I was only eleven years old when Rebelde came out. It was a Mexican telenovela about the lives of ultra-rich teens at Mexico City Elite Way School. The school’s risqué uniforms were what attracted me the most. They were a mixture of the early 2000s’ low-rise style with pop-punk fashions. Like the protagonists Mia Colucci and Roberta Pardo (Dulce Mari), the girls alternated between two uniforms. The everyday look included a white button-down shirt, loosely tied red tie, a red jacket, a denim mini skirt and black boots. The formal version had a blue button-down shirt with a red tie and a black jacket. It was paired with black mini skirts and boots. Preteen friends fantasized about the day that a Baptist school would allow such a skin-revealing uniform. I wondered why Rebelde’s uniforms didn’t reflect my reality, or any school’s.
Rebelde is not the only TV show that features unrealistic school uniforms. The uniforms seen in pop culture, from Netflix’s Elite to HBO Max’s Gossip Girl reboot have a clever way of ignoring all dress codes (just as the most fashionable and rebellious students of any class). These shows are a privilege for a certain segment of society. However, they offer an alternative reality where students can dress as they wish. Consider the characters from CW’s Gossip Girl who attend Constance Billard St. Jude’s. Eric Daman, the show’s costume design, established the preppy, luxurious look of Upper East Side teenagers over several seasons. This included high-heeled shoes and miniskirts, as well as thigh-high socks. In the promotional photos for the show, Serena was wearing a white button down shirt with a plaid tie and paired it with a plaid mini skirt. She also wore tie-up ankle boots. This formula was consistent throughout the show’s two first seasons, even though Serena had not graduated from high school yet and was waiting to be admitted to Brown University.
Although the hemlines Blair Waldorf’s (Leighton Meester) wore may not have been quite as scandalous, Constance Billard’s queenbee was allowed to experiment with her uniform’s style. Blair wears a white shirt and a cape with ivory ruffles, tied at the neck by a navy choker to school in Season 2. Accessorized with navy-and-white Mary Jane shoes, a crystal-encrusted hairband and Mary Jane shoes, the look is completed by a pair of Mary Jane shoes. The Yale hopeful wears a pink and blue plaid blazer with navy mini skirt. She pairs the look with navy-and white pumps. It was quite a lot. It was also amazing.
My school’s dress code was often challenged by me as a high school student, inspired by Blair and Serena. I started with a small red bowtie-shaped headband that was barely noticeable because it didn’t conform to the school’s strict color scheme. Later, I made a black velvet version with an over-sized bow that was reminiscent of Tavi Gevinson’s huge accessory at the 2012 Dior Couture Show. He also joined the cast of “Gossip Girl” (reboot). Blair would have been proud, I believe. What about my social studies teacher? Not approved.
Parents who spend a lot on back-to school materials for their children have had relief in the past by purchasing school uniforms. The National Retail Federation estimates that parents will spend $848 this fall on back-to school items, which is 7.6% more than last year. Clothing and shoes, according to the survey, are two of the top categories for back-to-school items, with a combined average cost of $414.50.
While it is true that our school uniforms are still influenced by privilege and access, pop culture is only beginning to acknowledge the problem with shows such as the Gossip Girls which reboot tries to correct the racism embedded in the show’s narrative. While most students in this country can’t afford new shoes to wear to school, uniforms that are meant to equalize the playing field, especially for those with low incomes, can still be expensive.
Students are given the chance to wear something other than a uniform. This can lead to embarrassing situations, particularly for queer students and young girls. Some students may choose to wear a spaghetti strap tank or distressed jeans to school instead of the required attire. A student from Palm Beach was suspended in 2018 for wearing ripped jeans. A Maine high school senior was asked to take her school photos again last year after she exposed her shoulders in school photos. After 15 students were reported to Simpson Middle School for violating school dress code standards, Simpson Middle School students in Atlanta staged protests over the past month. Students have been wearing T-shirts calling out dress codes as “sexist”, “racist” and “classist” since then.
It’s difficult to not imagine pop culture depictions of fashion-forward school uniforms or lax (or even nonexistent) dress codes in the face of such headlines. Although most depictions focus on characters with a lot of racial or economic privilege, the images of teenagers in schools that are seemingly free from policing or judgment paint a beautiful picture of schools as places where they can express themselves through clothing.
No one notices Elite’s Rebecca Leon (Claudia Salas), who shows up to class in a cropped button down shirt with bike shorts, fishnets, and bike shorts. Teachers are also not impressed when Cher Horowitz is dressed in a Clueless yellow mini skirt suit. The characters’ idyllic teenage years, in which there are no dress codes, are one more aspect of their idyllic lives.
While I was never able to fulfill my Rebelde dreams at school, my mom was kind enough to let me channel Mia Colucci’s school outfits after the bell rang. With Aldo knee-high boots and Limited Too mini skirts, I was able to create my own look. That was until the bell rang once more. Perhaps costume designers from Gossip Girl’s Eric Daman to Elite’s Cristina Rodriguez have the right idea. School clothes could be a tool that students can use to discover their place in the world.