It is mid-August, and while Europe is on vacation, a lot of us are in high gear thinking of back to school. In my mind, the span between Labor Day and Memorial Day represents the school year, but here in the Southeast, most public schools have already gotten going. This week, the sweet elementary school on my street had, in its electric lit marquee, an announcement of "COFFEE AND KLEENEX," a get-together that I assume is for parents who feel like crying a bit after the big drop-off. I never got too choked up during the summer-to-school transition, maybe because I usually had a few more girls at home and it felt like it would never end. Why tear up when there was more to come?
But this year marks the end of all that, as my youngest is headed to college this fall, and we have an enormous pile of Atlanta Girls' School uniforms in a basket for giveaway. All five of them attended, so you can imagine how many plaid skirts and polos are in that pile. The best were the original Lands' End polo shirts, which had a feminine cap-ish sleeve and snug fit (as opposed to the sloppy, oversized ones that looked borrowed from a fictitious brother.) Oh how I loved sending them off in the morning dressed alike! Even with unbrushed hair and sleepy eyes, they looked fantastic to me. Some were more enthusiastic than others – my oldest dreamed of a uniform for her entire school career, but only got to do it for a year. She begged to take riding lessons at six, pining to step into a barn in jodhpurs, boots, and a little hat. (She may have gotten this fantasy from her father, who worked for Ralph Lauren, a master of the equestrian-chic look if there ever was one...) But after two short months, we dropped that after-school activity... the thrill of the outfit didn't make up for the fact that she was generally afraid of horses. I was grateful!
For her, and for Ralph, and in fact, for me, the idea of the uniform is totally intoxicating... but as a mother I can tell you the best part is not the romance but the practicality. It's so simple. No thinking involved. Just throw it on and you are set, delivered from the burden of choice. Particularly when the rest of your life feels hectic and unpredictable, a uniform can be a stabilizing force. And it's not like a school uniform in that it looks the same for everyone. What usually comes to mind are basic, simple pieces (boring, you might be thinking,) in neutral colors. Navy, black, tan, white... I love all of those. But a uniform is really just what you can grab and go and feel like yourself in. Maybe it's jeans and a button-down, as it is for me, with a cashmere sweater thrown on top in the winter... a lot of the things I write about here... but it can also be bright-colored silk blouses every day, or a wild dress that always works for a party. I have a long emerald-green silk shantung dress from a few years ago that I've worn to four weddings, two black-tie dinners, and one garden party. Still going strong. As long as it's a standby, something you can rely on and not have to think about, it counts as a uniform in my book. The idea is that it is timeless and simple in the THOUGHT PROCESS if not the design.
My friend Amanda Ross has a business that revolves around one dress in particular. She worked as a fashion editor at Harper's Bazaar around the same time that I was in magazines (an era we remember both as glory days and hell on earth, depending on the day!) A few years ago, she discovered a dress shape that she deemed perfect. She found a partner and got to work making that dress even better and more modern - making some of her own, and you can see her posing in it again and again and again, and it is not boring in the least. She looks – and is – radiant, but it probably takes her 10 minutes to get herself together when she doesn't have to think about it. Her business has grown with some separates, but truly, it is about finding your thing and knowing it will work. Side note, as an editor, she has a closet to die for, and she doesn't always dress like this. I don't, either! But the uniform is always in my arsenal. Our Susy dress delivers this for a lot of women. You can throw it on bare-legged in the fall when it is still warm, and then pair it with boots when it's cooler. A cardigan will take care of cold shoulders. Just one item to pull over your head, and you have cleared your mind of decisions.
We have a new navy shirt – the Petal Collar Tunic – that I plan on making my new uniform for the season. It has a round small collar and it is just different enough to make it feel fresh, but familiar enough to feel uniformly. Some may think it too Catholic-school, but since I never attended one (and naturally romanticized it,) for me that association makes it even better! If I get sick of the navy, it comes in white, too. And then there is another new silhouette that has all the hallmarks of a go-to, the Paulette Dress. It is based off the shirt I talked about a few weeks ago with the same name that we all love. It is made of beefy compact cotton that is perfect for end of summer going into fall – and it is just so perfect and easy. The navy Anaya dress does this as well. I am also super excited about a few separates in cady crepe with excellent uniform potential. It is a wonderful fabric that feels like heavyweight silk, but resists wrinkles better (and you can actually wash it). We have a chic wide-leg elastic-waist pant that just pulls on, and a simple tunic blouse. You can wear these together, like a chic utility suit, or mix up the proportions: small top with the wide pants (like a skinny funnel-neck) or a long slouchy sweater if you have the height to pull it off... and then the top can go over tight skinny pants... a pair of jeans... lots of options. The beauty of the uniform is that it opens you up to variety in your accessories. A lot of the time, I start getting dressed with my shoe choice. A crazy fun shoe can often be best with a simple, uniform-type get-up on top.
There are lots of people who truly DO wear the same thing nearly every day. It's a bit extreme, but think of Steve Jobs. You can understand the beauty of a black turtleneck nearly all the time. Too boring for some, but you can't argue with simplicity. When I travel in the winter for work, I have learned to lean into my inner Steve, and pack 3-4 black and navy turtlenecks, plus some jeans to wear with them. For the whole time, I just pretend I am a genius in a uniform, strolling around a stage in front of a Powerpoint presentation about the new iPhone. When I return, the rest of the things in my closet are screaming for attention, and it is fun to make the choices I was freed from while traveling. Win-win.
Don't be afraid of looking the same often. At most schools, the idea of a uniform is that it becomes an equalizer of sorts. You can think of it in the negative, as something that squashes self-expression, or you can think of it as freedom to express just yourself in a way bigger than your clothing. And for some, it can settle the feeling of uncertainty, or satisfy a need for completion. I found an old journal of mine from my early twenties, and I was so touched by my young and insecure thoughts. "If I can just get a few more hair scarves and accessories, I will be all set." This is silly youth speaking... you are never all set! But I didn't know that yet, and the idea of having all the right things to pull myself together made me feel like I was in control. I can look back and remember how OUT of control I felt when I wrote that. Young, worried, and looking for my first job in New York... still figuring out who I was and how I wanted to present myself (and for that matter, how I was going to scrape together the money for those hair scarves and accessories to get "all set.") At that time, something as simple as a pair of great pants found at the thrift store on Lower Broadway (jodhpurs that made me feel thinner than my extra five pounds made me look,) could be a relief. A problem solved. I at least had the bottom half of a uniform.
So this week, my advice is less prescriptive than usual... you need a uniform, your very own "grab-and-go," but I can't tell you exactly what that is. Just find out the things that make you feel like your best self, the things you don't need to think about. Make them your uniform... like the drive-thru window of your closet. You don't have to wear it all the time, but you can use it as a refuge when you have bigger things to think about than how you are going to get dressed in the morning!