In praise of the “grembiule”

It’s mid-September, and it’s been back-to-school for the past week. As in every country in the world, where children go back to school in the Fall, here too the air seems to change with the shift in our collective energy. Expectations are high, tears flow easily, happiness is unbridled, at night we are bone-tired. The early morning hours are already charged with the coming and going of adult and small feet. School—scuola—is now the centerpiece of our lives. The sidewalks are populated with little persons in the bleached white (girls) and the sober black (boys) of required attire. These are the grembiuli, literally “aprons,” that the elementary school children must wear.

The grembiule in actual fact is a sort of loose over-garment, made of cotton, which either buttons or zips center-front. It features a white collar and pockets, and sleeves which are loosely gathered at the wrist. The boys’ models, black, are shorter, stopping just around the hips. Girls, instead, wear a dress-length version for which they can choose the trim around the color. Names are embroidered over the left-breast. C. Rossi, for example. Or Carlotta R. Or for the families with children in line to enter school, simply Rossi.

I found the grembiule horribly old-fashioned when I came here. But I have grown to love it. Italians are famous for their love of uniforms, and I suppose this is no exception, but it serves several real purposes, far beyond ornament, that you can’t help but admire. It allows our children to go to school with far less regard for how their clothing will be judged, protecting their independence of expression underneath the uniform, while expressing a sort of equality outside of it. All students are regarded as students, on an equal playing field. You go to school to learn, and your uniform expresses this purpose. You’re not on show. You’re not in a looks competition. You’re just—and this, in the end, is a tremendous and beautiful liberty—a child going to school. One can’t help but feel, that inside that white or black sheath, these children’s very right to be none other than a child is being protected.

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