A colourful quest for individuality
After school. Two Hamilton Girls' High School students sit on the steps out front of The Warehouse in town. One plays with her tongue ring incessantly and has punkish hair. A hoodie under her regulation jersey. The other wears a black jumper and has chipped blue nail polish. They sit like Disprin at the bottom of a glass and start fizzing within seconds. The world is containing them. They fidget and dissolve into each other and shout to their friends. Up go their sleeves to reveal stacks of coloured bracelets. A strict teacher would have a field day cataloguing all the uniform-related misdemeanours.
I ask why they give school rules the middle finger and one looks at me with a face full of vibrant, adolescent rebellion.
"Because I can."
Well, she gets in a bit of trouble - as you'd expect. But she chooses detention over taming down her look and she talks about punishment as though it's par for the course. I can see her becoming a freedom fighter. My mum talks about a schoolmate who got hauled out in assembly on an all-but-weekly basis for uniform offences and went on to be a mild-mannered kindy teacher. You never know.
Scotts Epicurean co-owner and resident joker Dave Tourelle went to St John's College back in the '70s. I asked if he ever tweaked his uniform.
"Course I did."
I asked why.
"I was rebelling."
He wore a Swanndri over the standard jumper. "And that made me cool." He laughs.
"And we used to sit on our caps so they had three folds on them and that made us cooler than people with no folds."
I ask if he thinks students should be allowed to personalise their uniforms.
"I don't think you can stop people being individuals," he says.
A HINT OF CHARACTER: A student wears non-regulation socks. Photo: NICK REED/Fairfax NZ
Makeup artist Michelle Devereux went to Cambridge High School and describes herself, in jest, as a cool girl who cared more about what she looked like than she did about grades. In the 1970s, the uniform was a short blue skirt and plain white shirt with midsleeves. "I so tweaked mine!" she says.
She opted for a more sophisticated look than the uniform de choix and channelled Marilyn Monroe.
"I found broderie anglaise shirts from the op shop that had cute peter pan collars and Mum made my skirt - a full 1950s pencil skirt with a split up the back."
In winter, the regulation jumper was a grey sweatshirt. She wore a silver Golden Breed one made out of velour and Nomad shoes.
"Look, it definitely worked," she says. "I don't know how, but it did." And she laughs.
"If I had a cent for every time my mum said, Why don't you dress like everyone else, I'd be rich."
I ask if she thinks students these days should be allowed to individualise their uniforms.
"I do! I do! I don't want to create anarchy, but I do!
"It's a time in your life when you don't want creativity and individuality to be shut down - and that's when it rears its head - in those high school years."
After school. Two year 11 students walk through town. Akosita Lilo and Ataahua Lousi. Both look like uniform-rule-obeying citizens. They both admit to doing small things to make their uniform, in inverted commas, cooler.
"We roll up our shirt sleeves," says one. I frown in confusion. "Y'know ... 1, 2, 3," as she mimes folding up the sleeves.
"And this isn't allowed," says one, thrusting her hand forward. "Just a simple ring."
The other pulls down her sock to reveal a coloured ankle bracelet.
"We do draw on ourselves a lot and they don't allow it."
They have wildly colourful descriptions of hair that comes through school gates. Undercuts on one side, every shade of hair dye, style, length.
Former McGillicuddy Serious Party leader Graeme Cairns had long hair at Rotorua Boys' High. He wore a vintage uniform and painted his nails.
"School was so severe," he says, "that anyone with imagination came up with really creative ways of bucking the system. It was good subversion training early on."
CRISP AND COLOURFUL: A school blazer decorated with badges
After school. A group of year 9s walk past in perfect regulation uniform. I stop them. I ask if they do anything to individualise their uniform. There's a collective no. They are the juniors and are scared to be rulebreakers. So far.
"I think you should be able to wear a piece of jewellery that represents you," one says. "We can't wear anything that makes us, us."