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Robin Eileen Bernstein

Robin Eileen Bernstein
Melville, New York,
March 14
Full-time writer. Part-time drummer. All-the-time Mom. Which leaves me exactly 17 minutes a week for everything else, including occasional tweets at http://twitter.com/RobinBernstein


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APRIL 3, 2010 1:18AM

It’s Chic! It’s Retro! It’s the 1970s Gym Uniform!

Rate: 9 Flag

By Robin Eileen Bernstein


I took my 15-year-old daughter shopping for spring clothes the other day at an upscale boutique in suburban New Jersey, near my parents’ home.

“Ma, look!” she said. She held up this….this….THING. It was a mustard-colored, one-piece contraption with something that resembled bloomers at the bottom.

“Oh, my God,” I said. “That’s my high school gym uniform!” At the very least, it was some sort of revamped version, more suitable for a night of club dancing than a morning of push-ups. 

For women of a certain age, let’s say middle age, school gym uniforms were de rigueur, a fact of pubescent life as traumatizing as SATs, chin zits and first crushes. So when my fashion-forward daughter told me, with an obligatory roll of her eyes, that the item in question was called a “romper” and was “in style now,” I had to laugh. If there was ever a fashion trend that deserved to rot in obsolescence or, at the very least, had earned a display case at the Smithsonian, it was the girls’ gym uniform.

Cinched with elastic at the waist and adorned with a series of cold metal snaps running from neck to crotch, the uniform was designed to make everyone look, well, uniformly bad. It was essentially an infant’s onesie reconfigured for an adolescent female. No matter if you were a willowy five-eight and 120 pounds like my genetically fortunate daughter, or short and curvaceous, or a big-boned athlete, the gym uniform would cut you down to size. It was the great leveler, which maybe was its purpose. When I was 15, I was five-four, flat-chested and skinny to the point of embarrassment. “She looks like an upside-down mop,” my dad would say of my stick figure and frizzy hair. “She has a fast metabolism,” my mom would counter, ever the peacemaker. All I wanted was to look like Laura, the reigning high school beauty who reminded me of a raven-haired Marcia Brady. The last thing I needed was a pasty yellow onesie that made me look like an ironing board.

Unlike me, my daughter loves to shop, hence, her knowledge of things like rompers. I hear “romper” and all that comes to mind is Romper Room, a popular TV show from the 1960s that took place in a nursery school. Those innocent five-year-olds didn’t yet know about gym uniforms, or about sitting at the wrong table at lunchtime, or about having a crush on a cool guy named Tom whose straight brown hair swept fetchingly across his forehead like a rock star but who was so aloof he didn’t even know you existed even though you sat one row away from him in tenth-grade social studies class. Oh, and he was smart, too. Give those adorable Romper Room girls another decade and they, too, would suffer the indignities of the Toms of the world, and the misery of gym uniforms.

My daughter doesn’t know of gym uniforms. Perhaps they’ve been banned, along with dunce caps and corporal punishment. She gets to wear the t-shirt and shorts of her choosing to gym. She tried on the romper. It was softer and more feminine than my old gym uniform, without the hard snaps and military angles. It was trendy and chic. Yet at its core, there was no hiding where it took its inspiration. It looked awful on her, despite her model-like frame, and she knew it. Thirty-five years ago, it would have looked awful on gorgeous Laura, too. I smiled. Call it a gym uniform or a romper or what you will, apparently every generation has its own great leveler.

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So true, so true! And my school colors were yellow and blue. Yuck! Terrific essay. :)
Right on target, Robin! Great essay...my "romper" was royal blue and scratchy!
LOVE it. Very funny. I had one that was dark maroon and white striped. Hideous!!!!
Those gym uniforms. No. It can't be. Shouldn't be. Oh, God! NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!
Thanks for sharing your gym uniform memories. And to Poppi & Stellaa, whose comments were deleted through no fault of their own, I'd be honored if you'd comment again.
Do you think there's a connection between the end of gym uniforms and the increase in girls' sports? Also, I wonder, was there a year when schools just said no more gym suits?
OMG Robin! you're making me have nightmares of maroon and white bloomers!! HELP!
Sorry to bring up so many bad memories for all of you! At least we all suffered together! And Adina, good questions!
OMG, what a wonderful trip back in time, thanks Robin!
Maroon and white were my school's colors. Separate shorts and shirt, thank God! If it had been a romper, I do not think I would've survived school. The worst: Having to get changed in front of everyone. How do we impart better self images to our daughters? Or is it just a natural part of adolescence to hate your body?
Glad you enjoyed the trip back, Paula. Good questions, Jenna. Not sure of the answers, other than I think it's all part of growing up, and will make good stories when they're older.
I think I blocked out the experience, although now that you mention it, I do believe I am having flashbacks.
Nightmare fodder. Ours were a color of blue that doesn't exist in nature.
Flashbacks for Karen! Nightmares for Kathy! Sorry! ;-)
Skinny arms, skinny legs, a flat chest, and a mandatory baggy blue uniform with elastic everywhere - no wonder I hated gym and wouldn't exercise for 10 years after that! YIKES!!! How could they do that to us?? Thanks, Robin, from another "upside down mop"! Great essay.
I dunno. This one looks OK.


Hey that's what Google gave me when I typed in "romper"!
@Lorirobn - Thanks! Hurray for upside-down mops!
@GeeBee - THAT romper is another essay entirely! ;-)
I went to an all male school. Poor eyesight served me well in gymn - a leveler of its own, I guess. Had there been girls around, no matter their apparel I probably would have found something to wonder about. Your story though is tight and seamless. You put the fun into parenting.
@Damon E Walters- Thanks. Would that the gym uniforms were seamless & fun, too. Ah well...
Ours were green and white. Yikes.