minister--but they can choose a long-sleeve white Oxford cloth blouse; a short-sleeve, polo-style knit shirt in white, forest green or navy, or a long-sleeve white, navy or forest green turtleneck.

Fancy Footwear

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Jaimie Luckman, 17, an extroverted football player, displays his individuality in his shoes. They fit the boys shoe requirements in material--leather--and form--Topsiders. But when it comes to color, they stray. Instead of the required brown, his shoes are a peculiar shade of blue.

“I’m, like, pushing it,” Luckman said. He was quick to point out the “weird tassels” that adorn his shoes. “I wear little tassels instead of tying them (the laces) in a bow. I saw a senior four years ago do it, and now I do it.”

Another Campbell student, Kristy Freedman, 17, has given a daring dimension to the uniform requirement of “heavy jacket, solid color: navy, forest green, tan or black only.” Her jacket is black leather.

“It’s black, it’s a solid color,” Freedman said.

Theresia Cunningham, who teaches Freedman’s current events class and who is assistant principal at Campbell Hall, could only nod in agreement: No rules were broken.

An Upgraded Uniform

Similarly, students will wear the required sweater several sizes too large so that it looks fashionably oversize. Certain styles of Oxfords make the grade but could also walk down Melrose Avenue with their hip, pointed toes. Some students express their individuality with small--and allowable--accouterments such as colorful watches, jewelry or pins.

“We don’t really bother too much about watches, and the guide for jewelry is ‘good taste,’ ” Dean Michael B. Courtney said of life on the posh grounds at Buckley.

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But how does he determine what’s in good taste?

“That’s a good question,” he chuckled. Then he replied: “By instinct.”

Last year, the rage among Buckley’s female students was to wear boxer shorts hanging out from underneath their skirts. This year, the trend has been more conservative, although girls still shorten their uniform skirts.

“I think we don’t have that much of a problem this year because the classic look has come back,” said student Ara Tokatyaf, 15, of Encino.

Buckley frowns upon multicolor hair, but hip students have found a way to get around this too.

A Question of Color

“A lot of people have cellophane in their hair, and if you look in the light, in the classroom, it’s like a fall rainbow of colors, said Cassandra Harris. “This one guy has, like, four different colors in his hair, it’s like, pink and purple and . . . “

“Nothing this extreme, Cassandra,” Courtney interjected.

“No!” Harris protested. “When the light hits it!”

Not all private college-preparatory schools require uniforms. At Harvard, a very exclusive, very expensive, private boys school in North Hollywood, a receptionist who wished to remain anonymous said: “Years ago, I’d say 25 years ago when Harvard was a military school, we had uniforms. We stopped because we’re not military anymore and because the kids didn’t want it. It got to be tiresome.”

Conformity Comes Naturally

And the question arises: Don’t teen-agers, if given free dress, dress pretty much alike anyway?

Either way, there will always be students who willingly conform. Matt Fink was in perfect uniform on a recent school day at Campbell Hall. Fink’s classmates say he is always in perfect uniform.

“It’s just natural, every morning,” Fink, 17, said.

Luckman joshed him: “It takes too much negative energy to be out of uniform.”

Campbell Hall Assistant Principal Cunningham took this statement seriously: “That is true. You have to think about being out of uniform.”


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