Racked is no longer publishing. Thank you to everyone who read our work over the years. The archives will remain available here; for new stories, head over to Vox.com, where our staff is covering consumer culture for The Goods by Vox. You can also see what we’re up to by signing up here.
The idea that the Catholic schoolgirl is sexy by accident is one that's hard to avoid.
It's Catholic, the school, and Britney and her friends are dressed the part—pleated plaid skirts that reveal perfectly tanned, taut thighs; sheer white socks that rise to the knee; a crisp shirt knotted to reveal a strip of bare teenaged flesh. The shirt-knotting, Britney says, was her idea: "The outfits looked kind of dorky, so I was like, 'Let's tie up our shirts and be cute'."
Looking back, I want to tell young Britney she ought not work so hard to sell the concept, which I'd bet a dozen hours in chapel was dreamed up not by our teenaged dreamgirl but by a middle-aged male executive at Jive Records. The idea, though, that the Catholic schoolgirl is sexy by accident, is one that's hard to avoid.
The clothes she wears—it's what they don't say that speak so loudly, no? The pleats in the skirt, the tightness of a shirt, the sameness of it makes you wonder what kind of girl she really is. What kinds of things she likes to do after church. Whether or not a uniform, a garment selected for her by some kind of moral authority, can really contain her.
I started as a freshman at a co-ed Catholic high school a few months after teenaged Britney filled out her uniform in a way that caused America to collectively gasp and sigh. I was excited to start wearing a uniform. I'd begun to grow in the way teenaged girls do, and I didn't entirely know what to do with myself. Now, I'd be restricted to a polo shirt in white, grey, or navy, with the school logo emblazoned on the upper right-hand corner—that is to say, directly above my rapidly expanding chest—along with a pleated skirt worn with socks and sensible shoes. Together, these pieces represented an opting out of the most stressful parts of young womanhood. I didn't have to style myself, which meant my style didn't define me. I climbed out of my father's car on the first day nervous but certain that everyone else would look just like me, and that in this we'd be the same.
I was sorely mistaken.
Catholics have always had a funny relationship with clothes. ‘Twas finery of the church, some say, that caused the Great Schism—how could the Pope have a direct line to God clothed in silks and laces that cost more than an average family's food supply for a year? In vaguely anti-Catholic 19th century America, priests and nuns were encouraged to dress like laypeople for fear of harassment by Protestants who thought Latin was a dark tongue.
In wearing the same skirt, we humbly submit to the idea that we are all the same.
Sources differ on when the idea that students ought to be clothed in the same threads emerged in Catholic schools, but the idea is floating around by the early 20th century. Historian Sally Dwyer-McNulty's Common Threads: A Cultural History of Clothing in American Catholicism examines the writings of priests and teachers throughout the 1920s espousing the utility of the uniform, especially for girls. The uniform is meant (and still is, at many non-Catholic schools that have adopted the uniform policy) to deemphasize class—if we're all wearing the same thing, we all know how much it costs, and that's that.
The other thing the uniform is meant to squash is vanity. How could one take pride in one's appearance if one's sisters in learning were dressed no better or no worse? In the herd, there is strength. In wearing the same skirt, we humbly submit to the idea that we are all the same.
Back to my first day of school.
The first thing I notice is that my skirt seems to be longer than those of my classmates. I'm short, so at first I assume it's because, at thirteen, my legs haven't yet reached their full potential. As the day goes on, though, I know that isn't the answer. My classmates (many of whom, I should say, are just as new to Catholic school as I) look grown-up in their outfits. Their shirts are fitted where mine is loose, their pleats twirl to reveal skin above the knee while mine barely move. I didn't expect to look like Britney in the video, but I didn't expect to be the only one who didn't.
What I would soon learn is that, flying in the face of the whole ‘let's all look the same so we can worry about Christ and AP World History instead of our earthly bodies' business, no two uniforms were actually alike. Depending on the permissiveness of parents, skirts would be professionally hemmed to just barely conform to the fingertip rule—that is, standing up straight, arms at your side, the skirt must reach past the length of your longest finger. Those unlucky enough to have mothers and fathers who took uniforms seriously would simply roll up the waistband until they were satisfied with the shortness.
I didn't expect to look like Britney in the video, but I didn't expect to be the only one who didn't.
Shirts could be purchased in adult sizes or in children's, and a boys' extra-small could be counted on to show off curves more efficiently than anything from the women's section. Knee socks, completing the look, were really only necessary a few months out of the year at my Southern California school, but the lack of that particular erotically charged accessory, during the warmer months, was made up for by the trend of wearing socks so low they didn't show at all, meaning from a distance all you saw were bare legs stretching, it seemed, to infinity.
Mercifully, my father caved on the skirt hemming, though I was never allowed to go as short as I'd have liked. My shirts, though, stayed appropriately un-molded to my body, and my socks were either to the knee but somehow always sliding down, or sensibly covering my ankles.
I didn't feel invisible, like the idea of a uniform had promised me I would. I felt dowdy, and immature, and like the boring stepsister to the glamorous squad of girls who quickly established themselves as the most popular and the most likely to get good-naturedly ribbed for uniform infractions by teachers who preternaturally understood which students were popular and which weren't.
I was more vain than I've been in the ten years since I left—a full face of makeup every day, an hour in the morning to blow-dry my frizzy hair. I agonized over the gulf between the way I looked and the way my classmates did. We were wearing the exact same thing, I'd think. Why do I look like this while she looks like that?
I might not've been able to put so fine a point on it in 1999, but by ‘that', I mean sexy. Sexual. Hot.
Because that's the other thing about Catholic school uniforms, the thing I haven't said yet, the reason Britney's video was and is a piece not of pop-culture history but of pop-culture iconography. It's a sex thing.
The porny schoolgirl is oblivious to her charms while those charms literally spill out of her clothes.
Most of the men I've dated, upon learning I wore a uniform and had, just once, been cited for a too-short skirt, inquired about the current whereabouts of said skirt. And can I blame them? ‘Schoolgirl' is its own category on pornographic websites—I tried, in vain, to find some kind of estimate for how many clips feature the trope, but ten pages into a Google search the only links appearing were ones I certainly couldn't click on at work.
The porny schoolgirl is oblivious to her charms while those charms literally spill out of her clothes. She's been bad, and she's sorry, but, eager to please, will do anything if you don't send her to the principal's office (unless we're already in the principal's office, in which case all bets are off). The skirt and the blouse and the socks—they all come together to represent a sexuality that is just barely contained, just waiting to be unleashed, mostly for the benefit of the man doing the unleashing.
That, for a teenager, is a lot of cultural baggage to carry.
If uniforms only do what they try to prevent, how did we (I) look to our male classmates? In the years just before the ubiquity of Internet porn, were they seeing our uniforms as signifiers of a certain kind of unbridled, bossy sex, or were they just admiring the changes summer vacation had brought to the bodies of the class of 2003?
Jason*, who dated a string of girls I envied and remained wholly unaware of the crush I'd nursed, says it was the latter though admits to thinking of the former more and more now that high school is over. "I think sometimes about how lucky we were—the skirts you guys wore were shorter than anything that would be allowed at a normal school," he said. "There was enough to look at without thinking too much about it, you know?"
"Of course I see it in porn now," says Chris, who graduated before I did. "I can't lie and say it's not hot. But it might have weirded me out to see it when I was actually seeing girls like that dressed every day."
Most of us were at least peripherally aware that our uniforms were appealing to adult men in a way we couldn't quite understand.
And what of my female classmates, the girls I'd envied so much? Most of us were at least peripherally aware that our uniforms were appealing to adult men in a way we couldn't quite understand. There was what we saw on television, sure, but there were also the whistles directed at those who didn't change into jeans before walking to the mall after class.
My friend Catherine was (and is) imperiously tall and always invited to parties with beer, but she deigned to hang out with me anyway. When I was needling her to answer questions for this essay, she reminded me of the week we were all forbidden from walking down a particular block near campus because a flasher had startled a couple of sophomores on their way to first period.
Sarah, who played a sport that required her to be awake before 7am, told me that a man who told her he was an agent (it was Los Angeles, but this is still a lazy line) looked her up and down one morning at Starbucks and suggested she play hooky with him. He'd write her a note to give to her teacher.
I can't not think about the actual adult men on our campus. I never saw, with my own eyes, anything inappropriate, but there were whispers. Teachers who seemed to take a little too much interest in skirt lengths stopping pretty girls and measuring the inches between kneecap and hem. Coaches who showed up at weekend parties and funneled beer alongside sixteen-year-olds.
One teacher was, after we graduated, intimate with a girl I haven't spoken to in years but think of fondly. She was eighteen, and her diploma was in hand, so it wasn't illegal. Had he noticed her when it was, though, sitting in a desk in his classroom, taking notes during his lecture?
Finding out what exists underneath a uniform is someone's fantasy. Was it his?
I wore the same thing every day for four years and I still don't know if it did me any good.
I kept wearing my skirt even after girls were given the privilege of pants. The ones sold at the uniform store were itchy, and the legs flared.
I'd be lying if I said I hadn't also become attached to my uniform, to the idea of it, though probably not in the way it was intended. I wanted, you see, to look exceptional. To somehow imbue the garments with the essence of my developing grown-up personality so that if someone interesting wandered into my Christian Principles class, they'd scan the room and know instantly that I was the one worth eyeing.
My childhood home is mere blocks from the high school I attended, and sometimes when I'm home I'll see girls leaving for the day. Their hair is better than mine ever was, probably because of Instagram, but they're still wearing what I wore, the skirt and the polo shirt and, if it's cold, the matching sweater.
Is it worth it, to dress them all the same? Do clothes actually have anything to do with how kids learn, with how they love and hate and envy each other all at the same time? I wore the same thing every day for four years and I still don't know if it did me any good.
I do, however, still have a neatly-folded uniform tucked away in the back of my closet. It's a curio, an artifact from another time. I keep meaning to throw it away.