Making the Business of Life Easier

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Shopping for school an August ritual
Girls try on kilts at Branksome Hall
Wednesday, August 29, 2001

Megan Chippindale tried on a green jacket and sighed. She folded the blazer's fabric up a few inches and looked at her mother, Susan.

"Mommy, can I take this in?" said the 10-year-old, posing dubiously as if any extra length on her uniform would ruin her look.

Her mother laughed, took the jacket, and asked an older student working the counter in the basement of Branksome Hall's building number 14 to fetch a smaller size.

This is the fourth season Andrea Amell, 16, has greeted back-to-school crowds at the supply store in one of Toronto's most exclusive girls' schools, in the wealthy neighbourhood of Rosedale. She rifled through a rack laden with dozens of identical jackets.

"We've only got size 7," Ms. Amell said.

"Mom," Megan Chippindale said sternly, staring at the counter, "I am not wearing a 7."

But Megan agreed to wear the size 5 that was eventually unearthed, much to the relief of her mother. Mrs. Chippindale, 42, has three daughters enrolled at Branksome Hall, which charges tuition of about $15,000 a year.

"They all have their own sense of style," Mrs. Chippindale said. "It's a challenge to dress them. So these uniforms make life easier."

Children have repeated this ritual of choosing new uniforms at Branksome Hall for nearly a century.

The knee socks, bloomers, blouses and ties haven't changed much since the venerable institution abandoned its long navy dresses in the late 1930s and adopted shorter kilts.

The keeper of the uniform shop, Andrea's mother Sandra Amell, remembers kneeling for prayers when she was a Branksome student, waiting beforehand for an administrator to measure hemlines.

"The old rule was three inches above the floor," Ms. Amell said. "So you'd learn to lean forward if you had a really short skirt."

Nearly all the 870 students enrolled this September will swarm through the shop during the hectic five days the shop is open before school starts. They spent about $25,000 on the first day alone.

They don't have to follow the three-inch rule anymore, Ms. Amell said, though they're cautioned to keep skirts a "reasonable" length.

But every 10-year-old knows the adjustments necessary to make a uniform look just right can't be achieved by the professional seamstress who sits at the back of the shop.

Megan shuns the plaid hairbands, an optional part of the uniform. She likes to unbutton the cuffs of her white blouses and flare out the sleeves.

"My older sister likes to roll her skirt a lot [to shorten it.] But I don't," Megan said.

The girls make selections from a list of required items, from pewter tie pins to rugby mouthguards. The characteristic ring of a cash register is absent, as the purchases are flashed with a bar code reader and automatically deducted from their parents' accounts.

These privileged students have only a few complaints about returning to school.

"The sweaters are a bit itchy," said Frances Stephenson, 17.

"I want to see my friends and stuff," Megan said. "But I don't want to do work."

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