U.S. School Clothes: Individual Schools--20th Century


Figure 1.--We have not been able to identify this Indianpolis school in 1907. We know that the portrait is the graduating class which means that the students were eighth-graders (about 13-14 years old). The girls wear high-neck dresses with black stockings. Some wear pinafores. Most of the boys wear suits with jackets and ties while at least one boy wears a colored shirt with a floppy bow. We do not see any neckties. All the boys seem to be wearing knee pants with long black stockings.

A good idea of fashion trends in America, as children at public schools did not wear uniforms, can be assessed by looking at what the children were wearing to school. Unfortunately many of the available images are not identified or are not dated, despite this, the images are very valuable views of children's fashion trends. HBC has acuired many images of American schools showing the clothing the children worn. While we do not know the names of these schools or the location, we can estimate the date and classify them as urban or rural schools. Sometimes other information can be discerned from the photograph. Here we havec archived images that are dated, but not identified. We will also included the unidentified images if they are dated.

The 1900s

We have just begun to assess the school photographs that we have collected from the 1900s. Most of the images we have collected show the children dressed up for schools. Mostly boys wear suits, commonly kneepants suits. Several younger boys wear sailor suits. Some of the younger boys also have ruffled collars added to their suits. Most of the suits seem to be kneepants suits worn with with black or other dark long stockings. The girls all wear dresses, some with pinafores. They also wear long stockings, although not all are black long stockings. What we are not sure about if the outfits shown were what the children wore to school normally or if they dressed up for the portrait. We note relatively few images of children wearing overalls to school in the 1900s, although we begin to see boys wearing overalls at rural schools by the end of the decade.

The 1910s

American school children in the 1910s dressed differently depending on where they went to school. We still see a lot of rural one-room schools. Rural children commonly wore dungares to school and webnt barefoot. This was especially true of the South which was the poorest part of the country. Boys in the North were more likely to dress up, at least for the school photograph. We see youngr boys in the early 1910s still wearing blouses with wide collars. Kneepants were common and when the boys were not barefoot commonly worn with dark long stockings. Many boys not wearing overalls wore suspenders. Boys in the cities dressed differently most wore shoes to school and overalls were not common. Many boys wore suits to school. Kneepants were common, but we also see boys wearing knickers. Some boys wore ties, but mostly in city schools. We see some boys wearing sailor suits, but not very many. We do notice girls wearing sailor dresses. Some boys wear coveralls, but they were not very common. They were especially rare in rural schools. Many boys wear flat caps, but we also see beanies. We note Catholic boys dressed up in suits for First Cmmunion.

The 1920s

Flat caps were very common. Many boys in secondary school wore suits and neckties. Norfolk and knicker suits were very common. Kneepants disappeared in the early 20s. Boys commonly wore knickers with long stockings. Some younger boys wore short pants to school, but knickers were much more common. Boys at private schools tend to dress in suits, but few schools have uniforms. Bib-front overalls were very common at rural schools. Most boys wore leather shoes to school. Corduroy knickers are very common. We notice very few children wearing sneakers. Almost all of the girls wear dresses. It is common to see children at rural schools coming to school barefoot, especially in the South.

The 1930s

We see private school boys still wearing coats and ties, but this was no longer very common at public schools. Boys were dressing increasingly casually for school, especially by the end of the decade. Knickers were still quite common at the beginning of the decade, but much less so by the end. Some primary boys wore short pants, especially the younger boys. This varied a good bit regionally and by social class. Knee socks were becoming less common for boys. Overalls were still worn in fural areas. Almost all of the girls wear dresses, often will puffed sleeves. Some girls wears skirts with blouses that had puffed sleeves.. Some children still came to school barefoot.

The 1940s

We notice some major changes at American schools during the 1940s. Some older styles like knickers and long stockings disappeared during the 1940s. We still see them at the beginning of the decade, but not by the end of the decade. Some younger boys wore short pants to school in the early 40s, but by the end of the decade short pants were much less common. Most boys swore long pants to school. Bib-front overalls are another style that declined sharply during the decade. While we do not commonly see them at the end of the decade, many boys in elementary school did wear jeans which were not very common at the beginning of the decade. The decline in bib-front overalls reflects both increasing prosperity, but also the disaapearance of sometimes sharp difference in the clothing worn in rural areas. We alsp see fewer and fewer children coming to school barefoot. This seems to be an indicator of growing affluence. Most children wore ankle socks. Sneakers might be worn in elementary school, but not in high school.

The 1950s

We still some younger boys wearing short pants to school in the early 50s. And in the south and rural areas areas a few children came to school barefoot. Neither were, however, very common. We mostly see boys in elementary (primary) schools wearing casual shirts. Striped "T"-shirts were very popular and jeans. During the winter, jeans wre availavle with flannel linings. Leatger shoes were mostly worn, but we see some sneakers. Black high-tops with white soles were the most common, but sneakers were not yey stylish. Almost all girl wore dresses or skirts. Boys wore casual shirts to school, although some boys buttoned them. Jeans were not worn extensively worn in high schools. Many actually prohibited them. All high school boys wore long trousers. Ties and suits were not worn. The principal exception here was parochial schools. Some began requiring basic unifoirms which often inckuded white shirts and ties. A few private schools required suits and ties withba British look.

The 1960s

We notice boys in the early 1960s dressing similarly to the 1950s. Primary-level boys commonly wote T-shirts and jeans. Few boys wore short pants. Many Catholic schools had begun to require basic uniforms. Girls wore dresses. Hair syles were short. We begin to note substantial changes by the end of the decade. The biggest chznge was in boys' hair styles and we begin tonotice some longer cuts. T-shirts and jeans continued to be common in primary schools, but we begin to see some younger boys wearing casual short pants. Secondary schools generally tried to insist on short hair. Many also attempted to prohibit jeans, but here experienced some difficulty. We notice somd girls wearing shorts and long pants rather thamn skirts. Most Catholix schools had uniforms by the early-1960s.

The 1970s

We see major changes in American schools clothing during the 1970s, changes which became notable in the late-60s. Clothing trends followed ideas on gender equality. The 1970s was the decade that the Equal Rights Amemndment was an issue. Boys and girls clothing often looked similar, that is girls began wearing boyish outfits, not visa versa. This was the first decaded that many girls came to school in pants, often jeans. Corduroy were fashionable and we see a lot of polyester. We see a lot of vivid colors and shapes--especially for younger children and girls. Shirts, dresses, and pants might have loud designs in polka dots and stripes. Psychedelic flowers and astrological signs were popular decorative touches. The 1970s wasperhaps the decaded with the greates variety of fads, perhaps a defining era in fashion. Fads as is ousually the case were pronounced in children's clothing. We see quite a variety of pants, usually a fairly staid item. Bell bottom pants were popular, almost an iconic 1970s style. They were often called flares and the leg flares were the greatest of any decade. Bogh boys and girls wore them. Denim jeans were no longer resticted to primary school, but became a virtual uniform at secondary school, again for both boys and girls. Levi's and Wrangler prduced non-shrink denim. Denim jeans was perfect for the popular earthy hippie styles. We see mor boys wearing short pants, mistly as casual summer wear. They were less common at school. While many firls wore pants, skirts and dresses did not disappear. Another defining 1970s style was the mini-skirt, often worn with knee sicks. Peasant blouses and smocks were popular and might be worn with or without jeans. Skirts were done in loud colors and flared. They were done as A-line garments, fitting at the waist and gradually widening. Skirts might be done in pastel and floral monochromes like turquoise, yellow, and red. Patterns included polka dots and stripes. Shapes like rainbows, moons, and flowers were all populr. Colors and patterns varied from yar to year. Polyester jumpsuits were popular, but a little too drrsy for school. They were mostly for older boys outside school--standard disco wear. Some were done for younger children. Catholic schools had basic uniforms.

The 1980s


The 1990s


Hackensack High School (1996)

Most American secondary schools, and even some primary schools, beginning in the 1950s have have prohbited the boys from wearing short trousers. While shorts were not common in secondary schools, knickers were through the 1930s--at least for the younger boys. By the 1980s many boys during the summer wanted to wear shorts. This was becoming common in California, but not on the eadt cast. The students at Hackensack High School during June 1986 protested the dress code enacted by the Hackensack Board of Education which prohibited the wearing of shorts. The protest was very well organined. The news media was alerted to the protest. Over 400 boys wore skirts to school and all major NYC television stations sent their trucks and reporters. The Board of Education in response saw the light very promptly; met with the students, and revised the dress code.







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Created: June 2, 2001
Last updated: 9:52 AM 5/29/2015