Sometimes, working late at the university, when it’s dark or raining I call my partner (who works there also) to drive and pick me up. She jumps in the car, in her “loungewear”, and is at the university within five minutes.
I was reflecting on our own comfort levels, and the distinctions in what we will wear in different spaces, in the light of the drama which recently erupted when a primary school head teacher in Darlington, England, wrote to parents, asking them to come to school appropriately attired. “I have noticed there has been an increasing tendency for parents to escort children to and from school while still wearing their pyjamas and, on occasion, even slippers,” her letter noted.
The school’s attempt to get parents to change their clothes when dropping off kids or coming to collect them, and particularly when attending parents’ evenings, school assemblies, and nativity performances, appears not to be a one-off event. Several schools, it seems, across Britain periodically feel the need to admonish their parents similarly.
Arguments made against pyjama-wearing are what one might expect: they are unsuitable for cold weather; set a bad example for the children; reflect poorly on the parents and neighbourhood; and show lack of self-discipline and morale. Fundamentally, pyjamas are for the bedroom not for the school or the school gates, and parents should know the difference.
But this attack on parents – and, as so often is the case, parents here really means mothers – hasn’t gone unopposed. Arriving defiantly at the school gates in pyjamas and slippers, parents argue the most important thing is getting their children dressed and to school on time; their own clothing didn’t matter. And in this struggle over notions of appropriate wear, mothers turn their criticism to other kinds, particularly sexualised kinds, of female clothing, such as the low-plunging necklines and high heels of Skerne Park Academy’s head teacher.
It’s easy in a dispute like this to take parents’ side – not in terms of their own fashion counter-attack but in objecting to the snobbish criticism of working-class women’s wear.
When the head says, “They should not sit around in pyjamas because they don’t have to get dressed for work,” her words articulate what pyjamas encode: that these women don’t have “real” jobs. Their lives aren’t framed by time-space divisions such that they need to dress to enter disciplined occupational spaces. And in the absence of discipline by an employer it has been left to the head teacher, with far less leverage, to act.
What she has is the moral pressure of example-setting. “I just think if they’re a good role model for their children and want to them to get a job and better yourself then they ought to get dressed.”
Some may find something insulting in this assumption that parents should want to help their children aspire to lives more occupationally successful and privileged than their own.
But something else is also going on in this series of conflicts over bedroom wear at schools.
And that is the feared extension of these women’s intimate domestic space into and across public places.
Women breastfeeding in shops, legislatures and restaurants face similar concerns; critics claim their actions are also inappropriate, breaching normative spatial divisions of what should be done where.
In the breastfeeding case, it is the reproductive, fluid-producing body that is deemed improperly visible. Here it is the comfortable, close-to-sleeping, less overtly gendered body of women in pyjamas and slippers.
But the problem isn’t simply that pyjamas are inappropriate school objects.
Wearing pyjamas in school blurs the division between home and public, symbolically folding the school into bedroom space. Through the presence of women in bed-wear and slippers, the school becomes reimagined.
A working-class environment of discipline and learning, perceived as already precarious, becomes coated in domestic comfort and familiarity.
What this produces, I think, is disgust (or at least distaste) among those who feel they have lost symbolic space and the capacity to set school norms. This is what lies behind the phrase “slummy mummies” scattered across media accounts of this episode: that the slum is being brought into the school – the school becoming part of the slum.
Head teacher Chisholm remarks, “If we’re to raise standards it’s not too much to ask parents to have a wash and get dressed.”
Women in nightclothes and slippers symbolically carry with them the spaces of their bedroom, and the uncontained sexed bodies of the night.
The feelings this generates should not be underestimated.
In the 1990s, I witnessed something similar in the conflict then raging over installing a London eruv – a notional perimeter required by orthodox Jews so they can carry things on the Sabbath. (The perimeter makes space symbolically private and therefore outside the religious prohibition on Sabbath carrying.)
Here too people opposed the eruv’s establishment on the grounds it appropriated their neighbourhood even though they were unlikely ever to actually notice it or its boundary. Opponents told me, sometimes almost in tears, that installing an eruv would turn the space into a shtetl; that it would evoke feelings of being in a concentration camp; fundamentally, they said, religious Jews shouldn’t take space – even at the most symbolic, non-zero-sum level – because the space didn’t belong to them.
In this school pyjamas dispute, space is also not neutral. It is school space already organised along disciplined, culturally encoded lines, where the school uniform is branded, limited and purchasable from Tesco’s, and where the school is part of an educational and economic project to raise competent disciplined workers.
Indeed, one irony of tying bedroom-wear to a lack of parental aspiration for their children may be that schools are failing to be aspirational enough. Or, at least, they are not aspiring to produce creative workers: artists, writers, musicians. Academics, for instance, when pressed, will often admit they like to write, research, and answer emails at their dining room table in pyjamas, dressing only for a Skype meeting, for time spent at university, or to produce a break in the working day.
Given the range of home-based work, Kate Chisholm’s students may well earn their living working in their nightwear, splicing together care-time, leisure-time and employee-time as they sit at their computer, or engage in some other activity, in smart clothes, casual clothes or even no clothes at all.
The penetration of economic life into the home is of course far from a modern development. Although it has its benefits, fears that it extends the spaces in which we are commodified and instrumentalised, wrought on producing things of economic value, are well made.
In this context, where people are supposed to accommodate work demands in all zones of their lives, including their night-times, as work floods temporal divisions and limits, wearing pyjamas at school can be seen as a kind of kickback.
Defying conventional divisions of time and space, nightwear and slippers in British schools become a symbolic attempt to retrieve space that has become far too competitive, work-obsessed and achievement-oriented, reclaiming it as the outer fringes of a comfortable, less compartmentalised and importantly (in a school) shared, home.
Davina Cooper is Professor of Law and Political Theory at Kent Law School, University of Kent.