Most creatures like to fit in with their peers – safer in numbers, don’t stand out and get picked on and all that. Humans are no exception. Uniforms that represent a particular group identity are everywhere, in the military, workplace and education. I’ve worn a few myself in my time. Many groups also require would-be members to undergo certain initiation rites – some, but not all, of which can be described as harmless fun. I’ve experienced my fair share of these as well.
My Colne Valley High School uniform was a navy blazer and grey trousers. We had six ‘houses’ at that time; I was in Hilary house, which had a tie with maroon stripes on a navy background. The girls had a grey pinafore and an appropriately coloured house sash in winter, and a chequered dress in summer.
There was no expense spared when I was at Golcar Church Junior School. Pupils were not expected to wear any sort of uniform, but we were given coloured badges for reasons I never understood. I had a green badge, which probably indicated the fourth idiot row, as I seem to remember that the clever row by the window had golden badges.
Boiler suits, pinnies and smocks
My next uniform was a navy boiler suit which was the standard dress for anyone working in the mill who was carrying out manual work. It was a bit like the 80s shell suit without the colours or the more modern onesies without the hood. We had a set of three provided and laundered every week by a company that took them away and hopefully returned the correct ones later, paid for out of our wages, of course. The ladies usually wore a wraparound chequered pinny. The lunchtimes of each village in the Colne Valley would see hundreds of similarly clad workers scurrying about their weekday lives. Now there are very few.
The exception to this style could be found in the equipment stores where the uniform might be a brown smock, though of course the managers who wanted to stand out and look extra special usually wore a white smock. I was re-reading my mum’s memoirs lately and she wrote that I developed ‘white coat syndrome’ for a while following a burn I received from a hospital steam pipe when I was a toddler. This may go some way towards explaining my dislike for managers.
The boiler suit had a ruler pocket down the right leg. This was where we kept our steel two-foot which had a hinge in the middle and fitted nicely in the pocket. A few months into my apprenticeship, I was allowed my very own two-foot and moving spanner. This was a rite-of-passage, an acceptance into the group, when it was recognised by the carding engineer that I wasn’t going to make a complete pig’s ear of some piece of machinery.
Humorous pranks to initiate young apprentices
There were other rites-of-passage that an apprentice had to experience/endure in industry, some of which were humorous pranks, while others would now be regarded as criminal assaults.
One of the favourite pranks in the first category was to send the young apprentice to the stores for a ‘long stand’. The store man would indicate where to wait, and half an hour later he would return and say, “You’ve stood long enough, now bugger off”. Some of the more naïve, innocent lads would be sent for a glass hammer and a bag of rubber tacks.
Thanks to Dad teaching me the skills of basic household repairs, I didn’t fall for the glass hammer, rubber tack malarkey, but I have to admit that I was sent half a mile to the main stores department for a long stand and dutifully got one. I still didn’t get it until I embarrassingly returned without a stand, long or short, to howls of laughter from the others, the gits.
The greasing ritual
Another rite-of-passage that people from outside industry at that time and more modern sensible people would not believe nor be able to understand was the greasing ritual, performed exclusively on the young men. It involved removing the victim’s clothing and smothering their genitalia with grease, and if no grease was readily available oil would do.
I was a cocky, arrogant git, and soon after the initial shock of the new working environment sank in, I lost much of my shyness and reverted to my horrible teenager attitude. Many of the older workforce had fought through the war or had recently carried out their national service and took great delight in any opportunity to takea cocky teenager down a peg or two. My own harsh lesson – that no individual was stronger than the group – was to be delivered by the four fettlers in our mill.
Rite of passage or criminal assault?
Fettlers combed out all the waste from the millions of wire teeth of the swifts, doffers, workers and strippers that formed part of the carding machine. It was a hard dirty job and such workers had to be fit and strong. However, even though Mark, Clifford, Ernest and David were strong and fit, after their struggle to expose my offending equipment, they still needed one burly fettler on each limb to minimise injury to themselves or me, and they had not had the forethought to put the grease nearby. Therefore, they had to be satisfied with persuading as many ladies as possible to parade past and admire their handiwork. I seem to remember they didn’t appear to admire anything else, but they had a good look all the same.
This is an example of an activity that was, if not acceptable in the past, then certainly to a degree accepted, with workplace humiliation but a small step from the violence and ridicule that formed the basis of the teaching techniques we, and older generations endured.
Luckily this greasing practice died out, to be replaced by a swift clip round the ear. Unfortunately, my apprenticeship fell just in the transition period, and I was subjected to both. Even a clip round the ear is improper now, which is a shame, cos I can think of so many people who deserve and would benefit from a swift clip round the ear!
Expensive sports uniforms – even for fans
Sports uniforms are getting more and more specialised. Shorts and a tee-shirts are never good enough. The materials for the uniforms designed for synchronised swimming, beach volleyball and athletics must be very expensive because the participants can only afford to buy them in children’s sizes.
Even spectators have a uniform. The kickerball crowds are expected to buy home and away replica kits, second team kits, practice kits, as well as paying at least £524 for the cheapest premier season ticket or £2,025 for the most expensive. But village cricket is free, and what could be more English than taking our own deckchair to our local cricket pitch, where the only uniform needed would be a big sun hat and a warm beer. We can settle down in the first innings and slowly drift off for half an hour and miss nothing. We could even turn up when there isn’t a game being played and be equally entertained.
Amateur cyclists and walkers also have their uniforms
The most curious sporting uniform worn by the amateur enthusiasts must be cycling. Apparently, Lycra was developed to offer a closer fit that moves with the body and limits rubbing and chafing, but it certainly does little for decorum. And what advantage does that clip thing under their special cycling uniform shoe give to the amateur? We in the WARTS walking group frequent cafés, and cyclists are often there at the same time. Watching them trying to walk in those curious clip shoes is like watching a skinny penguin doing a mating dance.
Even walking groups have a uniform. Decent quality boots, waterproofs and a rucksack are essential, communication devices and maps are advisable, but double walking poles and spats are now becoming the difference between an amateur and semi-professional. Some enthusiasts can recognise mediocre clothing manufacturers from a hundred paces and look with distain and scorn on clothing that is merely adequate.
Fitting in with our peers is probably a survival mechanism, but, as can be seen here, we can take things too far sometimes.