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Streetwise - Pleated Skirts and Starched Collars

by Frank Dunnigan
September 2014

Frank Dunnigan, WNP member and columnist. -

It is only fitting that as the new school year begins, we take a look back at some fashions that once dominated local high school corridors.

While the San Francisco Unified School District actually has its own published dress code (recently updated for the first time since 1997 to eliminate a district-wide ban on head coverings), Catholic school students continue to have far less wardrobe latitude than their public school counterparts. In particular, girls attending San Francisco's Catholic girls high schools (in the 1950s, there were fourteen of these schools--can you name them all?-- answer at the end of this article) still have very clear uniform requirements.

Each August, the annual buying begins. Many girls visited the old Sue Mills store on upper Market Street (now relocated, but in business since Harry Truman was in the White House) or else the downtown City of Paris department store. Most San Franciscans could spot the herringbone patterns a mile away--tan for St. Rose vs. gray for Convent of the Sacred Heart--and easily tell the difference between Presentation's and Mercy's plaid patterns, while Star of the Sea's solid dark brown skirt also stood out in a crowd. Although there was very little that a student could do to customize her school's specialized look, there were some options that permitted a bit of fashion consciousness.

Having completed a highly unscientific poll of Catholic school alums, all with vast experience in these matters, I managed to compile the following recollections:

Mercy Grad, 1974: Yes--Sue Mills--it was more of a warehouse than a store, not nearly as nice as what my brother found at Bruce Bary in Stonestown. In 1970, we also had a uniform sale day at Mercy. Even though my mother had already taken me downtown for essentials, I recall buying another sweater that day. The sweaters were color/style-coded: cranberry cardigan for frosh, cranberry V-neck for sophomores, blue cardigan for juniors, and blue V-neck for the seniors. We also had a uniform bolero jacket in cranberry but it was not mandatory. Also at Mercy, we were one of the first classes who wore knee-high stockings and loafers instead of the old saddle shoes. MOST girls rolled their skirts after school--how else were we going to get S.I. boys to take us to a dance or game? When I was shopping at Stonestown earlier this year, I noticed that the girls are still following this same proud tradition as they leave the campus--sometimes I forgot to unroll mine before my dad came home, and he was NOT amused!

(Author's note: One day, while driving along 19th Avenue, circa 1989, with my own mother and her sister in the car, we saw several Mercy students rolling up their skirts. My aunt commented that she and Mom used to do the very same thing when leaving school at St. Peter's Academy in the Mission District in the 1930s, before walking home along 24th Street--some things never change!)

Star of the Sea Grad, 1972: I don't have many memories of purchasing uniforms, but I do remember that I loved my uniform--it gave me a sense of community and belonging. I think it was a San Francisco thing as I always enjoyed seeing other uniforms and making the neighborhood connections. In high school, because we were aware of fashion trends, I remember how important hair accessories and purses became--since that was the only form of expression we had. I paid a lot of attention to both, making sure that they made a statement.

St. Rose Grad, 1966: We had brown herringbone skirts and jackets from City of Paris, and we had to buy two skirts, because at some time in the past, St. Rose students were invited to welcome General Eisenhower at the airport. Some moms had washed their daughters' wool skirts, and they shrank. Short skirts?--scandalous! So after that, there was a two-skirt minimum. I loved the freedom of a uniform--no decisions to be made in the morning, and our non-uniform clothes remained nice because we had the uniform for everyday use. When I hit college, it was a pain to have to think about what to wear first thing each day.

Convent of the Sacred Heart Grad, 1971: I liked uniforms because they were the great equalizer--no matter what you had at home, we were all the same in the classroom. It was also a good feeling to know that I could get ready every morning in far less time than my public school friends, because my wardrobe choices were pre-determined. We had a herringbone blue skirt with a single inverted pleat at the in the front, along with a vest-like top and a white blouse, and black loafers. There was also the "dress uniform" that consisted of a white jacket and skirt with a white blouse trimmed in red plus a red tie. These were worn for First Friday Mass plus assemblies.

Student Girls on the steps in front of Presentation High School on Turk Street, 1967. -

Presentation Grad, 1970: Our uniforms were pleated plaid skirts, white blouses, and navy blue sweaters, plus navy blue-on-white saddle shoes with white ankle socks. It was easy to spot our schoolmates on MUNI, which helped us to get to know others before and after school hours. "Free dress" days were tricky--old play clothes vs. dress-up.

For guys attending St. Ignatius, Sacred Heart, or Riordan, there were no uniform requirements, though there was a basic pattern of: gray/dark green/khaki pants, button-down collar shirts (with enough starch to give them a brick-like firmness--the choice of students and NEVER a school requirement), plus V-neck wool sweaters. Some sartorial splendor crept in from time-to-time in the 1960s: Madras shirts, knit snow caps and mufflers during cold weather, Derby brand jackets, always yellow, tan or navy blue--no parent would allow their son to wear a black one because that hinted at gang activity.

For boys just entering high school, it was a given that the late summer shopping trip to Bruce Bary would be conducted under the close scrutiny of one's own mother. Being seen in public with either parent was an ordinary embarrassment for most fourteen-year-olds, but the situation became immeasurably worse when trying on pants. Many mothers seemed to have a rather obsessive need to put their hands into the waistband and tug at it in order to determine whether or not there was a proper fit. The usual teen-age male retaliation for this embarrassing maternal behavior was to chat up every schoolmate who happened to be in the store at the time--even those you weren't particularly friendly with--about any and all topics until every mother involved was fed up with the delay and resolved that her son was old enough to shop on his own from that point on.

Just as girls expressed individuality with purses, guys often did so with footwear. At St. Ignatius in the 1960s and early 1970s, the rule was simple--no athletic or other "non-polishable" shoes. There were some school years when black wingtips were popular, and by the following September, everyone was wearing burgundy penny loafers, while in 1968, the trend was heavily in favor of brown-on-brown saddle shoes. What everyone at S.I. wanted to wear were Clark's Desert Boots, made with a soft, unfinished tan leather and a thick crepe sole--very comfortable. They were forbidden, however, because they were non-polishable. Miraculously, in 1969, the Clark's Boot Company produced a yellow-tan polished version with a side buckle, and these became an instant hit on 37th Avenue.

Paul Bishop modeling the S.I. jacket in 1969. -

Similar to Mercy's sweaters, S.I. also had distinctive school jackets--with the colors red and blue alternating for each Junior/Senior class--the Class of 1969 was blue and the Class of 1970 was red. I remember once asking an elderly Jesuit why the colors alternated from one year to the next, and without batting an eye, he replied, "Makes it easier for the police and witnesses to narrow down the guilty ones in a line-up."

S.I.'s dress code became far more specific following the school's transition to co-education--something that occurred a full twenty-five years ago this fall. Today, all students must wear knit polo shirts or button-down collar shirts. Sweaters or jackets may be worn, as long as the shirt collar remains visible. Pants must still not be denim, but to-the-knee shorts are now permitted on both male and female students, and girls have the added option of wearing a knee-length skirt if they wish. The old rule about "non-polishable" shoes is gone, replaced with a simple "shoes must be worn at all times." One new rule, in keeping with the times--"No visible tattoos."

Both guys and girls have always had some latitude in hair styles--though never enough. While girls schools did not tolerate students dyeing their hair in the 1960s, it was a rare girl, having light brown hair, who did not help Mother Nature just a bit with the occasional bucket of lemon juice, peroxide, or Clorox--even though the nuns were constantly on the lookout for anyone who suddenly became "too blonde."

Graphic from St. Ignatius student handbook on dress code, 1960s -

In S.I.'s Stanyan Street days, hair had to be "short, neat, and conservative" even though those terms were defined only in the mind of the Jesuit-beholder, with students subject to frequent impromptu personal reminders about the need for a haircut, shave, or shorter sideburns, often in the hallways between classes. S.I.'s hair rules today remain generalized (though with prohibitions against "extreme" or "distracting" styles/colors), along with the summary, "Hair must be clean, combed, and neatly styled. Inappropriate hair styles will be left to the discretion of the Deans." Lime-green spiked Mohawks are still out, I guess.

One Facebook user recently posted his own recollections about a 1957 grooming crisis at Lincoln High School that came about because of Yul Brynner's role in the movie The King and I, noting that Herb Caen had mentioned it in his column:

Jeff Amos of 2222-48th Avenue, a low-junior student at Lincoln High, marched into Paul's Barber Shop at 46th & Taraval Wednesday and ordered: "A Yul Brynner, please!" He got it. Paul clipped all his hair off and then shaved the top. "Ahhhh," said Jeff, a red-hot Brynner fan, as he surveyed himself in the mirror. But the next morning--"Ughhhh," said Dr. J.B. Hill, principal of Lincoln High. He promptly ordered Jeff to stay out of school until his hair grows back, because he's afraid the idea might become contagious. "But I have a math test tomorrow," wailed Jeff. "You can come in for that," decided Dr. Hill, "but you'll have to wear a hat."

Oh, right--a hat is going to be really inconspicuous! It's amazing how something like hair has been a cause of so many adolescent/adult crises over the decades. Trust me--it will change color on its own over the course of time--and then just fall out.

I wonder if retirement homes will have dress codes when we get there?

Trivia Question Answer:
San Francisco Catholic girls high schools in the 1950s (with only Mercy, ICA, and Convent remaining as girls-only today):

  1. Cathedral (Ellis Street, merged with Sacred Heart High School in the late 1980s)
  2. Convent of the Sacred Heart (Broadway)
  3. Immaculate Conception Academy ("ICA" on Guerrero Street)
  4. Mercy (19th Avenue)
  5. Notre Dame de Namur (Dolores Street, closed 1980s)
  6. Notre Dame de Victoires (Bush Street, closed 1970)
  7. Presentation (Turk Street, closed 1991)
  8. St. Brigid's (Van Ness and Broadway, closed 1950s)
  9. St. John's Ursuline (Mission Street, closed 1980s)
  10. St. Paul's (Valley Street, closed 1990s)
  11. St. Peter's (Alabama Street, closed 1966)
  12. St. Rose (Pine Street, closed 1990)
  13. St. Vincent's (Geary and Gough, becoming Cathedral, closed 1966)
  14. Star of the Sea (Geary and 9th Avenue, closed 1985)

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