15 Oct

Among the schoolgirls of Limerick there is a strange, county-wide and persistent phenomenon known as the long skirt. When I say long, I don’t mean below the knee. I’m not even talking ankle length. I’m talking extremely, extraordinarily, bizarrely, mystifyingly, ground-trailingly long - rustling like crinolines; sodden-hemmed, voluminous, inexplicable.

It's been a years long puzzle to see girls heading off to school wearing enough material to clothe a small family - a weird local norm that I have often tried to resist on my own daughters’ behalves. But both of them always insisted on the long skirt too, for despite its ridiculousness, danger and discomfort, when you are at school, being different from your classmates is one of the most uncomfortable and hazardous things of all.

When did this trend appear? And why? I’ve asked around. My sisters-in-law, both having grown up here, reliably tell me that skirts ‘went long’ sometime during the early nineties. Some say the motives were religious, that it was the nuns of Laurel Hill who are responsible. Alarmed, perhaps at the shocking show of legs, it may have been they who introduced a new rule and then perhaps it just caught on. Others say the origins of the trend are economic and that it came from thrifty, hard-pressed parents doing their best to ensure that a skirt bought for their first year would last until the leaving cert. 

Whether the change was sudden or gradual is also unclear. The locals I’ve asked are vague on this point, which makes me think that it can’t have been an overnight thing, but that it spread slowly, as trends do, until one day we all woke up to the long-skirted school girls we see all over the place today. 

Of course at the heart of the imposition of school uniforms there has always been a terrible sexism. Debates on the issue are nuanced and gendered, almost exclusively focused on girls, not boys, and often conducted by people who either haven’t worn a school skirt for a long time or who’ve never worn one at all.Throughout history there has been a disproportionate amount of discussion and control by the powerful and the judgemental, about what girls should wear and not wear and how long or short their skirts should be. Perhaps this blog is guilty of prolonging a debate but still I think there is an urgent need address the anomalies that make uniforms so sexist. It’s unfair and discriminatory and confers another instant disadvantage on girls that they must wear skirts of any length while the boys get to live out their education in the comfort of trousers. A recent study shows for example that Irish girls are much less likely to cycle to school than their male counterparts. Skirts are one of the reasons for this, a fact that must be especially true in the case of the long versions.

What I have learned from my limited inquiry among the wearers themselves is probably most interesting of all: which is that there has been a kind of appropriation – a wonderful subversion of the trend. The longer the skirt, the cooler the girl, apparently. On cold winter days, some are known for wearing pyjama bottoms underneath without fear of detection, or to conceal outlawed shoes, or to smuggle phones and food into classrooms where such things are not allowed.

So while I’d like to wage a campaign for equality on the issue, the truth, at least among the girls I’ve spoken to, is that they are doing what girls have always had to do -  finding their own ways to seize their power with subtle, concealed forms of agency. As for my own daughters: ‘A uniform’s a uniform,’ they shrug. ‘We’d hate it no matter what length it was.’

Sarah Moore Fitzgerald

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