My first uniform was a tabard; basically a giant, green bib with arm holes that I wore while making £2.20 an hour in my local Spar. Then there was the hot pink polo shirt when I started waitressing at a golf course. I was 15, with a blurry comprehension of sexism and gender stereotyping. I couldn’t eloquently explain why the boys being in blue, and the girls in pink, irritated me so much. My supervisor told me to stop making a fuss and wear what I’d been asked to wear by the people paying me.
I worked in retail for the next decade, in thick polyester behind a cigarette kiosk and in thermals and a hairnet as a butchery assistant. Like school uniform, there was no thought process. I got up every morning and put on what I was told to put on, topped off with a name badge. There was comfort and familiarity in not having to choose.
In my “real life”, I spent chunks of my expendable income on fashion magazines, scrapbooking the looks I loved the most and filing away articles by Avril Mair. I’m an extrovert who wears her heart on her sleeve and that filtered through to my sartorial choices. I was often “too much” at work; too loud, too opinionated. Putting on my uniform every day was like wearing insulation that kept my personality inside until I swiped out at the end of my shift.
I figured if I was going to work in retail, it may as well be fashion retail. I moved to London and got a job in Miss Selfridge on Oxford Street. I was given a stack of standard staff t-shirts but had freedom in my choice of trousers (as long as they were Miss Selfridge, monochrome and/or denim) and my (flat, sensible) shoes. At last, I could express myself!
Not quite. I stuck out like a sore thumb in a Miss Selfridge store with its traditional femininity, blush tones, and floral maxi skirts. I’m scruffy even when I’m smart and worn-in Converse are as comfortable and natural to me as bare feet. When they tried to ban Chuck Taylors from the shop floor, I fussed. They were the only thing that felt like “me”. The first opportunity to show who I really was at work had left me wishing I was still in my thermals and a hairnet.
Now, I have an office job at my local council. There’s no uniform, of course, but I’ve created my own. I bought some straight leg black trousers and bland floral shirts. As always, I look down at my shoes to feel like “me”; they’re black brogues from TK Maxx, the best £6 I’ve ever spent. I don’t wear makeup and I scrape back my hair every morning. No amount of preening will counteract the straightjacket that is my vanilla outfit. My vulgar, messy personality is replaced by a neater persona.
Until we started Casual Fridays.
At first, I was excited, thrilled. Then that first Friday morning, I stood in my towel and looked at my wardrobe. “Leather’s probably not appropriate...neither is orange PVC...that’s too short, that’s too short...are over-the-knee boots still “Pretty Woman” even though it’s 2016?” I crossed everything off the list and went with my only pair of jeans and a skater top that said: “Good luck, don’t die.” The shoes were black brothel creepers. Determined to pick something more adventurous the following week, I folded and chose the jeans again with a black roll neck top. The only twist of individuality was a pair of polka-dot braces. I looked like a mime.
I pledge that this week, I will wear something I am comfortable and happy in for Casual Friday. I’ve never been everyone’s cup of tea in the workplace and I’ve bitten my tongue when I would usually rant and rave. If the burning wreck of 2016 has taught us anything, it’s that we need to let our freak flag fly. With my sense of style, there’s no excuse for missing the days of thick polyester and a hairnet.
Guest Blog Post Written by Lauren Aitchison
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