Frontlines – the art of dressing and what it means

What we wear says a lot about ourselves as adults, but it is also an important expression of growing up, says Helen Bonnick

Way back in the 1980s, a certain social work magazine printed identikit-style pictures of a male and female social worker, complete with spiky hair and big earrings. Now, while my colleagues and I immediately recognised a team leader in a neighbouring office, we felt we weren’t too far off the official professional mark; so it came as something of a shock when a member of the small community we served hurled across the square at me: “Call yourself a social worker? Dressed like that?” You will realise that this made a deep and lasting impression on me.

What we wear tells people about our role, how we view ourselves, what we believe is important. Others then ascribe statements about power and status, aspirations, affiliations. As adults we defend our right to dress how we choose, within our understanding of the boundaries set by the place or time. Sometimes we get it wrong or overstep the mark but we are generally mature enough to handle the consequences.

Children and young people are experts in the art of dressing. In Britain we have decreed that children learn better if they wear a school uniform. But for every student there will be another way of tweaking the uniform to maintain individuality and adopt a style. And while for most students their uniform still says “I am here to learn”, there will always be some whose stylistic adaptations and demeanour say “I am here to find a mate”.

From time to time, we find ourselves working with pre-teen girls whose experience of life has pushed them to a place where clothes and style are everything and school is already nothing more than a club or a catwalk; girls whose family experiences and friendship groups, whose choices of magazine and TV programmes have both moulded and confirmed these beliefs. We have mentoring, circle time, personal, social and health education groups, girls’ groups, family support on offer – all these can only do so much.

I am not calling for an end to the glamorisation of the body, the cult of celebrity. I know the issues are more complex than this. But my family will confirm that these things make me ANGRY – “call yourself a social worker? Shouting like that?”

Helen Bonnick is a supervisor of school-home support workers and a social worker


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