Investigating the Interchangeable House Shirt Phenomenon

By Ng Ziqin (20S03H)

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that if the house shirt one wore could be depended upon to accurately indicate the house one belonged to, RI would be way more than just 20% Hadley-Hullett.

You know what I’m talking about.

I’m talking about showing up for House Assembly, where everyone is supposed to be in the same house as you, only to find a sprinkling of purple and blue and yellow and green among the red. I’m talking about bumping into a former OG mate in the toilet and noticing that she’s wearing the ubiquitous black-and-purple shirt when you know for a fact that she’s not in HH. I’m talking about the classmate who you always thought was in BW but, when house care packages are being distributed, discover was actually from MR all along. 

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And the care packages are labelled!

I call this the Interchangeable House Shirt Phenomenon. 

While the house shirt might have started out as a functional marker of house identity and a way for students to showcase house spirit, the practice of students wearing other houses’ shirts interchangeably has brought this function of the house shirt into question. Instead, house shirts have become more of a fashion statement than anything else; it appears that to many RI students, the colours on the sleeves of the shirt matter more than the words on its back. 

According to a Raffles Press survey of 100 Y5-6 students, 76% of students own the RI (Y5-6) house shirt in more than one house colour, signalling that the practice of wearing a house shirt in a colour other than one’s own house colour is indeed incredibly prevalent.

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If you’re sitting with three other classmates at lunch and you all claim to only wear your own house colours, three of you are probably lying.

Additionally, the practice is also viewed as socially acceptable, even by those who do not practise it themselves. While only 76% of students owned house shirts in more than one house colour, 97% were ‘generally okay’ with the practice.

Screenshot 2019-11-02 at 10.48.33 PM
Try saying that sentence ten times quickly.

But how exactly did this peculiar practice originate?

HOW DID IT START?

The current house system and house shirt design started in 2005, replacing the previous faculty system whereby students were sorted by their subject combinations into one of five faculties: Arts (red), Commerce (black), Computing and Pure Science (green), Medicine (yellow), and Engineering (blue).  

However, because the wearing of other houses’ house shirts is an ‘underground’ practice, there are no official records of who started it. Additionally, given the high turnover rate of students in RI Y5-6 since each batch spends only about two years here, it was difficult to trace back the phenomenon through many batches of students who had already graduated. An RI alum who graduated in 2014, Clement Lim, claimed that the practice was already prevalent back when he was a student in RI. 

Heard on the grapevine, the most popular informal theory on the beginnings of the Interchangeable House Shirt Phenomenon is that the practice of wearing other houses’ shirts originated from RI (Y1-4). 

According to this theory, Y1-4 boys were already openly wearing other houses’ shirts in secondary school, and then continued the practice out of habit when they moved on to the JC section. Taking cues from the natives on what was acceptable, the JAE and RGS segments of the JC population soon followed suit, causing the practice to become widespread in RI (Y5-6).

But is it true that the practice was started in Y1-4, then spread over to Y5-6? Informal interviews with my classmates who were from RI (Y1-4) soon exposed the gaps within this popular theory, revealing that reports of the hordes of Y1-4 students engaging in this practice might have been greatly exaggerated.

For one, the Y1-4 students who wear other houses’ shirts tend to be concentrated in Y3-4, instead of being spread out evenly across all four years. 

“Actually, it’s not very common,” said Jeremy Lee (20S03H). “It only picks up in Y5-6, and those who wear other house shirts are usually Y3-4. Basically, it’s the older people who tend to rebel against the norms.”

And secondly, the number of students who actually engaged in this practice was actually quite small.“If I remember correctly, not many? Maybe like 10-20% of the cohort, definitely not as many as now,” said Bharath Anantham (20S03H).

“Actually right, I never wore another house’s shirt in Y1-4,” said Xavier Lien (20S03H), who does so now. “I think fewer people did. My theory is because in Y1-2, each class all had one house only, so if you wore another house shirt for PE, you were kind of like the odd one out and you got judged for it.”

This was supported by Jeremy: “I think most people realise it is possible … but they don’t want to stand out, so they wait until Y5-6 when it really picks up. Or rather, they don’t see the merit as it is not a societal norm. One could even say that it is frowned upon [by peers]. That then begs the question of why it is not frowned upon [by Y5-6 students] in JC.”

Bharath then proposed a twist on the popular theory: maybe instead of originating in Y1-4 and spreading to Y5-6, the Y3-4s who wore other house shirts were aping the actions of their seniors from Y5-6. 

There seems to be much to recommend this theory. As those with siblings would know, it is common for younger siblings to take cues from their older siblings in terms of fashion, hobbies, and other socially acceptable behaviour. It does not seem like such a stretch, then, that the relationship between the widespreadness of the practice in Y3-4 and Y5-6 could actually be the reverse of what has captured the popular imagination . 

Then again, this leaves the question of where the practice originated from in Y5-6 unanswered, leading us back to square one.

WHAT ABOUT THE RGS AND JAE PERSPECTIVES? 

Unlike in RI (Y1-4), the practice of wearing another house’s shirt was virtually unheard of in RGS, where the distribution of house shirts was controlled centrally by the House Committee, and house shirts could only be ordered through the individual houses’ House Committee members at specific windows each year. As a result, most RGS girls only owned one house shirt in all four years of their secondary school education. 

This background knowledge about house culture in RGS makes the phenomenon of RGS girls transitioning to participate in the Interchangeable House Shirt Phenomenon in JC all the more surprising. It seems unlikely that they would have started doing it without some sort of external catalyst.

However, the RGS girls I spoke to were quick to denounce the claim that they had taken cues from the RI (Y1-4) boys in wearing the other houses’ shirts. Instead, many claimed that they had started after observing their seniors do it when they came to Y5-6.

“I started this year the moment I could get my hands on house shirts, because it seemed cool that our seniors could wear any colour,” said Irene Guo (20S07A). “I did it because I thought it was okay since seniors did it, rather than the boys.”

“You can see [the seniors] wearing different house shirts from their Instagram posts,” said Valerie Tan (20A01E). “It was just known that you could do it.”

Given that house spirit is known to be strong in RGS, did the girls feel that they were being disloyal to their RGS house by wearing another house’s shirt in Y5-6? 

“Lowkey… I mainly only wear BW shirts, because house pride!” said Cheri Teo (20S06P), who was a Waddle cheerleader in RGS in Year 2. She now owns an MR shirt because her CCA mates all agreed to wear the MR shirt for training. “Lowkey feel like a betrayer when I wear my MR, but the feeling is not that intense.”

Jyotsna Ramakrishna (20S03N), a former House Committee member in RGS, feels it is generally alright to wear another house’s shirt. “It doesn’t matter what you wear but then again, there are some people who go around ‘berating’ the colour of their house tee. I find that part a little saddening but, otherwise, I think it’s fine to wear other house tees.”

Her sentiments were echoed by Sophia He (20S03H), another former House Committee member: “I don’t know about everyone else, but I’ve never really believed that articles of clothing carried that much significance. And even if they signified your supposed loyalty to a house, it doesn’t really mean that much, you feel?”

Representing the JAE perspective, Javier Ong (20S06L) said, “I think it was just from noticing people not wearing [their own house shirt]. The realisation came pretty early after the introduction of houses and all that, so I think it’s almost common knowledge for new students. Honestly, I think, like, the whole issue of people not wearing their own house shirt can also be due to that already being the norm in the JAEs’ secondary schools.” 

For instance, in his secondary school, house shirts were not regularly worn except at special events, but students would sometimes wear another house’s shirt when returning to school over the holidays.

WHY DO WE DO IT?

The most interesting theory I heard came from Matthew Tan (20S06D). According to him, the free house shirt offered as part of the orientation pack actually acts as a perverse incentive, deterring people from buying their own house shirt from Popular when they need an extra one.

“My theory is that a lot of people buy a different house shirt in JC because they think, ‘Ah, if the school is already giving me a free one that corresponds to my house, no point buying the same shirt again, it’s a bit wasted. So I’ll buy a different house shirt.’ Whereas this was not a scenario in Y1-4 because they never gave a free house shirt, and you needed to show up in your own house [shirt] for events like cross country, so people just buy one house shirt that is their true house and they don’t buy anymore.” 

This matched up with survey responses from the Raffles Press survey and interviews, where several students cited not wanting to own more than one house shirt in the same colour as a reason for buying other house shirts, while those who owned more than one shirt in the same colour often had not realised that a free shirt in their own house colour would be given to them as part of the orientation pack.

Of course, he clarified, this might also be because JC students have to wear house shirts on a more frequent basis, so they “diversify and cross-wear other houses’ shirts” more than in Y1-4.

Matthew’s theory seemed to be supported by what I heard from the other students I spoke to. From their responses, the word I heard most frequently was “normalised”. 

But why has the Interchangeable House Shirt Phenomenon been ‘normalised’? 

The teachers whom I reached out to were quick to attribute the phenomenon to two factors: (a) a lack of enforcement as teachers generally do not keep track of which house each student is in, and (b) teenagers’ innate desire to push boundaries. 

The first factor certainly seems plausible. Unlike in lower secondary in RI/RGS, when the whole class is allocated the same house and it is easy to spot the errant red shirt amidst a sea of green, Y5-6 students are not allocated houses based on class. And unlike hair colour, skirt length, or the number of piercings on one’s nose, whether or not a student is wearing his own house shirt or the house shirt of a random colour he bought at Popular is not immediately discernible. You see a student in an MT house shirt, and the simplest explanation to believe is that he is from MT. To believe anything else would put one at risk of developing the brand of global scepticism commonly known to afflict KI students. 

And even if there existed a database detailing the house of every student, having to stop every student wearing a HH shirt to confirm that they were indeed from HH and not a purple/black-loving imposter would prove a logistical nightmare. In this dystopian scenario, instead of distributing care packages and rating bread, accosting students on their way to the lecture theatre would now make up the bulk of House Directorate members’ duties. 

So the teachers’ point on the difficulty of enforcement is a valid one. But what about the second factor? Are students really wearing other house shirts in a classic display of good ol’-fashioned teenage rebellion?

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“House is merely a construct! Defy the senseless categories that society tries to fit us into!”

While this would certainly make for a sensational headline, thoughts of civil disobedience did not seem to factor greatly on the minds of most of the students who engaged in the practice of wearing other house shirts. 

Instead, the top reasons given by students in the survey were rather uninspired: that they liked the colour of the other houses’ shirts; that they liked the variety that having shirts in other colours gave them; or that they needed multiple house shirts to wear for PE and CCA and it did not make sense to buy identical shirts for this purpose. In other words, all very (for lack of a better word) ‘material’ reasons.

“I just think it’s cool to have a variety of colours that you can switch in and out of,” said Travis Tan (20S06Q), who owns the MR, BB, and HH house shirts. “It makes the house shirts more interesting when you have different choices to switch up colours depending on your mood for the day.”

“Because of PE, people may need more than one house shirt and I feel that we shouldn’t require them to buy more than one of their own house’s shirts,” said Amadeus Lee (20S03M), the Moor-Tarbet captain. “But of course, I take pride in people who wear the [MT] house shirt, regardless of whether they had PE the previous day or not.”

From the other camp, the survey respondents who owned only house shirts in their own house colour also seemed to be deeply motivated by pragmatism. While house loyalty and house pride were certainly reasons offered by some students for wearing only their own house’s shirt, other reasons given were that they already had too many Raffles shirts and saw no reason to get more, that they did not want to ‘waste’ money on buying house shirts in other colours, and—my personal favourite—‘too lazy to get more’. 

“Why don’t I wear other houses’ shirts?” said Joel Leong (20S03O), who owns only two house shirts, both of his native Morrison-Richardson. “First of all, I really like the colour blue and I’m generally quite happy to be in this house because of the colour. To be fair, I’m a very pragmatic person and I don’t see the point of buying other house shirts since I already own so many Raffles shirts, and I don’t think I’ll wear them in public again after graduation. I think the HH house shirt is nice too but for the above-mentioned reasons, I decided not to get it.”

Said Zitin Bali (20S06D) from MR, who was one of a minority of students who did not feel that it was generally acceptable for students to wear the shirts of other house colours: “As in, I just think that it’s… your house shirt is representative of both [your Y1-2] class and house spirit. When you prefer other colours and wear that instead, you somewhat lose part of that house pride and house spirit.”

SYMPTOMATIC OF A LARGER ISSUE?

So it seems like there is no deeper reason behind the practice. But although many students claim to be doing it out of pragmatism, could their apparent apathy—as seen from the fact that 97% found it acceptable to wear a house shirt in a colour other than one’s own house colour—signal a larger problem? Namely, the lack of house spirit here in RI (Y5-6)?

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House banners in the canteen.

It’s no secret that house spirit is viewed by the student population to be of minimal relevance once the hype of orientation has passed. While students spend a lot of time with their Orientation Group (which is determined by their house) in the first few weeks of school, the relevance of House to students’ lives tends to decline as OGs are quickly replaced by other important social groups like class and CCA. 

The Raffles Archives and Museum (RAM) teacher-in-charge, Mrs Cheryl Yap, shared her thoughts on why house spirit might not be as strong in RI (Y5-6). As teacher-in-charge of RAM, Mrs Yap preserves and documents Rafflesian culture, of which house culture is one aspect. 

In her opinion, the distinct advantage of House over other social groupings like class comes from the fact that House “cuts across” different levels, allowing students of different education levels to come together and unite under the same group. However, in JC there are only two levels, meaning that this function of House might no longer be as important as it was formerly in Y1-4.

Another possibility is that there may not currently be enough emphasis on the names of each house, with efforts to instill house pride focusing instead on the more superficial, more interchangeable aspects of house culture such as house colours, rather than on the legacy and contributions of the men and women that the houses are named after. The lack of emphasis on house names can be seen from how in Y5-6, the house names have been truncated to catchier acronyms, although admittedly, ‘Morrison-Richardson’ is really too much of a mouthful to expect anyone to say on a daily basis, especially in a spirited round of house cheers.

While students coming from RGS and RI (Y1-4) might have been taught about their house founders when they first joined the school, JAE students may feel confused about where the names came from as this is not covered in the orientation programme. This could lead to them identifying more strongly with whatever colour house they came from in secondary school, whatever their favourite colour is, or just not seeing a point to house shirts beyond the fact that they are of different colours. Which raises an uncomfortable question: If you reduce your entire house system to colours, does it really come as a surprise when your students decide which shirts to wear based on what colours they prefer?

Finally, Mrs Yap admits that the decline of house spirit could just be a sign of the changing times. 

“Does it indicate that students today are no more wanting to be put into compartments, wanting to give voice to something that they don’t believe in? You know, maybe they don’t believe in house spirit so they just want to make a point.” With the greater emphasis on individuality and self-expression in recent years, it may just be that students don’t really see the point in basing their identity on belonging to a group—especially one as arbitrary as a house—anymore. 

Responses from some interviewees seemed to support Mrs Yap’s theories.

“I didn’t associate Hadley with the idea of Hadley-Hullett very much,” said Wynsey Chen (20A01A), who was from RGS. “Though I would feel the desire to fight for my house in games and stuff, I felt that wearing the colours of other houses was in a sense rejecting the competitiveness that was apparently necessary because in Orientation, I got the vibe that houses were really just colours, and it was the people you met through house that mattered more than anything.”

Even more pointedly, Javier Ong declared, “Honestly, I don’t really care about the house system at all.” 

BUT IS IT ACTUALLY AGAINST THE RULES?

Unlike the tapering of pants or wearing of multiple piercings, the wearing of other house shirts is not expressly forbidden in the Student Handbook. And while Student Council is aware of the phenomenon, it has no plans to crack down on students who wear other houses’ shirts anytime soon.

Said Ms Janissa Soh, Assistant Department Head of Student Leadership (Y5-6) and overall teacher-in-charge of Council: “Yeah, we definitely know, students have preferences for certain [house shirts]. Of course, the most obvious instance is during house assemblies. Right? When we have house assemblies and it’s a Wednesday, and then we enter into an LT, and this is supposed to be a particular house, but then we see, here and there, some other colours. So yeah, we are definitely aware and during house assemblies, we do ask them. We hope that individually, students will feel for their house and recognise why there is a different house colour, rather than us ‘clamping down’. Because our school is not like that. We don’t do these kinds of top-down things.”

“I think there is no need to [clamp down on the practice] at this point, unless one day, you find that there would be a house that is not represented.” 

How likely is it, then, that there would come a day in the distant future when BB and BW shirts disappear completely from public view, and the HH shirt comes to ‘reign supreme in ev’ry sphere’? 

Some students might remember that for a period of two months between April and June this year, Popular ran out of stock for all house shirts… except the green ones.

“The most sellable colour is purple and black. We [are] always out of stock within days,” said Auntie Mary, the Popular bookshop auntie, when I interviewed her back in June. This, together with the suspicious surplus of BB shirts during the “shirt drought” seems to suggest that not all house shirts are created equal. 

How do HHians feel about the fact that their house shirt is (unofficially) the most popular one?

“Honestly, I think it’s not a bad thing,” said Eugene Chua (19A01B), a HHian. “To me, it’s just like any other shirt. I see no difference between the official PE shirt and any other house shirt. And also, in my opinion, it’s the best-looking shirt by far and the more people who wear it the better. It doesn’t hurt my eyes like the neon yellow BW shirt which makes people look like walking highlighters, so there’s that.”

“As HH captain, it’s definitely really cool to see so many people wearing our house shirt,” said Dillon Teo (20S03G), the Hadley-Hullett captain. “I guess having the best colours is really one of the things that makes HH, HH. And for those non-HHians who love to wear our shirt, we’re open to transfers ;)”

Yet, for the whole school to be united under the hegemony of the HH shirt seems highly implausible. For as long as shirts of different colours exist, it seems like there will exist people who prefer green, yellow, blue, or red to purple.

“I just like the colour,” said Ishal Zikang (20S06U), a non-BBian who admitted to owning—and loving— the BB shirt. “I don’t understand why people like the HH shirt. It’s so dull.”

It has also been pointed out that some colours may simply have an edge when it comes to versatility of use. For instance, the red MT shirt can double as festive attire for Chinese New Year and National Day.

“It was during CNY when I just decided to buy the red house shirt,” said Glenda Chiang (20S03J). “Because festive spirit, and it can be used for many events also!”

CLOSING REMARKS—GOOD OR BAD?

Whether the Interchangeable House Shirt Phenomenon is something which has shaped school culture for better or for worse really depends on your perspective. 

To some, the Interchangeable House Shirt Phenomenon might be problematic as it represents an erosion of RI’s long and rich house tradition. 

However, even if the Interchangeable House Shirt Phenomenon were viewed to be an undesirable school tradition by school authorities, clamping down on the practice with harsher school rules might not be the most effective way of solving the problem. New rules banning the practice of wearing other house shirts might not only be difficult to enforce (as teachers themselves pointed out), but could also risk escalating the situation unnecessarily, since it seems that students are only practising it out of apathy or for aesthetic reasons, and not as a deliberate form of rebellion or to subvert the school rules. There could even be a risk of students feeling like the school is being too heavy-handed, and then growing even more disillusioned at the strict policing of school culture in RI as a result.

Instead, the school could focus its efforts on changing students’ perception about the acceptability of this practice, possibly by strengthening house spirit and students’ sense of connection to their house. This could be achieved by having House Directorate members place greater emphasis on house names and the house founders during House Hour as part of orientation. Transferring emphasis away from the house colours would give students more—and better—reasons to identify strongly with their house apart from the colour of the shirt, enabling them to view the house shirt as being more than just another shirt with coloured sleeves.

Yet, a case can also be made for the fact that the house system is something relatively new to RJC’s history, anyway. The arguments advanced by traditionalists for preserving RI house heritage seem to apply more to RI (Y1-4) than to RI (Y5-6), where the house system was only started in 2005.   

If one takes this view, the Interchangeable House Shirt Phenomenon becomes instead something which should be lauded as an example of an organically-driven school tradition, not unlike the rolling up of sleeves in RGS. 

We may never be able to find a definite answer as to the origins of this practice. Perhaps it is the case that the whos, whens, and whys of the Interchangeable House Shirt Phenomenon do not matter so much as the singular fact that this unorthodox practice has survived so many batches of students. 

HOUSE SHIRTS

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