The first dress uniform adopted by a Los Angeles public school is being introduced today at the Vaughn Street Elementary School in the city of San Fernando. The burgundy and gray plaid skirts and jumpers for girls and the gray pants and white shirts for boys are not mandatory, they are merely available to any parent who wishes to purchase them.
A parents group at Vaughn Street School implemented the uniform option for the same reason that parents of children from the Good Shepherd Lutheran School, a private school in Inglewood, made uniforms mandatory last year--for their children's safety. Students from both schools had been harassed by gang members because many times the color of their clothes represented the color of a rival gang. In choosing the new uniforms, school parents avoided red and blue, the colors of the Bloods and the Crips, two powerful local gangs.
Dianna Munatones, the director of public information for the Los Angeles Public Schools, maintains that the school district will not instate a general uniform policy for all public schools, but parents can choose to organize and develop a policy for their children's school, as long as it is not mandatory that students wear them.
Parents are more receptive to the idea than students, in the beginning.
"We win the students over with shorts," said Elena Mills Mandin, president of Sue Mills uniform company in Inglewood. She has discovered that girls get more interested in uniforms if their options include shorts or culottes that look like miniskirts.
Uniform styles have not changed considerably since the days when parents of today's students wore them. Jumpers and pleated skirts, blazers and gray pants are still the mainstays. Today, fabrics usually contain a high polyester content.
Some newer options do exist, however. Pastel shirtwaist dresses, cotton cardigans, and polo shirts are available to broaden students' wardrobes. And there are numerous choices of colors.
The girls who attend Santa Margarita High School in Rancho Santa Margarita in Orange County have seven different skirt and pant styles, and four different tops to choose from, in different colors. The boys have pants in six styles and shirts in three varieties available, in varying colors. At the Buckley School in Sherman Oaks the high school girls have a choice of six different sweaters.
Some uniform companies sell fabric by the yard to enterprising student seamstresses who want to make their own garments.
In order to service their school accounts, the five school uniform companies located in the Los Angeles metropolitan area offer a range of shopping options. They have retail stores that are open year-round, and facilities for supplying uniforms by mail order. They will also go to the schools several times each year and set up a mobile store. They consider themselves manufacturers though, not fashion design companies.
Schools that change from a freewheeling dress code to uniforms don't always find the going smooth. There is usually a vociferous minority of parents who object. The complaint heard most often is that a rigid uniform policy stifles a young person's creative expression. The same parents who voice that argument, however, have been known to apologize and reconsider their stance once they see the benefits of uniform dressing.
Some educators have also been adamant about their disapproval of uniforms, at first.
Jerome Reinertson, the principal of Good Shepherd School, resisted the idea of uniforms while his school debated the issue for almost a decade. "If someone had told me seven years ago my students would be wearing uniforms, I would have thought it was a joke," he said. Reinertson believed that the creativity and individuality children expressed through their clothing should be inviolate.
"You can't look at things the same way now. The real concerns of safety and economics far outweigh the old issues," he says. "If we are to provide the best education for these children then we have to provide an environment where they feel safe and let nothing deter them from getting that education."
By removing the external coding that status fashion labels provide, many educators have found that uniforms can serve as the great equalizer. Children who are dressed alike have to depend on wits and intelligence to make their creative mark.
The Vaughn Street School is just the first Los Angeles public school to unveil a uniform. In the past several months Bill Watson, owner of Kid's Limited, the company that is supplying Vaughn Street School with its uniforms, has been contacted by representatives from four other public schools in the area, all of them interested in uniforms.