The shape of your tie is everything in British secondary schools.
Because uniform is mandatory, the way you wear your tie tells the rest of the class who you are, outside of wearing the same mandated clobber as everyone else. It can be fat and short (for wannabe rockstars and bullies), peanut-shaped and skinny (for ravers and battery acid-eaters) or normal, like you’re a nerd trying out for an episode of the Junior Apprentice.
It’s not just ties. Bending the rules to express your individuality is a time-honoured form of school-age rebellion and teenagers tweak their uniform from head-to-toe accordingly.
Between the ruffled shirts and dampened jumpers provided by most British schools, black smart shoes become black Air Force Ones; jewellery glistens under home-dye haircuts; and as soon as the bell rings, parka coats and make-up come out, ready for bus stop snogs and curb-side rivalries.
Originally conceived as an exhibition with cult British photographer Gavin Watson (more on that later), the page features loads of teenage rabble-rousers expressing themselves, via the Spice Girls, Palace x Kickers collaborations and lots of buzzed sides. I spoke with Rich, to find out more.
VICE: Hi Rich. Why do you think kids in Britain are so creative with their school uniform?
Rich London: Your outfit speaks to people from a distance. It’s a hidden code. You might not talk to the rival school across the road, but if you’re all wearing Stone Island and got your hoods up and little Nike gloves on, it says: “We’re up for it.” Or if you’re wearing Doc Martens and fishnets with holes in and you’ve got fingernails painted black, that says: “I’m rebellious”. It’s a language that I don’t think has ever really been decoded because the teachers don’t know how to read it.
What are some of your favourite photos on the page?
My favourite ones are clearly rebellious. There’s a few where you can see a little bit of red hair dye in a school photograph – that’s so close to the bone of what’s allowed. I like seeing kids wearing Doc Martens. To a teacher, they’re black smart shoes, but they mean so much – they’ve got so much history and a rebellious heritage. Kids scratch the toes up and change the colour of the laces just to push things further. There are a few of Gavin’s pictures where the ties are so mashed up that it’s like, how can the teacher not know what’s going on? There are pictures of girls with fake eyelashes on and masses of hairspray where their confidence is through the roof. I love seeing the rebellion shine through.
There are some classic school looks, like the fat tie or wearing white instead of black socks. What are some of the most popular tweaks you’ve spotted when working on the project?
There are things you have to wear: the shirt, the tie, the trousers, and sometimes a jumper and blazer. Anything outside that is a grey area. There are so many variables. The size and shape of the knot on your tie says a lot. I’ve seen pictures of Noel Gallagher with a massively fat tie back in the day at school. That means “I don’t give a shit.” It’s like: “I’ve come to school not ready, I can’t be bothered to finish my tie.” A skinny tie has been a bit more rebellious on the other side, whether you’re into punk or more electronic, dance stuff. Tucking the tie in is a thing. Socks can be different shades if you can get away with different colours. Jewellery is a big one – lots of girls will sneak piercings in. Guys can sometimes get away with a little stud.
Lots of the tweaks come down to the fundamental idea of rebellion. Is that the case?
Any uniform and set of rules are potentially bendable. In a lot of schools, the uniform is set out to create equality and alleviate bullying. But they’ve left out so many things that have variables like shoes, belts, bags, coats, hats, beanies, scarves and gloves; and also the way the clothes are made to fit. It’s like in prison: You have to wear the uniform but you can get a tattoo anywhere; you can shave your head. If you bend the rules, you’re sending a signal to your peers and creating a hierarchy. It’s creating a uniform within a uniform.
How are you getting hold of all the photos?
It’s been 95 percent research. I’ve worked in fashion for 20 years and always been fascinated with youth culture in its purest form. Some of these pictures have been on mood boards of mine for years.
What are the future plans for the project?
Before lockdown I was asked to do an exhibition at the Saatchi Gallery, but that’s been put on hold. In the meantime, I’m putting a book together of everything. I’m collating all the images and rights and usage for that. We’ll do an exhibition where Gavin will show his work and hopefully get other photographers too.