THE WESTOVER SCHOOL UNIFORM
Westover School is a strange place.
It’s bright yellow, for one. No building on the school’s tiny, Middlebury, Connecticut campus is spared from a coat of Westover-yellow paint. It’s also a school for girls, a phenomenon that grows increasingly unusual in a field of disappearing single-sex schools, both private and public.
More weird stuff? One evening in the spring, the Westover girls and their faculty march out into darkness. In a field far above the school’s campus, they form concentric circles around a bonfire, swinging lanterns and singing 1970s-era hymns to usher in a new class of freshmen.
In comparison, the Westover School uniform isn’t all that bizarre.
“It’s a modified sailor suit,” said Stephanie Crudele, a Westover graduate from the class of 2014.
The Westover uniform – known as the ‘uni’ – is a white linen skirt with a matching top, trimmed in navy. A large collar flips over the back. The outfit is completed with navy flats and the occasional matching cardigan.
Some Westover traditions, like candlelight and the required marching at graduation, are looked back upon fondly. The uni, for most, isn’t one of them.
When Stephanie and I were students at Westover, nearly four years ago, the uni was worn for nearly every important school tradition in addition to sit-down dinner. There, three times a week, boarding students ate dinner with faculty at pre-assigned tables. By the end of the semester, the white uni became a Jackson Pollock of wine gravy and tomato sauce.
The uni is worn for other traditions including December’s Candlelight service of lessons and carols, Germans (a series of dances in the spring), and both graduation ceremonies.
The uni rests at the heart of each of these traditions and of life at Westover, stained and wrinkled as it is by the end of each year.
These days, each freshman at Westover is measured for her uni at the beginning of the school year. The class dean, Tracy Lytle, wraps measuring tape around each girl’s waist and stretches it across her shoulders. The measurements are soon sent away to a local seamstress.
Elizabeth Cook, a current junior at Westover, is no stranger to the school’s traditions, nor to the uni. Her grandfather, Joseph Molder, was headmaster for 25 years; her mom, Emily, was a member of the class of 1980.
“When the unis finally came in, later in the fall, we all rushed to Tracey. We just had to try them on,” Cook said. “The first time you ever get to wear it is to sit-down dinner. I looked around the room and thought, ‘everyone looks the same.’ For the first time, we were unified.”
Stephanie Crudele had a similar experience.
“I always think of one image taken right after we received our unis for the first time. We were so excited we threw them on right over our clothes,” Crudele said.
For over a hundred years, the school’s young women have donned the outfit in its various forms. For a stretch between 1909 and the 1970s, students wore a day uniform (a brown dress), the evening uniform (a white dress), and various uniforms for sports, according to Westover Archivist Muffie Clement Green. Back in those days, Westover catered primarily to young women from elite, white Protestant families. Famous Westover alumnae from this era include Ginevra King Pirie, a Chicago socialite who was F. Scott Fitzgerald's inspiration for the character of Daisy Buchanan in The Great Gatsby.
“The girls were never out of uniform, unless they were going to church or they were going on vacation,” Green said in an email. “When you see pictures, the girls look fabulous! There’s a uniformity that’s palpable.”
Green graduated from Westover in 1965. When she attended Westover, chapel was a twice-a-day requirement.
“Wearing our unis, we would walk into chapel arm-in-arm, in twos or threes,” Green said. “There was a wonderful closeness to it.”
In the 1970s, the girls rebelled against the stuffy confines of history, and the Westover daily uni was no more. The evening uniform, however, remained.
“There have been different uniforms throughout the ages,” Crudele said. “But if you were to talk to someone who went to Westover in 1910, you could still talk to them about uniforms. Almost everything about life changed since then, but we still have uniforms.”
The unis don’t always fit for the duration of a Westover education. My roommate, Andie, grew half a foot during her time at school. Some of our classmates grew other ways.
“That top… man, that top had a V that is too deep for some people. I used to have to wear two sports bras with it, and even then… it was a lot!” Crudele said. “Somehow, even in a style that is supposed to be timeless, by the time I graduated I had intense cleavage.”
Christine Dahl, a member of the class of 1982 and Andie’s mom, agreed.
“Between freshman year and senior year, you grow a lot and your body changes,” Dahl said. “Most people couldn’t zip them up by senior year, it was so fitted.”
Luckily, students are eventually phased out of the uni. The last time they wear it is for their senior year candlelight service, and for many it’s a joyous occasion. After that, they’re pushed to the backs of closets, thrown away, donated, or lost. I personally have no idea where either pieces of my uni are.
“Good riddance,” Dahl said, reflecting on throwing away her uni. In the 1980s, the Westover uniform was an unseasonably sheer white eyelet dress worn every night for dinner, barring Fridays and Wednesdays.
“When I look at my uni, I think of holding onto tradition… but not in a good way,” Dahl said. “Now, when I look at the newer unis, of my daughter’s uni, I think of tradition and honor of the past. I think it’s used more appropriately for today’s world.”
In today’s world, the school’s 200 girls don the white linen skirt and its matching top only for special occasions. Gone are the required meals in messy white linen. In the uni, they march, they sing, they play handbells. Following Candlelight, the glee club processes out into the school’s main room. It’s there that they sing Hodie, a Latin hymn. They stand until the song fades.
“We’re standing in Red Hall, and we only have the candles. The light reflects onto the room around us, onto our white unis,” Crudele said. “When I think of my uni, I think of that.”