English School Uniform: Garments


Figure 1.--Children at this English primary school in the early 20th century wear a wide variety of different styles.

No country has inluenced the school uniforms worn by children around the world more than England. The tradition of school uniforms in England is a little complicated. School uniforms in England are oftn assocaiated with privlidged children at the country's elite private schools. Uniforms at school, however, were first worn by poor children at charity schools. Only later were they adopted by priavate schools, in typical British fashion, referred to as public schools. Children at the country's developing state school system during the late 19th and 20th century did not wear uniforms. Britain was late to provide a free public education to children. Some European countries, especially the Germans had a much more extensive public school system. Britain had a great variety of state and charity schools for those who could not afford a private education. Uniforms were first intriduced for children at charity schools to identifybthem and for purposes economy. Uniforms for the affluent children at private schools were introduced much later. Children at statte elementary schools until the 1960s did not commonly wear uniforms. Both privatevand state secondary schools did require uniforms. Uniforms served to build the esprit de corps of the school. Uniforms also prevented rich parents making poorer parents feel humble. Despite thism Left-wing politicians (Labour) in the 1960s and 1970s objected to uniforms which led to the individualistic fashion shows of today which make poorer parents subject to the new uniform dictates of "Nike", "Puma", "Adidas" and rendered blazers very expensive as suppliers shrank. The tradition of school uniforms developed at Britain's elite private schools, in typical British fashion referred to as public schools. Children at the country's developing state school system generally did not wear uniforms during the late 19th and 20th century. Britain was late to provide a free public education to children. Some European countries, especially the Germans had a much more extensive public school system. Britain had a great variety of state and charity schools for those who could not afford a private education. Children at these schools wore a variety of clothes. Some of the common elements of traditional British school uniforms include:


Figure 2.--This boy in the 1960s wears his school blazer with cord shorts which were worn at many prep schools.

Headwear

England is noted for two types of school headwear. The first is the paeked school cap. Virtually all British schoolboys wore peaked caps through the 1950s. Both state and private schools required them. They at first in the late 19th century appear to have been used as a kind of sports or games cap. Eventually theu became a standard uniform item and were ecen worn at state schools without uniforms. A great variety of colors, including circles and school creasts decorated these caps which flooded British streets with boys going and coming to school. The second type of headwear is the boater. This hat was muxh less common than the traditional school cap, but it was worn at several public scgools and still is at a few like Harrow.

Blazer

A great variety of colors and striped blazers were worn by British boys from the 1920s through the 1970s. Blazers were normally used at private schools, but some state schools had them--especially secondary schools. The cost of the blazers and a trend of simplyfying the uniform caused many schools using blazers, primarily preparatory schools, to retire the more expensive stripped blazers. Most secondary schools continue to require blazers, but it is usually a basic black one.

Suits

Blazers are commonly associated with British school wear. Many boys, however, wore suits and suit jckes rather than blazers. This seems especially common in state schools before and just after World war II. At this time, primary schools did not commonly require uniforms. Private schools commonly insisted on blazers, bit quite a number had suits rather than blazers. Some had both uits and blazers. Blazers were worn for every day and suits for special occassions. The suits worn were commonly grey suits, but not all of them were grey. Dressed in suits you might think that boys would be relativly constrained. Avaiable images suggest that many boys behaved no differently than if they were dressed in overalls. For most boys, taking care of their clothes is rather low in their order of priorities.

Tie

British schoolboys wore ties to school. Both state and private schools required them. The ties were usually stripped in the school colors. Often prefects or boys who "won their colors" received the honor of wearing distinctive colors. Many elementary schools in the 1980s began allowing boys to wear more casual clothes, including shirts without ties. Almost all secondary schools, however, still require ties. Sport and the military influences came together in the distinctive school tie, since regimental ties (though not actually part of uniform) and club ties developed together in the 1880s


Figure 3.--This English schoolboy waiting at the train station appears to have a tiring day. Commuter train lines throught England are crowed with uniformed schoolboys in the mornings and afternoons. School busses are less common than in America.

Jumpers and Sweaters

England can be a chilly place, especially on a drizzy day, and there are normally a lot of them. Schools did not used to be as well heated as they are today. The most common jumper became the "V" neck to show the tie, but there were many other styles. Almost all were pullovers, but girls at some schools wore cardigans. Many schools once required boys to wear their blazers while at school, but this rule is now rarely observed. Private schools still generally have blazers, but boys woften geberally wear just their jumpers during the school day. Boys at many comprehensives in the 1990s began wearing mostly jumpers without blazers.

Cord Jackets

Some schools also adopted cord jackets. The jackets were made in the same cord material as the shorts. The jackets were often in blouson style, rather like an Eisenhowser jacket. We havev noted these jackets referred to as lumber jackets. They are short jackets cut to fall just slightly below the waist. They were quite different to a full length conventionally styled jacket. Usually the boys would wear these during normal school days and wear blazers for formal occasions. The jackets buttoned rather than zupped. Many schools who had cord shorts did not have cord jackets. The schools that had jackets also had them in matching colors. Most of the jackets were grey or bluish grey, much less common was dark blue. The jackets we have seen all seem to have very similar design. There are two large front flap pockets with buttons. The sleeves have wrist cuffs.

Shirts

The standard school boy shirt after Eton collars disappeared during the 1930s were grey straight collared shirts. Gray shirts were considered paractical for schoolwear because they did not show the dirt as much as a white shir. For dress (formal) occasions a white shirt was usually substituted. Some elementary schools in recent years have intoduced more casual white or blue polo-style shirts. Artex shiers were a popular choice. Most shirts buttoned all down the front. A Rugby style which buttoned only part of the way was popular in the 1950s, but were not common after the 1960s. Rugby shirts contine to be worn in Australia and New Zealand during the 1990s. School uniform shirts after the demise of Eton collars were always standard pointed collars. Although the size of the collars have varied slightly with the times, we have never noted styles like button-downs or tabs.

Trousers

Trouser styles have cahnged significantly ober time. Many boys wore knickers in the late 19th century. Short trousers began to appear after the turn of the 20th century. Senior boys wore long grey or black trousers. Most elementary boys and some secondary schoolboys (at least in the first two years) wore short grey trousers. These were worn both in the summer and winter term, with no seasonal change. Apparently the English until the 1960s did not think it unusual to send boys off to school in short pants in the middle of the winter. Private schools in the 1970s began intoducing summer and winter uniforms. A few private schools kept even older boys in shorts. Various materials were used, including flannel, rayon-nylon, and terylene worsted. Flannel was especially common un the early 20th century. Some schools adopted cotton corduory, usually in grey but sometimes blue or brown. A few schools even adopted cord jackets to wear with the cord shorts. Cord shorts, however, were generally considered a less dressy (formal) style. Terrelyn worsted became common in the 1970s. School shorts were usually made without bacl pockets, I'm not sure about longs.


Figure 4.--A boys private boarding school uniform used to invove purchasing an enormous list of items. It is now less compicated, but can still be daunting for a small boy.

Skirted Garments

Several skirted garments were worn to school, of course mostly by girls. We note some boys wearing skirted garments, especially during the 19th century. The principal skirted garment was the tunic which many boys wore to school, especially in the early- and mid-19th century. This is, however, difficult to assess because of the relatively limited number of period images. Some schools even used the tunic as a uniform. This was a historical garment, which continued to be worn into the 20th century as a uniform at the hospital schools.

Tunics

Tunics were an early school garment. The tunic was a medieval garment that continued to be worn at the new grammar schools established during Tudor times. Some schools had tunics as a school uniform (16th century). The tunic was still a popular garment during the 19th century and was worn to school by many younger boys. Some schools like the Hospital schools used them as part of the uniform. They were also worn by individuals and not as part of a uniform. We think tunics may have been more common for the younger boys at private schools like public (private boarding) and by mid-century at the new preparatory schools than at state schools. We have to depend primarily on paintings for this period whoch inveitably provided a skewed impressioin as well-to-do boys were most likely to be painted. And of course, Britain did not make a major state school system until the later-19th century. Our information, however, is limited. Information on the 19th century is limited, especially the early- and mid-19th century when tunics were most common. Photography was not developed until 1839. And unlike America there are very few images available in the early formats like Daguerreotypes from the (1840s-50s). Only with the CDV do we begin to see some large numbers of photographic portraits (1860s). We see tunics in CDVs (1860s), but very few by the end of the century. The only excptiin is the hospital schools that cintuinued whoch continued to use them as part of the school uniform.

Kilts

Kilts were worn by some British boys to school, but not English boys. Many Scottish and even a few Irish schools employed the kilt. A few made it required wear. Because of the cost it was at most Scottish schools usually only required on special occasions and Sundays. At some Scottish schools, usually private schools, boys were allowed the option of wearing kilts instead of long or short pants. We note some English boys wearing kilts as a kind of dress garment during the Victorian era, but as far as we know they did not wear them to school.

Smocks

There are countless illustrations in children's books of English boys and girls wearing gayly colored smocks. Most of these illustrations beginning with Kate Greenaway appear highly imaginative. We simply have no evidence yet to confirm that boy commonly wore smocks to school in the late 18 and early 19th century. (Of course tht does not mean that they definitively did not.) We have noted boy at home wearing smocks during the late 19th and early 20th century--generally boys from affluent families. We know more about this period as there are many photographic school portraits. English schools for the most part, however, not require smocks. State schools did not require iunifoms. Boys rarely appear in these images wearing smocks. Private schools did require uniforms, but we do not know of a school requiing the boyhs to wear smocks. A few private schools did use smocks for the pre-prep boys. One choir school, St. Mary of the Angles Song School, used smocks as the everyday uniform.

Pinafores

The pinafore was a very commonly worn to school by girls in the 19th bd very early-20th century. We also note some pre-school boys wearing pinafores. And they were apparently worn at some work house schools by both boys and girls.

Shoes

Elementary-age boys often wore closed-toe brown "t" strap sandals, referred to as school sandals, for normal school wear. Various types of sandals were worn, but by far the most common were the close-toe "T" strap style. Some younger boys or girls wore redish-brown or blue sandals or double strap sandals. Clark's school sandals were a standard. Some private schools required them. Sandals are still widely worn, but the center strap is now commonly quite thick. Regular black oxfords were used for dress (formal) wear or by older boys. Another school standard was the plimsol, especially common in gym class.

Hosiery

English boys wearing short trousers generally wore grey knee socks or turn-over-top socks as the British might say. Knee socks were very common in England both boys and girls commonly wore them to school. Some school pemitted ankle socks (or sandals and no socks) during the summer. This was most common in souther England. Many schools had destinctive socks with the school colors in stripes or a solid bar at the top. This was usually the kneesocks, but a few schools even had ankle socks with colored trim. Many boys wore plain grey knee socks as they were less expensive. Some Scottish schools had colored knee socks. British boys of any age never wore white socks with shorts, except for sports. English boys never wore white socks, except for cricket, as white socks, both ankle and knee socks, were generally worn by girls and thus seen as girls' socks. We see girls at some schools wearing tights, often dark colors.


Figure 5.--Some English schools used a uniform of cord jackets and shorts instead of or in addition to the traditional blazer.

Coats

The coat was an important part of an English boys uniform. Given the often rainy and chilly weather, the coat was often worn to school. British boys have worn both long overcoats as well as more informal heavy jacket style coats. There are some class differences here. Affluent boys going to private schools often wore formal overcoats than boys from less affluent families going to state schools. Many boys going to private schools until the 1970s had rather formal gaberdine overcoats. In fact, the overcoat that many English boys will remember is the gaberdine overcoat. Another standard was the less formal duffle coat which was more widely worn and a common choice at both state and private schools. Many other types of obercoats have been worn by British boys. In recent years more brightly colored, heavily insulated ski jacjets have become popular.

PE and Sport Kits

The British call gym uniforms Physical Education (PE) kits. Americans may recall the phrase "kit bag" in the song "Pack of your troubles in your old kit bag," here referring to a duffle bag for an army uniform. An English reader tells us, "At all the schools I attended the pe kit was white t shirt, white nylon shorts, no underwear in the junior schools then at senior school we had to wear an athletic supporter for pe and football and a cricket jock and a box for cricket. All sports were followed by showers. I enjoyed pe and cricket but wasn't keen on football, as we were coverd in mud and sometimes played in the rain." Other reader report different practices, especially in their primary (junior) schools. Often boys in primary schools just wore their ordinary school shorts. A reader has provided us an account of gym in his primary school. Many schools had regulation black plimsols (tennis shoes) for gym. There were also a range of sports or games uniforms. These varied depending on the particular sport. The major sports played in England are cricket, football (soccer, hockey, and rugby. Many other sports are played, but this varied from school to school.

Swiming Trunks

Most English schools offer swiming lessons to the students. Given the English climate, one might assume that this was an ordeel, but the children seem to enjoy swimming even in what seems to an American rather cold water. Some schools have their own swimming pool. Others use public facilitoes. The most common trunks are the brief Speedo style. Many private boarding schools ininitally had the younger boys swim without trunks. Some schools had uniform trunks, but mot let the children choose their own suits.

Other Items

Besides the major school uniform garments, another of other items have been worn or used by English school boys. Some like book bags were also used in other countries, although the types and styles may have varied. There were two basic types of English school book bags. Other iems like the snake belt seem to have been oprimatily worn in England. Blazer and cap badges are another item primarily associated with English and British schools in general. Like the major unifom items, these items have in some cases changed significantly over time. Some like the snake belt have almost disappeared.

School Lists

A helpful guide to the school uniform garments worn at English schools are the school lists sent to the parents for each school year. Assemblying the various items was quite a task each year, especially for boys attending boarding schools. These lists provide a very detailed list of the uniform garments and how they changed over time and among different schools. The information is much more detailed than just a school portrait. They include not only uniform details., but sports equipment and incidental items like pajamas. HBC readers have provided us copes of these lists they received as boys.

Personal Accounts

English readers have provided HBC a variety of personal accounts about their boyhood experiences. Some of these accounts have focused on their school experiences. Others have written more boradly, but included information about school expeiences and school uniforms. Many readers often mention a wide variety of uniform items while others seem to recall specific garments. HBC has received more such contributions from English readers than other European countries. Presumably because England was a country which insisted on school uniforms and of course because HBC is an English language site. (We stress to foreign readers that HBC is pleased to receive contributins in all languages.)

Additional Information

Careful this will exit you from the Boys' Historical Clothing web site, but these sites are highly recommended by HBC.

Apertures Press New Zealand E-book: New book on New Zealand schools available

Boys' Preparatory Schools: Lovely photographic essay of British preparatory schools with some over 200 color and black and white photographs depicting the schools during the 1980s

British Preparatory Schools: Another Apertures Press E-book is now available. This is Volume I of the British Preparatory Schools book.

British Preparatory Schools: Another Apertures Press E-book is in progress. This is Volume II of the British Preparatory Schools book.






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Created: May 11, 1998
Last updated: 5:11 AM 5/2/2012