I really can’t remember, but their clothes weren’t so bad…I wonder how they got their jobs….maybe the military?”
The other woman’s lips twitched. “That’s what some of them would ask. I remember thinking, ‘Why do they have to have this uniform? Why can’t they just wear jeans or jeans without their boots?'”
When she was a student at the University of Oklahoma, one of her professors asked her to write a paper on how we were different from other cultures who didn’t wear uniforms – except for, she added, those whose clothing indicated, “we didn’t give a damn about this.”
I remember thinking, ‘Why do they have to have this uniform? Why can’t they just wear jeans or jeans without their boots?'”
When she returned to school three years later, students and faculty had changed: “They had a lot more freedom to decide what kind of uniforms they wanted to wear, particularly, for instance, when it came to wearing shorts,” she said. They often opted to wear long skirts or slacks, or simply wear a blouse and a hat.
At a party one night, a group of female students from another group approached me and asked why they weren’t wearing uniforms. I told them the same story again – why should an African-American woman who is working in this world – for want of a better moniker – live in the same housing housing as half of South Central’s African-Americans. But again, the same answer. They’d wear whatever they wanted. And we agreed. All-black fraternities were becoming popular at various colleges, and my peers often referred to themselves as ‘the blacks’ – which was no longer entirely accurate.
Back when I lived in the ’60s, blacks rarely bothered wearing uniforms. So I wondered if it might be strange to expect African-American women to adhere to the stereotypical uniform and how the idea behind it.
There are a few clues to the uniform’s origins.
For one thing, it was often called ‘the American uniform’, as opposed to the military’s more familiar ‘the uniform of an American’, ‘the uniform of an American boy’, or even ‘the uniform of an Anglo-Saxon’, which at the time meant a member of the upper classes from Britain. (The military, which has long since abandoned its “warrior” traditions, changed its name back in 1942.)
It also came into use when women could work in a
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