From cubicles to classrooms, drab dress codes aren’t enough to bring anyone down.

For as long as I can remember, the freedom to wear what I want has been important to me. I used to watch TV programs about schools with uniforms and I felt truly sorry for those students. They must have hated not being able to choose their own clothes … or so I thought.

In Japan, almost all middle and high school students wear uniforms. Most businesses, including restaurants, bakeries, bookstores, department stores and government offices, also require their employees to wear uniforms. Banks often have uniforms too, but it’s usually just the female employees who are required to wear them.

I worked for three weeks in a Japanese town hall before I started teaching. The only person in the office wearing a uniform was my female co-worker. She wore a white blouse, knee-length skirt and matching vest. She had the same training and education as her male colleagues, but unlike her, they were free to decide what they wore to work. I found it puzzling and unfair that only she was obligated to wear a uniform.

A week into the job, I took the opportunity to ask her how she felt about having to wear a uniform. To my surprise, she said that she didn’t mind it at all! She didn’t have to think about what to wear each morning, and she saved money because she didn’t have to buy new clothes very often. Her explanation made sense, but I still wasn’t convinced that the benefits she mentioned would be enough to convince me to wear a uniform to work.

When I started teaching in a Japanese middle school, I encountered European navy-inspired school uniforms called sailor fuku (for girls) and gakuran (for boys). Female students wear kneelength, pleated skirts with a collared blouse and a scarf or bow tied at the neck, while male students wear high-collared suits with elaborate buttons. Closest to the heart and believed to hold the emotions of school years, the second button is often gifted to a high school sweet- heart after graduation.

Watching the students come and go in their uni- forms each day, I began to realize that they were consciously customizing their uniforms, if only ever so slightly. For example, they would adjust the length of their skirts or pants, wear patterned socks or bright, cool running shoes, or style their hair in creative ways. Boys bought their uniforms one or two sizes too big so that they could wear them baggy like hip-hop icons of the time, and girls wore loose leg warmers bunched up at the ankle. With subtle adjustments like these, the students found that they could fit in and stand out at the same time.

My perception of uniforms in the workplace and at school changed over time when I saw the economic benefits combined with freedom of expression. Uniforms ring professional and demand to be taken seriously, yet they still leave room for personal touches. Your choices may be limited, but your individuality can still shine through.


SHELLEY SUZUKI is a long-time teacher of English as a Second Language in Canada and Japan. She currently runs an English school via Skype and is pursuing a teaching career, or whatever other interesting opportunities may come her way. She appeared on the Japanese TV show Okusama wa Gaikokujin (My Wife is a Foreigner). She hopes to become a children’s book writer and illustrator when she grows up.

Illustration by Chieko Watanabe