According to a Greek-American friend who arrived in Australia a decade ago, our nation has an unhealthy fixation with uniforms. I remember him pointing to the uniformed taxi drivers queued outside Tullamarine's International terminus and suggesting that this must be one of the very few countries where taxi drivers are required to wear a uniform.
I suggested that London cabbies probably wear uniforms, which was, according to him, confirmation that Australia continues to take its cultural cues from the motherland.
A few months into his stay, he pointed to our uniformed school kids as further proof of our propensity for conformity. Okay, our school kids are uniformly dressed, as are our taxi drivers, but it wasn't like this when I was at school. I fished out a class photograph from my primary school days as proof.
There we were replete in technicolour shirts, bell-bottoms, knitted scarves, and footy jumpers. A couple of kids wore the official school jumper while others wore hand-knitted copies. One boy had the school tie on while the girl beside him wore lipstick and a flower in her hair. Another dark-skinned girl wore a buttoned-up cardigan while the girl beside her was in a halter-neck. Our primary school teacher completed the picture in knee-high boots, a mini skirt and a choker. This was the Whitlam era, a period where diversity was encouraged and celebrated.
These days, you will struggle to find a teenager who does not wear some kind of uniform. Whether they're at school, work or play, they're likely to be wearing an official outfit of some sort.
It was a time when parents were free to dress their kids without incurring the wrath of the state school principal, as was the recent case with the 16-year-old South Sudanese twins who were ordered to remove their hair braids which are a key part of their cultural identity.
Although community pressure saw the school reverse its decision, our nation's fixation with uniformity seems to persist. And it's not only confined to the way we expect our school kids to dress. It also extends to the way some Australians expect newcomers to dress. Consider the disgust that certain Australians have towards burka or hijab-clad women and you will know what I mean.
We seem to have more trouble with cultural garb than teen uniforms. These days, you will struggle to find a teenager who does not wear some kind of uniform. Whether they're at school, work or play, they're likely to be wearing an official outfit of some sort. And it's especially evident in the fast-food industry where franchises fasten their corporate colours to teenagers the moment they're old enough to work for them.
My 17-year-old nephew seems to spend more time in his McDonald's uniform than in his private school blazer and tie. The moment the bell signals the end of the school day he is out of his school uniform and into his fast-food costume, charging down the street to begin his afternoon shift.
In spite of our priggish fixation with uniforms, I would be far more concerned if it was the reverse.
As a teacher who taught at an outer-suburban secondary college for two decades, I found that fast-food bosses had a far better chance of getting their underlings to wear their uniforms correctly than any teacher trying to enforce the school dress code. For me, trying to get a schoolboy to tuck in his shirt and pull up his strides was like trying to dress a drunk.
In spite of our priggish fixation with uniforms, I would be far more concerned if it was the reverse. Imagine if teachers were required to wear a state-mandated uniform. They'd look more like wardens in a detention facility than educators.
It would be even more disturbing if our political leaders wore uniforms. As I explained to my friend, the difference between a diverse and liberal democracy such as ours is that we do not have unformed leaders dictating how citizens should dress, think or behave.
Australians are free to slip in and out of outfits the moment they clock off from work or school. They can throw on a t-shirt or a pair of shorts or any cultural garb without receiving a visit from the authorities.
This is very different from a nation where khaki-clad dictators or religious-garbed theocrats call for those who refuse to dress in accordance with state-sanctioned attire to be punished.
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