U.S. Schoolwear: Gym Uniforms (California, 1960s-70s)

Figure 1.--T

Rules for what students wear during gym class in the United States vary from school to school. So what I describe applies to the schools I attended. All of the schools that I went to were public (state) schools in California during the 1960s and 1970s. The elementary school and junior high school that I attended had lax dress codes, and the high school had no dress code. My impression is that in general, junior high schools and high schools in the United States have specific rules about what can be worn in gym class even if the school has no rules concerning what students wear the rest of the day. The phrase "gym uniform" may not be the best way to describe this requirement, since usually the only thing that is uniform about the clothes is the color of the trunks and possibly the color of the T-shirt. If most of the students buy their gym clothes from the school, that may add more uniformity.

Gym Program

In the elementary school I attended, they would send us to an outdoor playground unless it was raining. In the junior high school and high school, gym class was always outdoors unless there was a reason to meet in the gym. Some schools in the U.S. call the class Physical Education (or P.E.) and other schools call it Gym. I've found that many people who went to schools that used one of the terms don't know what the other term means. Although they called it P.E. where I grew up, most of the people I've met as an adult call it Gym, so I've gotten used to usually saying Gym. Although they called it P.E. in the schools I attended, we called the uniform "gym clothes."


In California, the law was that students had to have P.E. every school day. This only applied during the regular September to June school year. There wasn't a P.E. requirement during the optional summer school. In some other states, students attended gym class much less often, if at all.

Elementary School

The elementary school went up to the sixth grade. I graduated in 1969. There was no gym uniform in the elementary school, so they sent us out to play in the same clothes that we wore to school. At this school, they would always tell us to play a specific sport when they sent us out or have us do track or exercises. This must have been an incentive for parents to send their children to school in durable clothing.

Junior High School

The Junior High School went from 7th to 9th grade. I attended from 1969 to 1972. In Junior High School, the rules were enforced to the point of pettiness.

Grading system

I should briefly mention the grading system for gym in my school, since it helps to explain why most people cared enough about following the rules to be afraid of making a mistake. Gym was a for-credit course that was graded like every other course: There was a letter grade from A to F and grades for Work Habits and Cooperation (behavior). The grade in gym counted like every other grade in determining whether someone qualified for the school honor society. Other school districts in the U.S. might have different grading systems for gym. There were school districts where Gym was pass-fail or a non-credit course.


The required boys' gym clothes were a short sleeve white T-shirt, green trunks, white socks, sneakers, and an athletic supporter. A school's required color for the trunks would usually depend on the school colors. Since there was less variety in available styles of clothing back then, they did not have to be as specific in telling us what to wear as they might have to be now. People had the option of buying the clothes (except the sneakers) from the school and almost everyone did, so they could be sure of getting what was right.


Everything had to be marked with a black marker in large capital letters. A ballpoint pen could not be used to mark the clothes. If the marking faded, it had to be darkened. I think this marking requirement was so people didn't take anyone else's clothes or share clothes and also so teachers did not have to bother to learn our names and so any gym teacher could indentify a student who he saw misbehaving. It tended to make the shirt and pants useless for other purposes, although some people also wore them outside gym class anyway. A lot of people wore the marked sneakers outside gym class.


The T-shirt had to be short-sleeve (T-shirts may only have come short-sleeve then). The student could either use a white T-shirt or a T-shirt bought from the school. The T-shirts sold by the school were white and had the school name in green letters and the area for marking the shirt outlined in green. The shirt had to be marked across the chest with the first name above the last name (not side by side) in capital letters that were about 2-inches high. For readers outside the United States, an inch is about 2.52 cm. The trunks had to be green. The ones sold by the school were green and had the name of the school in white letters and a big white area where we were supposed to mark them. We had to mark them with our last name near the bottom of the front of the right pant leg in capital letters that were about 1 1/2 inches high. The trunks were athletic trunks with an elastic waist band, no pockets, no fly, and the shortest available leg length. That was probably the only kind of athletic trunks available then. The socks had to be white medium height athletic socks. It was all right if the socks had a couple of colored rings near the top. Each year they would tell us that they require white socks because, if we cut our foot while wearing colored socks, we might get blood poisoning. They would also tell us that although they won't check whether we marked the socks, if they find a lost unmarked sock, they will have to throw it away. The idea of having to wear white socks with sneakers is so ingrained in me that even now I can't bring myself to wear colored socks with sneakers. The sneakers had to be marked in 1-inch high capital letters on the sides that are visible if someone stands with his feet together. (Back then, people called any sneakers "tennis shoes.") We could optionally also wear a white sweat shirt and/or white sweat pants on cold days. I think that the ones the school sold were solid white. They had to be marked in the same place that the T-shirt and trunks had to be marked. They would recommend getting more than one of each item (except the sneakers), but a lot of parents were only willing to pay for one of each item. A lot of people used the same gym clothes all 3 years of junior high school.

New school year

We didn't have to get the clothes before the school year. The first few days of each school year, we wore our regular clothes in gym class and they went over the rules. The first couple of days that we had to wear gym clothes, they tried to be lenient by only making us run a lap or two if our clothes weren't right. This was the only time of the school year when a teacher might make sure that the athletic supporters were properly marked. At this school, a lap was 300 yards. A yard is about nine-tenths of a meter. For the rest of the school year, if anything was wrong with our gym clothes, they would take points off of our grade.

Beginning of gym class

Each day we would first go to the locker room. The bell would ring at the normal start of class and if we had to change, we would get an extra 5 minutes before the bell would ring again. When we arrived at the locker room at the beginning of gym class each day, there would be a sign saying whether a class had to change into their gym clothes. Sometimes they just said to put on tennis shoes and white socks. This could be a problem for someone who got to the locker room at the last minute, because we had to be standing in our place when the first bell rang on days that they only had us change into tennis shoes, so he would probably be marked late. (Because of this, it was safest to wear one's sneakers and white socks to school each day, if one didn't mind wearing shoes with one's last name written on them in 1-inch letters.) Sometimes I think the gym teachers were intentionally unpredictable so we wouldn't assume anything. For example they might tell us we wouldn't be wearing gym clothes the next day and then it would turn out that we did have to wear gym clothes the next day after all.

Squad inspections

People would be marked late if they weren't standing in their assigned spot when the second bell rang. Each class had about 50 people and was divided into 6 squads. Every day when the second bell rang, the squad leader would inspect the squad to make sure everyone had their clothes right. Every day, as the squad leader walked by we had to reach into the bottom of our trunks pull the jock strap far enough so the squad leader could see it and let go of it so the squad leader could hear a snapping sound. We had to wash our clothes every weekend, so on Mondays they would also make sure that the clothes were clean. Mondays were when people usually got in trouble for not having everything right. If people didn't have all of their gym clothes, they had to wear what they had and wear their regular clothes, such as sock and shoes, for what was missing. If they didn't have their T-shirt or trunks they had to borrow them from the office. The ones in the office were purple to make it obvious they were borrowed. The amount of infractions over the semester, including not having a perfect uniform, tardiness, not bringing a form when one was required, etc., were all added together. Having 4 infractions in a semester meant that someone had to get the lowest possible grade in Work Habits. Additional infractions would affect the letter grade. Someone who flagrantly kept showing up without proper gym clothes might be treated as a discipline problem. Since each squad accumulated points that affected one's grade in the class, if someone kept showing up each day with something wrong with his gym clothes, an irritated squad leader might make him run a lap.

End of class

A bell would ring ten minutes before the end of class. The class was supposed to gather together again with the people lined up in their squads, usually in the same place where we would meet at the beginning of the class. The teacher would take care of administrative things and might talk to us about something. Sometimes the teacher waited so long to let us go that we only had a couple of minutes to change back to our regular clothes. So there would be a bunch of panicky students rushing to change. Anyone who was still in the locker room when the class ended would have to run a lap or two. At that point, one would run the laps in his regular clothes carrying whatever books or other stuff he had with him when he came to class. They also required us to take a shower each day unless we didn't do anything stenuous on a given day so the teacher made it optional for that day. Sometimes the water in the shower was warm, but usually it was cold.


I should also mention the weather. Gym teachers seemed to think that part of their job was to make us tough by making things unpleasant. They would have us wear our gym clothes no matter how cold it was. Where I went to school the temperature never fell below the high 20s F, but there still were a lot of days when the temperature was in the 30s F in December, January, and February, especially if one was in an 8 AM gym class. (32 F = 0 Celsius). It also could be very windy. They did allow us to wear a sweat shirt and a sweat pants, but most people didn't have sweat shirts and almost no one had sweat pants. A cotton sweat shirt only has a limited ability to keep someone warm anyway. If it rained, they would have us meet in the gym, but they might still have us meet outdoors if it was lightly sprinkling. There also could be days when the temperature was in the 90s F. (86 F = 30 Celsius). There were drinking fountains but they didn't let us to drink water during class (part of the toughening up). I think that now there are laws about maximum temperatures when athletic activities are allowed in schools.

High School

I was in high school from 1972 to 1975. I'm describing the regular high school gym class for people who didn't join a team. In high school, they still gave us grades in gym, but the grade in gym didn't affect the determination of whether someone qualified for the honor society, the California Scholarship Federation. Things were much more relaxed in high school. Nothing had to be marked. There were no rules about when to wash the clothes. In high school, they required us to wear red trunks, white socks, and sneakers. Any short-sleeve T-shirt was acceptable. Although most people wore a solid white T-shirt, it could be any color and have any design or slogan. I remember people who wore T-shirts with explicit references to illegal drugs. The rule for underwear was that they didn't allow boxer underpants (briefs were allowed). Gym teachers would often lecture us on the dangers of permanantly injuring our reproductive system if we played sports in boxer underpants. We had the option of also wearing a sweat shirt and sweat pants on a cold day. The high school had no dress codes and boys with very long hair (shoulder length to elbow length) often used headbands or bandannas to hold their hair back. In high school, someone who didn't have his complete gym uniform wasn't supposed to change at all, and would do nothing that day. Some people frequently showed up without their gym clothes. They told us that if we didn't have our gym clothes 5 times in one semester, we would fail the class. I don't think someone who missed just 5 times would fail the class, but people who showed up a lot without their gym clothes might be treated as a discipline problem. The attitude of the teachers was a lot different from junior high school in that I can remember high school gym teachers acting apologetic for giving a bad grade in work habits to someone who didn't have his gym clothes a lot of times. (This would only happen if the student was well behaved in class. If the student was a trouble maker the teacher wouldn't be sympathetic).


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Created: 6:05 PM 10/24/2005
Last updated: 6:05 PM 10/24/2005