MALAYSIA - We were comparing old school staff photographs and trying to remember all the names of our former colleagues and wondering where they might be now when Dilla remarked, 'Notice how much more colourful staff photos of 20 years ago were compared to now.'
We looked at Dilla's 1988 staff photograph taken in front of her old school hall with the usual "three level" arrangement. The teachers in the front row were all sitting on chairs with the principal right in the middle. Another row of teachers stood behind them, and at the back was the final row of teachers standing on a bench.
"Fast forward 25 years, now look at gambar staf 2012 (staff photos 2012)," said Dilla pointing to a more recent photograph.
The setting and arrangement were the same. Even the squinting of eyes to avoid the glare of the sun's rays and the poses were similar.
There was however one marked difference. There seemed to be an added degree of cheerfulness in the 1988 photo due to the different colours the teachers were wearing compared to the rather austere looking uniform blue batik which was worn by all the teachers in the more recent photograph.
"We do look smarter, I suppose," said Dilla frowning at the 2012 photograph. There's something to be said about uniformity… but somehow it lacks something, don't you think? Character, that's it ... it lacks character."
I looked at the two photographs again and sensed what Dilla meant. While there was a greater sense of orderliness in the 2012 staff photograph, there seemed to be a feeling of freedom and diversity in the multi-coloured older photograph.
"We looked happier too," said Dilla pointing to herself in the 1988 photo. "Look at me, don't I look happier?"
There was no denying it. There Dilla was, in a canary-yellow knit skirt, feathered hair, huge earrings and a wide smile on her face standing next to another teacher dressed in a light pink and green salwar kameez. Compared to that, the smiles in the more recent photograph looked a little forced.
I could see where Dilla was coming from basically because I had often thought the same thing myself especially when those in charge went a little overboard in deciding "uniform" dress material or colour themes for every special school occasion.
The standard batik for all teachers in the same school is by now part of almost every school staff and even the most difficult-to-persuade teachers who had chanted "show me where in the directive it says we must have a uniform"day and night, had finally succumbed and grudgingly purchased the batik material, with loud exclamations at how overpriced it was and how someone "up there" was a making a tidy profit from all this.
In the midst of all this, the committee in charge of these "staff-uniform" decisions would often go to great lengths to explain how difficult it was for them to find such high quality yet very reasonably priced material which would flatter all complexions.
We would be additionally informed of how lucky we were now that we had a standard teacher's uniform. Come special school occasions like speech day or PTA meetings, it would be so easy for us. No more racking our brains thinking about what to wear.
All we had to do was to make sure our uniform was pressed and ready. With so many advantages, it made those who had rallied against the idea seem ungrateful and unjustifiably rebellious.
And so school teachers, some quite happily, purchased the material even if it was twice as much as what they would ordinarily pay, discussed the best tailoring places and got it ready by the time the next school occasion came up.
The problem was that it doesn't quite end there with everybody being happy or coming to terms with the wearing of the teacher's uniform.
Perhaps it is due to the inner conflict in the human spirit between the need to conform and yet to be different. Perhaps they just got bored with the colour or style and wanted a change.
Whatever the reason, several groups among the teaching staff went ahead and made special "supplementary uniforms".
Those in administrative positions like heads of departments had outfits made from a different batik design and someone commented about how they had to look different to show they were more important than the rest of us.
Then teachers who belonged to certain subject panels decided that they too needed to wear something that gave them a special identity and chose yet another fabric pattern.
Not to be outdone, teachers in other special committees chose their own designs. Soon everyone was on the band wagon and with such a variety of "uniforms" going around, the whole purpose of having one standard staff uniform seemed to have been defeated.
By this time also the staff club committee decided that they were getting bored of the old blue batik and it was time to for an upgrade.
And so the whole cycle repeated, with the same arguments, justifications, resistance and cajoling.
Actually when you think about it, the uniforms do add colour in the staffroom too, but not in the way they were intended to.
Although there is a dress code which requires teachers to be neatly and appropriately dressed at all times, there is no actual directive for teachers in any particular school to wear clothes that appear uniform for any school occasion, special or not.
The pressure to wear clothes that are uniform comes from internal policies and while failing to comply is not breaking any rule, it could make you seem a bit of a rebel unless your personal principles prevents you from doing so.
It is common to walk into any national school in the country today and find most women teachers clad in baju kurung which is not only appropriate, but comfortable, and as Dilla says "very good on days there is a staff pot-luck because you can eat a lot and it won't show". The salwar kameez is also popular especially among teachers of Indian descent.
Lately, teachers have been allowed to wear pant suits during work and for some that would be a great relief.
For those who aren't sure about the boundaries of appropriateness there is always the self-appointed "committee for modest dressing" in most schools who will quickly let you know if your skirt is too short or your dress too tight.
Some schools are however more flexible about this whole uniform thing and allow their teachers to wear anything they choose on special school occasions but to try and adhere to a colour theme. So on special days when the official theme is red, you may get outfits ranging from light pink to electric red or even fuchsia.
Dilla remembers one teacher in a former school who wore the same blue dress to every official function even when the theme was green or red insisting that blue was just a lighter shade of green and an extremely dark shade of red.
How she got by on "yellow" days we are still not sure. Then of course there are men who never adhere to any colour theme and when questioned will tell you that they are wearing the correct colours but in places they couldn't reveal in polite company!
When you look at it, the perceived need for uniforms or some form of similarity in dressing could be related to the need for bonding or a sense of group identity that sets you apart from another group.
There are definite advantages to having a teacher's 'uniform' on certain occasions. For instance it could help to reduce differences between those who can afford expensive or designer outfits and those who don't.
It could also perhaps prevent teachers from being wrongly or inappropriately dressed for the occasion. On the other hand, too rigid an imposition on dressing detracts from individuality and freedom of expression even if it is within certain boundaries.
Besides, having everyone dressed similarly could make such school functions appear very dull.
In the end, however, when you think about the diversity of culture, tradition and costumes that is part of our nation's heritage, it may seem a little strange when one colour or style or fabric is chosen for everyone to conform to, even when conforming may not actually be needed.