I remember it so well. A little red and white label, discreetly claiming me, stitched into its collar. Gleaming white, crisply ironed as the first day I saw it. It rested on top of my clothes, in my ready-to-be-shut trunk, that last day of school.
My first months at Mayo (post the wave of homesickness) are a recollection of tumultuous feeling. It was a period of longing to belong, painful embarrassment and ire at my fate. I remember longing to be normal, invisible, just another, ordinary, white shirt, gray skirt clad girl among the many. However I WAS A FREAK.
I arrived at Mayo with a trunk, notably containing the total of THREE (One more than required and duly noted by the matron with a disapproving look on her face) sets of home clothes and sundry worldly belongings. On my arrival I was issued the requisite parts of my uniform that came from the school stores. To elucidate, on the first day of Mayo life, my locker contained: 1 pair Ballerina shoes, 1 Dress uniform tie, 4 singlets (2 blue, 2 white) and 8 pairs of socks (4 Dark gray, 4 Dark Blue) with a confounding (to date) white strip on top. On 3 of the 12 empty hangers hung the “civilian” outfits.
I was the last girl to get my uniform that year. Maybe this was because it was my fate to be taught patience, tolerance and forbearance in this convoluted way OR Maybe it was a result of the chaos that ensues when a man employed to stitch clothes for the erstwhile princely school of Mayo BOYS is suddenly entrusted with the task of putting together uniforms for paltry insignificant GIRLS. (The girls’ school being new, the ancient tailor was borrowed - as were most things - from the well-oiled, 100+ year old machinery of the boys school.) Well whatever the reason it resulted in the most embarrassingly dressed period of my life.
Obviously it just would not be done, for me to dress in civilian clothes until I got my uniforms. OH NO! that would be sacrilegious (as would be many, many more things in the years to come). Neither could I go about in the same clothes day in and day out (if only). So the home clothes and store issue apparel came together in an amalgamation of outfits bizarre enough to start of a new trend on the catwalks of the world.
A salwar Kameez and the Games singlets (white or blue) paired with a rotation of jeans and a lace embellished “A line” PURPLE skirt (that my mother insisted I include in my trunk) became my wardrobe. The ensembles were finished OFF with the store issue socks and shoes. To say I stuck out like a sore thumb was an understatement.
By the time we were in the second month of that term, I chaffed at the “civilian” clothes I had to wear. (Well partially civilian, anyways, considering that I had the right socks and shoes at least.). The prefects gave me black marks for not pulling up my socks (under jeans and purple skirts). My blue singlet was like a beacon amidst the white shirts in class, inviting the teachers to home in on me every time they had a question. Most horrible of all I had to walk through the boys school for swimming practice like that too!
I lay on my bed berating my fates and contemplating dire measures one hot, dry, summer afternoon when the matron summoned me from my dorm. My Uniforms had finally arrived! Over the weekend the matron redeemed herself over the issue of her disapproval when I joined. She had one of the baijis work double time to label my clothes so that they would be ready for coming week. My locker brimmed over now with the addition of 12 Grey skirts with broad pleats, 12 snowy white shirts and 2 Divided skirts (for games).
All weekend long I did mental cartwheels! I would be as dull and boring as the other girls now. No special attention would come my way, the camouflage of uniform beckoned.
Monday morning I donned my armour and went out to face the world. When the bell rang for breakfast lineup I was polishing my shoes at the bench in front of the quadrangle. I caught a quick glimpse of myself in the mirror as we filed out towards the mess. Shoes polished to a high gloss, socks pulled up as far as they could go (probably with my chest puffed out to there with pride) I entered the ranks of anonymity.
I do not remember anything of that day between that time and rushing to the school building when the end of breakfast bell had rung. I bunked assembly that day (JUST NOT DONE). I had an assignation with a full-length mirror in the first floor toilet in the main school building. (For some reason it was the only full-length mirror in the school at that point.)
While the whole school was otherwise occupied, away from ridiculing eyes, with the strains of morning prayers ringing in the air, I admired myself in the mirror. I turned this way, I twisted that way, I curtsied, I cat walked, I pirouetted, I simpered, I blew kisses at myself and I smiled. I belonged.
For the ensuing years of my life at Mayo, I wore that uniform through hot summers and cold winters. With great pride we marched out on public occasions, shirts shining white, skirts crisply ironed basking in the attention of the guests gathered under the rainbow hued shamianas.
What an anomaly a Uniform is. At once the most celebrated yet the most maltreated garment in ones wardrobe. It gives you an identity but affords anonymity. It commands respect but gets abuse. An institution by itself it leads a life of drudgery. Thrown (into the laundry bag), boiled (in hot water), beaten (by the Dhobi) and is subjected to burning coal (the Iron) before it comes full circle, freshly laundered to your pile to be donned with great pride, fresh smelling, startched, crisp.
Our uniforms played many roles in our lives. They were Our Identity. Our camouflage “Oh no ma’am that was not me it must have been someone else talking to that boy.” Our plumage, “Yes Mr. XXX you are right we are Mayoites” (spoken with a preen). Never stopping for a moment to think that one, day it would all come to an end.
And END it did. In retrospect probably faster then I would have wanted it to.
I remember the last time I saw it. It was the end of my last day at school. I sat on my bed, with it’s counterpane neatly stretched across the four corners, I stared down at my Uniform.