French Schools

Figure 1.--This painting shows a typical French school boy working at his desk during the 1910s. Notice the ink bottle and dip pen. A reader also writes, "Also, notice how the boy is holding the pen. Sure differs from what the students today do. The painting, "“L'écolier" was executed in 1914 by Jules Mignon 

French boys have not commonly worn formal school uniforms like their across the Channel English cousins. Children did formerly have, however, a uniform look. The smock became a type of uniform in several European countries. Beginning with the Third Republic in the 1870s through much of the first half of the 20th century, elementary school boys in France wore black, dark, blue, or grey school smocks over their clothes. As this was a very common practice, it gave the appearance of a school uniform. Elementary schoolboys also often wore berets with their smocks. Not all French schoolboys wore smocks--serving to obsure social differences. One account from 1900 describes a French boy who began the lycee wearing a sailor suit with long curls his mother dearly loved. While most French children did not wear uniforfms, Catholic schools often did require uniforms. White knee socks were commonly worn with blue shorts at these schools in the mid-20th century. Today jeans and track suits dominate at French schools in the increasingly common pan-European look.


The decision to require French boys and girls to wear smocks was a decision implemented by French authorities during the 1870s. It was in keeping with the styles of the day as both boys and girls commonly wore smocks. France has such a centralized, highly respected educational system, that the decision was relatively easy to implement. The smock certainly served the purpose of a uniform, covering differences in the clothes worn by children from different economic circumstances. It also protected the boy's clothes. In an era when clothes were expensive and writing was done with basic pens and ink wells, a black smock made considerabe sense. Beside the schoolboy smock, nothing like the elaborate school uniforms common in England developed in France.  While state schools generally did not require have a school uniform, such uniforms were generally worn in Catholic schools and at some private schools. Unfortunately I have managed to collect very little information on French school uniforms.  I am hoping that a French visitor to this web site will eventually provide some interesting information.


We do not have a great deal of information yet on French school activities. Most of the images we have been able to find are class or school portraits. We also have a few classroom and playground scenes. We have been able to find fewer images of school activities beyond academic classroom scenes. We believe that this is in part a reflection of the nature of French schools. The French school system is highly focused on academics. We know far fewer extra-curricular activities than Americans associate with school. We do not notice the same programs for dance, music, sports, and other activities. One factor limiting school activities is that students, at least at the secindary (lycee) level received a substantial home work load leaving less time for extra-curricular activities that American students have. One aspect of French schools that we do see is religion. At least at Catholic schools. Hopefully our French readers will provide us some information on French school activities.

Uniform Policies

Normaly uniform were not adopted at public schools. There were some Government regulations which varied over gtime. Most schools have parents councils. Schools at first had little parent input. School was for many years considered primarily a matter for the professionals, school administrators and teachers. Parents followed the traditional rules . This has changed somewhat in modern France. Most of these councils have been organized after World War II. Today all French schools have a parent council. The parents school councils can recommend uniforms, but not make them compulsory. We do not know how common it was for these councils to recommend a uniform. Nor do we know much about the uniform styles adopted. We suspect it was often a recommendation about smocks. Hopefully our French readers will know more about this. While not common ar public schools, uniforms at private schools or Instituts were more common. In the Catholic and private schools, parent councils were much more common. The members were the nuns or priests themself with a few selected parents. These councils made the school rules concerning economic matters, uniforms, cathechism , and other obligations, but not the academic program.


The two school garments most associated with France are the beret and smock. Some scchools appear to have required smocks, but HBC is no precisely sure what the regulations were. The smock was apparently introduced by the Third Republic in the 1870s, but HBC does not yet have details on the specific regulations. This is an area of interest that HBC hopes to pursue in some detail. School children also sometimes wore a cape or cloke-like garment. School boys also commonly wore kneepants and short pants. These gaements are no longer commonly worn by French school boys who now wear the pan-European styles that have emerged in the 1980s, sweatshirts, "t" shirts, track suits and jeans are now worn throughout Europe.

Hair Styles

As far as we can tell, the hair styles French boys wore to school were the essentially the same as the popular styles of the day. We do not know to what extent the schools enforced ny kind of hair style rules. Some of the Catholic schools in the post-War period may have had some rules about long hair, but we are not sure about that. Hopefully some of our French readers will be able to provide us some background information on this topic. We do note a few younger boys withj long hair in the late-19th and early-20th century. Our experience in America and most other European countries is that a boy's curls were cut at least by the time he began school at about 6 years of age. This is generally the case in France, but we notice some exceptions. We note a written account about a boy named Paul in the 1890s. We also occassionally notice a few scattered boys with long hair in school portraits through the 1930s. One gets the impression that French boys were a little more accepting of these differences than boys in many other countries. Here we are talking about a period when the other boys had short hair. Of course by the 1970s long hair became very common for boys.

Figure 2.--These boys attended a French college (private secondary school) in the mid 1930s. There was no uniform. The younger boys wore short pants suits, the older boys knickers or long pants. They wear scholastic awards around their necks. 

School Types

France since the mid-1870s had a very centalized national education system imposed by the Third Republic which initiated wide-spread educational reform. There presumably was a centralized susystem even before that, but HBC has little information on the educational system in earlier years. The system is dominated by the natuonal government's state schools. The private sector has been of much less importance than in England. Most of the private schools were in fact Catholic schools which receive some Government support. Except for requiring smocks in the 1872, the state schools have not required uniforms. Some but not all of the Catholic schools have required uniforms, but this appears to have becone more wide-spread after World War II. There are also some military schools which have required uniforms.


Nuns played a major role in French Catholic schools, especially the primary years. A reader writes, "Nuns are called ' les petites soeurs ' (the little sisters). The population are very respectably towards them. Personnaly I love them, remembering my school years." Another French reader writes, "I fondly remember the nuns as a boy. Very often I was in the Chuch, and nearby were several classes with nuns. When I was young I went to Catholic schools and still remember the nuns. It was nuns how had the charge of my heath ( vacination , periodic control ). I have the souvenir of kindless, gentleness with me. My first cathechism year was taught by nuns. Afterwards I became an altar boy. Then I was taught by priests. At home I was also leaned cathechism lessons. (I learned in French and German because my Granparents were Alsatian.) The nuns were strict about morals, but very kind with us children. The nuns in the schools never beatithe children. That wasn't the case with the public school teachers. We called the nuns " ma Soeur " and the principal " ma Mère "."

Individual Schools

HBC is attempting to assess French schoolwear trends. We have assembled a good deal of information on different types of garments, but an accurate assessment of trends over time and conventions remains elusive. Thus HBC is assembling images of invidual schools. Once a number of schools have been assesmbled it will enable us to better understand trends over time and accepted conventions. Unfortunately, often little information is available on the schools pictured in many available images. There appears to be more diversity in French schools than HBC anticipated. Smocks were quite common at many French schools, but often not all the boys wore them. HBC will do its best to assess these images. Hopefully our French consultants will be able to add additional details.

Classroom Manners

Discipline at French schools was very strict. A French reader tells us, "A child in an educated family, especialy in the past, was obliged to say " vous " to all adults, even to his parents as a sign of respect. An exception was that a child could use " tu " with his nanny and if the staff ought to say " vous " to him, the only person allowed to say " tu " was his nanny. Even in royalt family this was the case, demonstrating the influence of a nanny. In my time (the 1940s-50s) these rules were still were observed. The staff and workers used " vous " with my brother, sister, and me. To day in school thaere are still some private schools where the teachers say " vous " in primary but " tu " in kindergarden. But the new fashion is to say only " tu" . In Austria the teachers now say almost always only " du ". Emmogrants often don't know well these rules and it is shocking to us." A Swiss reader noted an interesting comment on the Norwegian school page about unformality in the schools. He writes to us about French schools. "As previously noted, words such as "uniforms", "discipline", "respect" and "union" are not so popular in Norway, quite different from other european countries. I remember having seen recently on the French TV a documentary on the difficulties in the French secondary schools that teachers encounter with pupils originating from the immigration ("Magreb countries such as Algeria, Morrocco etc). Some of these, although born in France, are frequently very impolite and rude, even agressive with other pupils and teachers. In a discussion between the head of school and a particularly agressive boy where the boy was using this French "TU" (like "DU" in German), the head of the school several times cut the boy's speech with that simple sentence " Depuis quand est-ce que VOUS vous permettez de tutoyer vos maìtres?" (Since when do you allow yourself to say TU to your teachers ?)...until the boy finally agreed to continue in a more polite manner. If uniforms have more or less disappeared from French schools, the notions of discipline and respect are still valid, they recover as well the notion of politeness. If English has only the "YOU", in our countries we use the French "TU" only within a family or between good friends or from adult to child. But a child has to say "VOUS" to an adult." As part of an increasingly national concern about declining discipline standards, many French are beginning to discuss the utility of the uniform and mixed classes. In France the mothers are acustomed to chosing school clothes for their children. Some rules are compulsory. The child must to be clean. Make up is forbidden. The child must have a "standard look" as determined by the principal. A reader writes, "In my time , in some public school, smocks were recommended. In private or Catholic schools, a short pants uniform was institued. Commonly it was a white shirt, blue sweater, blue shorts, and white kneesocks."


The Catholic Church has played a major role in French education. We do not, however, have a good understanding of the role of the Church in French schools. The earliest schools were run by the Church. Theis changed during the Revolution when the Church as part of the Ancien Regime was attacked. I am not sure what happened in French schools during the Revolution and Napoleonic era, but of course there was not yet a well developed state school system. With the fall of Napoleon, the Bourbon monarchy restored the position of the Church. We know little about schools in this era, but presumably they were again controlled by the Church. We do not know to what extent the role of the Church in education changed during the reign of Louis Phillipe and Napoleon III. After the disastrous French defeat in the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71), the new French Third Republic instituted major reforms, including important reforms in education. We do not yet have details in these reforms, including the role of the Church in schools. By this time France had established a major state education system. In many European countries, religion was taught in the schools. We are not sure about France.

Youth Summaries

Children are interested in what school was like for their parents and grand parents. Often books and internet sites will provide summaries of school life and clothing in early periods. Often these summaries are brief, but they provide an interesting summary of school and schoolwear and what the adults growing up in earlier period feel is important to mention to modern children.

Figure 3.--The boys depicted in this movie attended a Catholic boarding school during World War II. They wore ties, sweaters, short pants, and knee socks as there everyday uniform. 


A popular modern development is to recreate old time school classes that school children can attend for a day. Some recreations are simple museum displays. Much more valuable and interesting for the children is an old time classroom that the children can really experience for a day. Some times they even dressup for the part. France is ne of the many countries in which these rcreations have appeared.


School experiences have been a popular topic for French film makers. These films provide interesting insights into French education as well as interesting details on what French boys wore to school. Of course some care has to be taken to assess the historical accuracy of the costuming, alhough some of the films were set in the contemporary era.

Au revoir les enfants

This classic, but tragic film showcases the uniforms worn in a Catholic boarding school during World War II. French boys did not generally wear school uniforms, but some catholic schools did require them.

"O" for Conduct

This French black and white movie from Jean Vigo was released in 1933. It was a short film only 43 minutes. It depicts life in a French boys' college. There are boarders and day-pupils, I would say between 9 and 14 years old. It is not a religious college but I cannot say whether it is private or public, but the fact that it had boarders suggest that it was a private sdchool. The movie finishes with the revolt of four boys throwing things to the guests from the roofs during the college fête. A precursor of the British public school movie If.

Grade Levels

The differet grade levels in various countries often make it difficult to compare the different accounts because it is not always clear just how they compare. This is complicated by the different terms used for the schools in various countries. Grammar schools and public schools in America and Britain are very different types of schools. Lycee in France has been used differently, meaning a prinmary school in the 19th century and a secondary school in the 20th century. Here we have detailed the different school levels in France to help clarify how they compare with American schools.

Individual Experiences

HBC has begun to collecinformation on French boyhood school experiences. Our earliest account comes from the 1870s. They include expeeriences at both state and private Catholic schools. One American reader has provided details about his school experiences.

School Events

We note a range of special events at French schools. Although our informtion is still incomplete. The most important event based on the prevalence of available images appears to be the year end programs. Each class seems to put on some sort of presentation, often in special costumes just for the event. We also notice hilidy pagents of various kinds. We also believe that there were prize giving ceremonies at the end of tyhe year, but we are not yet sure about that. Hopefully our French readers will provide more information on the various events they remember at their schools.


Readers may find this glossary of French school terms useful. We will include here all types of items associated with shools, including types of schools, studens, schoolwear, school supplies, classroon items and anything else associayed with schools. Feelb free to suggest items that you woul;d like to see included or have suggestions about our translation. Some of the terms have meanings that have changed over time, especially the types of schools. In some cases we have whole pages discussing the particular item.


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Created: October 30, 1998
Last updated: 8:10 PM 7/14/2014