Reading, Writing and Uniforms
New Orleanians reminisce about the school uniforms of yesteryear.
Many New Orleanians went through their school days dressed exactly like all their classmates. School uniforms have always prompted a mixed reaction.
“A horrible beige blouse, with a skirt and a jacket – all shades of brown. And brown shoes!” M.I. Scoggin wasn’t fond of her uniform at the Academy of the Sacred Heart, but, like many school-aged New Orleanians, she wore it every weekday.
“We were spiffy at the beginning of the year, but by the end the elbows were worn out on the jackets.”
Scoggin, like her friends, was prepared for after-school changes. “In your locker you had other shoes, and lipstick – which of course you weren’t allowed to wear in school. Some girls would even put their hair up in curlers before we went down to Katz & Besthoff where the boys were!”
Uniforms are still required, but styles can change. More recent Sacred Heart student Phoebe Derbes admits that she didn’t mind wearing a white top and plaid skirt uniform. “Oxford shirts were always tucked in, but you could wear the polo shirt untucked.” An added bonus: “You could wear pants instead of skirts if it was a ‘free dress’ day.”
Doris Ann Gorman recalled her days at Mount Carmel Academy. “At that time we wore brown crepe pleated skirts – the kind that were sewed down to the beginning of your hip.” There was a problem. “Every time it rained the skirt would shrink. It was especially bad because I used to catch the bus on the corner of City Park Avenue and Canal Boulevard, and the St. Aloysius and Jesuit boys would be at that bus stop.”
Eventually a solution was found. “My mother made a brown cotton slip to wear under my skirt, and the other girls’ mothers did the same,” Gorman says. The complete ensemble had the brown skirt, a white cotton blouse with a Peter Pan collar and “a little Mount Carmel emblem we could pin on our pockets.” For the rest of the outfit “we wore a beanie, and Eisenhower jackets.”
And then, there were the shoes. “There was a man who came to your house and fitted you for those awful oxford shoes. They cost so much that my dad was the one who polished them!” Gorman says.
For the fortunate girls whose schools had no uniforms, shopping for school was still a necessity. Scoggin, as a teenager, served during the summer on the D. H. Holmes “College Board,” modeling suitable styles for high school and beginning college students. “We would stand on the second floor and point things out. All the merchandise was geared to young ladies – you wouldn’t say ‘girls.’”
Helen Wisdom, who attended Louise S. McGehee School before uniforms were required, would’ve been an ideal customer. “I got a clothes allowance of $35 a month,” she explains. “Prior to that my mother bought my clothes and I had no say in it at all. With the allowance, I couldn’t buy a whole lot, but I could buy what I liked.”
One bygone destination for school shopping was The Broadmoor Kiddie Shop, owned by sisters Anna and Julie Rault from the 1920s to ’85. The Raults stocked school uniforms and dressed generations of New Orleanians for their first communion. Another past uniform shopping spot was the Jo-Ann Shop at 1526 Dryades St., which was also briefly located on Severn Avenue in Metairie before owner Irving Gerson closed it.
Gerson’s niece, Lynnda Gerson explains that her uncle wanted the shop for boys and girls to have both reflected in the name: “’Jo’ for the boys and ‘Ann’ for the girls.” The Jo-Ann Shop stocked school uniforms “navy skirts and white blouses for the girls, khaki pants for the boys,” but also specialized in clothing for larger-sized kids: “chubette for the girls and husky for the boys,” Gerson says.
Peter Derbes as a Jesuit High School student first went to Southern Tailoring Company on Tchoupitoulas Street for his khaki school uniform. “Our second year, we could join the Junior Reserve Officers Training Corps, and we had government-issued uniforms.”
Jesuit’s JROTC dress uniforms occasionally did double-duty. Marc Belloni, who was active in theater during his years as a Jesuit student and later taught in the school’s theater department, recalls that the annually recycled dress uniforms “were used for the soldiers when we did Evita.”
New Orleans Academy students’ army-style uniforms were part of their education. A military school, NOA (as it was known), lasted from 1913 to ’86, moving from Uptown on Carondelet Street to the former location of the Lakewood Country Club.
Pierre de La Barre was in the lower grades when he started at NOA. “We went to Terry & Juden (a men’s clothing store on Carondelet Street downtown) to get my uniforms. They were all khaki, a shirt and pants, and we wore a little folding khaki fatigue cap and a black tie.” Everyone at NOA took military attire seriously. The principal of the school at that time was Clovis E. LaPrairie. “Every Armistice Day he would come to school in his World War I uniform,” de La Barre remembers.
Ellis Schexnayder attended De La Salle High School, where uniforms weren’t required. However, Schexnayder finally got serious uniform experience at Loyola University when he joined the Pershing Rifles of the ROTC.
“I was proud of being in that group. I remember the uniform, and shining my shoes,” Schexnayder says. “There was a certain pleasure in that, you know?”
The Shoe Must Go On
Every New Orleanian wearing a school uniform needs proper shoes. On Sept. 16, 1927, The Times-Picayune ran an ad with the headline “Give them the Advantage of Going Back to School in Haase’s Shoes.” Haase’s, first opened in ’21, is still operating at 8119 Oak St., and is still owned by descendants of the founder, the latest of whom is Judy Caliva.
Special shoes are required at Catholic schools, and at some private and public schools as well. “Saddle oxfords for girls, leather shoes for boys, are pretty indestructible,” Caliva says. “High school kids will often try to make one pair last four years!”