At Campbell Hall school in North Hollywood, girls wear basic plaid skirts: navy, green and white with tiny yellow stripes. Or, in the case of 13-year-old Kate Hubbell, no stripes at all.
Last year, Kate and three friends "spent days getting all the yellow out," marvels parent Mona Hubbell. "I just remember them working on those skirts. They had to pull one thread at a time."
As anyone who has ever marched to a dress code knows--and that includes Mona Hubbell, a graduate of Marymount High School in Westwood--uniformity is the mother of invention. And while bending the rules with panache was once the little secret of private and parochial schools, the concept has spread to the public sector, where a growing number of students must wear what is loosely called "a uniform."
Creativity, it turns out, does not die with mandatory color schemes and a restricted, although wide-ranging, list of basics. Out of the crowd at the Newcomb Academy in Long Beach, for example, pops 6-year-old Thomas Patterson, his white shirt and blue pants glorified by colorful suspenders, a tie and miniature Oxford-front loafers. On the same public-school campus, 8-year-old Ashlee Allen already has a signature style: pretty patterned vests, made by her mother, and three elaborate hair bows, for which, says the soft-spoken third-grader, "Everyone knows me."
And the Newcomb dress code hasn't robbed 15-year-old Vichanna Heng of her individuality. Swishing from class to class in an ankle-length, accordion-pleated skirt--her mother's find--Heng explains that she and a friend plan their outfits in advance. They take the weather and mood swings into consideration: "If we're mad, we might wear something spunky and funky. Maybe a short skirt with a really long shirt and lots of accessories."
A collection of shoes, belts, necklaces, pins, little clips and ribbons for her hair, and 20 pairs of colorful socks indicate how seriously Shannon Tracy takes dressing for school. "I lay my clothes out the night before," says the 10-year-old, who nods in agreement as 13-year-old Lisa Schuetz explains a common strategy: "We don't go out shopping for uniforms, we go looking for blue and white.
"Everyone has their own style, their own way of dressing. You can either go with the flow or be spunky." The latter category includes her skort and penny loafers, "all the crazy shirts people wear, lots of rings on their fingers and things in their hair, ribbons on their shoes and spiky hair with gel."
While 13-year-old Kenley Nguyen sticks close to code, he admires a fellow student who piled logo patches on his blue blazer. But bending the rules that far means he can't wear the blazer in class, only traveling to and from.
Baseball caps also get stashed in backpacks and flipped on--backward, of course--between classes at Campbell Hall. The headgear is just one way to reveal something about yourself, says 13-year-old Scott Lear. His caps--and shoes with their "ollie skid marks"-- denote he is a skateboarder.
"Everyone has a different image," he says, listing ways to spot various groups. There is the grunge crowd, for example: "They're real sloppy looking. Everything is trashed. Their shoes have holes or they'll walk around with one shoe untied. And their hair is all messed up."
Some kids, including Lear, "like to sag," which means wear their trousers and shorts two sizes too large. Belts are still required, but in a sign of defeat this year, the school gave up trying to get students to tuck in their shirts. Under those shirts are more personal statements: message T-shirts or patterned sports shirts that will be exposed after school.
Aware of the growing number of dress-code California kids, Nordstrom and Target have added uniform coordinators to their staffs. Nordstrom also suggests that teachers, eager to dress according to code, use a free personal shopper service to find appropriate clothing. And this fall for the first time, the Lands' End Kids' catalogue has an insert listing pages where parents can find uniform-friendly items, including skirts, pants, blazers, cardigans, shoes, socks and backpacks.
Where, some girls would ask, is the cute underwear? At Marymount High School, boxer shorts--with hearts, Christmas trees, cartoon characters or the latest Joe Boxer fantasies--are visible beneath regulation khaki or gray skirts.
Worn thigh-high, the skirts, which can be purchased used for $5 on campus, are personalized further--with messages written in washable ballpoint. That is a common practice, say senior class officers Bethany Butler, Jessica Jennings and Therese Nery. Points for greater creativity go to the girl who decorated her skirt with Magic Marker squares. And to another who added tiny rows of white stitching along her hemline.
But perhaps the most "extreme example of individuality," a Marymount administrator says, "is the girl who got a tongue stud."
An earlobe is where Tom Werman says he and his wife called a halt. Their son Daniel, a 13-year-old Campbell Hall student who has worn an earring since third grade, explains: "I liked the way it looked and my mom said she didn't agree with gender distinction. Both my sisters had pierced ears."
"But we wouldn't allow any other parts," says his father, the product of a strict East Coast school who likes to cut his son some slack: "We don't draw any lines with clothing, as long as they don't mind at school."
"Actually, it's not a bad uniform," Daniel says of the regulation sweat shirt, white or blue polo shirts, khaki pants or shorts--worn as baggy as allowed. His personal touches include a Swiss army watch, a trendy haircut ("long on top, kind of shaved on the bottom") and "the coolest shoes I can get," which for the moment are Nike football-style cross-trainers.
Still, for ingenuity, it's hard to surpass Kate Hubbell and friends. Working with safety pins--in class, at lunchtime and at home--it took them three weeks to remove 50 stripes per skirt. A labor of affection. "We love uniforms," says Kate. "There's no competition with clothes."
Well, just a tad. After all, there is the matter of the missing stripes--and the intensive searches for shoes. "First we call around to our friends, then we go out try to find something different," says the only girl on campus to wear bulky black-navy-and-white Nike Air cross-trainers for men.
She likes them for yet another uniform teen-age reason: "They're so unattractive, they're cool."