Love them or loathe them, school uniforms are a boon to busy parents and as Georgina Blaskey discovered as she traced their history, even children don’t think they’re so bad.
Many of us parents can recall our school uniform, normally without a happy association. Mine was a brown, scratchy, A-line skirt, a brown, scratchy V-neck jumper, a practically see-through white
shirt, a gold, silver and brown striped tie, ribbed brown knee socks and a brown, very thick, very scratchy blazer. Brown. It was clearly a thing back in the 80s. But little did we realise, our uniform was our greatest asset.
Us girls were united in our hatred of brown, supporting one of the arguments for school uniforms – to unite. Others believe uniforms equalise pupils and put them in the correct mindset to be ready to learn, essentially putting on their work clothes to go to work (or as one aged aunt used to put it, “dress smart, think smart”).
There is no legal requirement to have uniforms, but a 2007 report by the Department for Education found that almost 98 per cent of schools chose to have one. Christ’s Hospital in West Sussex claims to have the oldest school uniform in the country. Founded in 1552 for “fatherless children and other poor children”, London citizens provided long blue frock coats for pupils and today the uniform remains virtually unchanged. Harrow is known for its straw boaters and Eton has distinctive tailcoats and so-called spongebag trousers, King’s School Canterbury has winged collars and Hill House has cravats and recognisable orange corduroy breeches.
You’d think the teachers would have a full-scale rebellion on their hands when subjecting children to such outdated items of clothing on a daily basis, but apparently not. According to the BBC, in 2011, Christ’s Hospital surveyed its pupils to find out if it should keep its 16th-century-style blue coats and yellow stockings, and an amazing 95% said yes!
But there’ll always be rebels and wannabe fashion designers. A school uniform provides a safe space for kids to test their boundaries – fictional girls’ school St.Trinian’s was a wonderful example of how you could show your personality within the confines of your uniform, how you could express your individuality while still belonging to the group, simply by rolling up your skirt or wearing your tie in a quirky way.
Following the prescriptive, strict nature of education in the 1950s, many schools relaxed their uniforms in the 80s and 90s, with polo shirts, sweatshirts and trousers as standard issue. But some have gone back to the more formal items, with huge pupil support. In some cases, the children have designed it themselves, voting on cut and fabric. Where relaxed clothing has lead to lapsed discipline, schools can use uniforms to change attitudes.
The Independent reported on the tragic case of headmaster Philip Lawrence, who was stabbed outside St George’s School in Maida Vale. The article explains that after his death the school was on the brink of closure when Lady Marie Stubbs, a Glaswegian-born educator, came out of retirement to turn it around: “She introduced hardline uniform policies, banned the chewing of gum and showed zero tolerance to anyone infringing the new rules. In little more than a year, the school was transformed.”
David Burgess, Managing Director of uniform supplier David Luke, went on to claim that, “Marie Stubbs has always maintained she used uniform to help turn that school round. She was convinced that it was a really important tool.”
According to Mintel, 80% of parents are in favour of school uniform – it stops the morning discussion of what to wear for starters. But at some London schools, like St Paul’s Girls’ School for example, girls can wear their own clothes all the way through from 11 to 18 and it’s very popular. Some schools introduce an own-clothes policy in the sixth form, seen by many as the opportunity to at last express yourself more freely, to feel like the senior member of the school community that you have now become, or just to be more comfortable throwing on what you like to wear each morning.
Despite this new-found freedom, back in my day, the sixth form ‘uniform’ was a white t-shirt, second hand men’s jeans from Ken Market and Penny Loafters. So perhaps we are all creatures of habit, regiment and conformity after all.
You could argue that style and fashion offer up a kind of uniform too – there’s certainly a ‘look’ that many adopt around Nappy Valley, or any other neighbourhood across the country for that matter. Many of us dress to be part of the tribe – wherever or whichever that tribe may be – so that we feel we belong and ft in, either consciously or sub-consciously.
Uniform: it’s just a distinctive way of dressing.