School Uniform: English School Caps


Figure 1.--The English school cap was usually a solid color matching the blazer, but hats also came in colored wedges, circles, and other combinations.

One of the most recognizable items of school uniform in England through the 1950s was the peaked 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 even worn at state schools without uniforms. The peaked school cap was so commonly worn in the early 20th Century that it was adopted as the Cub Scout cap by Boy Scouts in England and around the world. 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 colorful caps mostly had black linings. Throuh the 1940s virtually every English boyb wore a school cap. The cap appeared first in England and then spread around the world, but of course was most common at schools in Empire countries. The caps, however, were by the 1960s not very popular with the boys. As the fashion of wearing caps and hats wained, school caps began to disapear in the 1960s. Many boys can recall how they dealt with their caps after they reached the age that they no longer had to wear them. Sometimes there were inmpromtu burnings by groups of boys. One English HBC contributor reports that he thought nothing of wearing a school cap when he started his grammar school in the early 1960s, but resented it by the time he had reached the fourth form and caps had began to become less commonly worn. The school cap by the 1970s had virtually disappeared at most English schools, except for traditional preparatory schools. By the 1980s only a handful of private schols still required them.

Historical Origins

While I do not yet have details on the origins of the school cap, it almost ceratinly is English. The school cap began to appear in England in the mid 19th century begings to become widespread in English schools by the 1870s. We believe that it originated as a sports or games cap, but this needed to be confirmed.

Chronology

W e do not have details about when the schoolmcap first appeared. I do not believe I have noticed them until after the turn of the century in the 1860s. They were were definitely being worn by the 1870s and fairly common by the 1880s. Virtually every English school boy was wearing them by the 1890s. School caps were once a familiar sight in England (and the rest of Britain) Their heyday was in the first half or so of the 20th century. These caps in a wide variety of colors and designs through the 1950s were a common sight on British streets as the boys went to and from school. Nowadays the traditional school cap is seen far less often. During the 1960s many schools where they had previously been compulsory now made them optional. Where this happened, and at schools where they had never been compulsory, boys came to wear them less and less, to the point where so few were being purchased by parents that school outfitters no longer considered it worthwhile to stock them and they disappeared altogether. A small number of schools, mostly independent and mostly for younger boys (preparatory schools in the British sense of the term), have gone against this general trend and still require pupils to wear them. A HBC reader reports, "I visited England this October, 2002 and saw a store in a South London suburb which carried school uniforms. I went into the store to look around and was told by the sales lady that there were still quite a few prep schools requiring traditional caps with their uniforms. They were on display in the window. Most of the caps matched the blazers. The average cost of the caps was 15 Pounds Sterling. Secondary schools no longer have these caps, but quite a few prep schools still do."

Conventions

The English school cap has come in our modern age to be associated with exclusive private schools because since the 1960s only traditional preparatory schools required the boys to wear caps. Before the 1960s, however, virtually all English boys wore caps to school. They were widely worn even at primary schools that did not require uniforms. Virtually all secondary schools required them, both private and public. Not only were they worn to school, but until the 1960s, boys even worn them when not goung to school. A British contributor reports that "... even into the 1950s boys wore school caps both in an out of school. Even in the early 1960s I wore my school cap into town on Saturdays when I went shopping with my mother. The seismic change of attitude towards uniforms amongst the young was still a year or two away." Schools were often very strict about wearing the caps. They gradually became rather unpopular with the boys and by the1980s only a few prep schools were still requiring them.

Design

The design of the English schoolcap was fairly standard. There were two primary variables One was the crown, but we have not noted major differences here over time. Two was the peak. Here we have noted some substantial differences in the size of the peak.


Figure 2.--This boy wears a grey blazer or suit with a matching grey cap. Note the shield on the front.

Styles and Decoration

A great variety of colors, including circles and school crests decorated these caps which flooded British streets with boys going and coming to school. Some of the most common include the following. Some caps were solid colors. A few were grey, especially if the school uniform was a grey suit. More often the caps were a bright color to match the blazer. Some schools had blazers for normal school wear and grey suits for best. They would, however, only have one cap--usually the same color as the blazer. Worn with the grey suit, the cap and tie would be the only colored elemernts. Caps often had the school crest or logo at the front. A popular style was pie-like edges. These caps were usually two colors, alternating with each pie slice. Some caps had alternating colored circles, usually white and one of the school colors or in some cases two school colors. The circles involved were of different width and spacing. Probably the most famous school cap with cirles was the one worn by William Brown (aka "Just William") and his friends the Outlaws. The circle caps became less common in the 1950s. I'm not sure why this was. It was part of a general pattern of lest ostentaious designs and colors for school uniform. A few schools had crosses on ther top of their hats. This was a less common style, but was worn at some schools through the 1960s.

Sizes

A HBC reader asks about how school caps were sized. He wore caps in both elementary school and grammar school and seems to remember that there were sizes like 5 and a quarter and so on. Another former grammar school boy informs us, "In my time during the 1960s, school outfitters could usually guess a boy's cap size just by looking at his head. Typical sizes were 6 and a quarter, 6 and three eighths and so, so there were quite fine gradations. Once the rough head size was estimated, several caps above and below the size were brought out and tried on. Curiously, new caps had a particular smell and just writing this brings the smell back into my mind.

Colors

School caps came in a huge variety of colors and color combinations. Some colors were more common than others. The most common caps were solid colors Blue caps were especially popular. Curiously while grey was a color associated with schoolwear, grey caps were less common. There were in addition to solid colors, various color combinations in different patterns. Here wedges and circles were the most common. Wjile grey caps were not common, grey was often mployed in these pattern caps. Conventions concerning the color varied from school to school. The most common convention for caps was wearing caps which matched the blazer colors. An exception was often made in the case of boys wearing grey suits who commonly wore colored caps. A few schools had both grey suits and colored blazers. Often the colored cap was worn with both the blazer and grey suit.

Lininings

Most English school caps had black linings. I believe this was done in a silk or satin material, but am not yet sure.

Usage

Virtually all British schoolboys wore peaked caps through the 1950s. Both state and private schools required them. Boys often wore them when not required. They were worn away from school as both a casual and dress cap. Boys in the early 20th century, except for the wealthy, did not have large wardrobes. Thus the school cap might be the only cap a boy might have. As the fashion of wearing caps and hats wained, school caps began to disapear in the mid-1960s. They continued to be worn at prep schools for some time. Normally the caps would only be worn to and from school or on occassions like going to church or special events. Unlike earlier years boys by the 1970s normally only wore their school caps when required. By the 1970s the school cap had become increasingly rare and by the 1980s, with only a few exceptions, only a handful of private schols still required them.



Figure 3.--This picture shows that some state school pupils (as distinct from private prep schools) still wear caps. The boys are from the London Oratory Primary School.

Types of Schools

School caps were once worn by almost all English school boys. The cap became almost a symbol for the English school boy. Practices varied somewhat, depending on the type of school as well as individual schools. I do not think that elementary schools generally had uniforms so they presumably did not wear school caps. Primary schools were created as part of the 1944 Education Act which divided the younger and older children at the old elementary schools. It took many years to make this change. Even after the change, many of the new primary schools did not have uniforms. Many state schools children were of very modest means. Requiring a school cap would have been a largely unecessary expense. Other primary schools adopted uniforms, but did not insist that the boys wear them. School caps were required wear at many grammar schools. Regulations varied widely from school to school. The cap as a common pat of the uniform began to change after World War II. Many schools continued to require them for the younger boys through the 1950s. Most grammar schools dropped the caps as part of the uniform altogether in the 1960s. Most secondary modern schools, like the grammar schools, had uniforms. School caps were generally required as part of that uniform. Some schools required all but the 6th formers to wear them. In other schools it was just the younger boys. Caps were commonly worn through the early 1950s, but began to be become less common in the late 1950s. This was particularly true at the schools which did not place great emphasis on the uniform. Some schools were quite strict about the uniform and continued requiring caps until conversion to comprehensives in the late 1960s or 1970s. Caps were not generally worn at comprehensive schools. By the time they were created, in the late 1960s and 70s the school cap was fast disappearing from the uniform requirement at state schools. As most comprehensives were created from existing secondary modern and grammar schools which did have uniforms. a few comprehensives may have inherited a uniform with caps. In the few cases this may have occurred it did not last long. Virtually every preparatory school boy through the 1960s wore a school cap and a few still do even in the 1990s. I'm not sure precisely when the caps were introduved. Some prep schools date to the mid-19th century, but they did not become common until the late 19th Century. Whenever they were introduced, by the 1900s the peaked cap was part of virtually every prep school uniform. Most towns of any size had a local prep school and the boys were instantly recognizable in their destinctive caps. Schools caps were worn at most public schools. Some boys wore boaters, but the peaked hat was by far the most common. Gradually it came to be worn mostly by the younger boys and now is no longer worn as part of the basic uniform at any public school. Caps are, however, still widely worn for cricket.

Cap Types

A school did not have one single type of cap. The junior boys all wore the basic school cap. It was the most basic style. There were other styles to signify status or acomplishments. The different caps might indicate senior boys, school color awards, and prefects. Piping might be added, cutting the crowns into segments. Many caps had the school crest. Colored borders might be added to the crest. Another refinement was adding a tassle. Different schools had different approaches. Now that many schools have discontinued caps, several schools use them as a colors award or when playing cricket. Again this varies from school to school.

Boys' Attitudes

The school cap was argueably the most unpopular part of the traditional English school uniform. I'm not sure about what boys thought about caps in earlier years, but by the 1960s they had become very unpopular.

The 1920s-40s

I do not currently have information on what boys thought of their school caps, but hopefully some of our British friends will fill us in here.

The 1950s

The school cap continued to be very commonly worn in the 1950s. Many grammar schools in the 1950s, tended to make the cap a requirement only for the younger boys, often the first or second year boys.

The 1960s

The traditional school cap became very unpopular for a variety of reasons:
General unpopularity of uniforms: Uniforms began to decline in popularity, especially by the 1960s. Boys began to complain about having to wear uniforms and it was the school cap that many boys particularly disliked.
Declining use of headgear: It was once unusual for a boy or man to go outdoors with out a hat or cap. Headgear became much less common in the 1960s. Many schools, however, continued to require the boys to wear them. Some even required the boys to tip their hats to adults, especially a master from the school, another bother.
Easy to loose: One of the reasons that boys disliked their school caps was that they were a lot of bother. They were easily left behind in a car or bus. They could also be lost in the wind when cycling to school.
Damage: The cap was invariably weaker than a rugby ball!!!!! Boys were forever snatching it from someones head and having a came of keepaway.
Image: Boys became increasingly concerned with how they dresses. They wanted trendy clothes. The school uniform and especially a school cap jut did not fit in with how they wanted to dress.
School rules:
Teasing:

1963

One grammar school boy thinks that 1963 was particularly important. He reports, "Inn my memory and experience attitudes toward caps really began to cahnge in the 1963. There was no great objection to caps in the 1950s or even in the early 1960s. I'd date the change in attitudes to around 1963--the time when longer hair, the Beatles and satirical programmes such as That Was The Week That Was came on the scene. HBC would be interested in the observations of other former British school boys.

The 1970s-90s


Personal Experiences

HBC is collecting personal experience that British readers remember about their school caps. The cap, at least by the 1960s had become perhaps themost disliked school unifofrm garment by English school boys. Many accounts submitted by English readers mentioned this. Many recall burning or destroying their caps after they no longer had to wear them. Interestingly, may HBC contributors looking back now wish that they had kep their caps as memento.

John

Our cap was plain grey with the school badge on the front. They were not very popular with us boys. We had a ceremonial burning of them in the meadow behind the school at the end of the third year, when we no longer had to wear them. We all hated the caps.

Rob

At primary school our caps were maroon and were the traditional English design. We had to wear a full uniform of grey shirts, maroon tie, blazer, grey shorts and long grey socks. I started grammar school in 1966. The cap was still requited for the first and second year boys. There was a choice of grey shorts or long trousers. Most of us wore trousers as it seemed more grown up. I can't remember much about the cap except that it was predominantly blue maybe has a small logo on it in yellow. It might be that my sister has it. I know my mom kept it until she died but after then i know nothing. We hated having to wear them. You were supposed to wear them for the first 2 years, but we used to have the older boys snatching them from us and throwing them around, especially on the buses home. Within a few months of being there they made them optional. The boys could wear grey shorts up to and including the third year. Only one boy wore them that long and he went on to become head boy. I suppose he could have been the victim of bullying for wearing them to that age but as he was popular and a leading light of the football team--he was not bothered.

Reflections

The tradition school cap gradually fell out of favor with British boys and began to disappear in the 1960s. It continued to be worn at some preparatory schools. Even though the cp declined in poularity, some adults recall their school caps with some affection. A reader writes, "I have noticed that all boy's school or baseball or any other caps are today the same shape and ugly. They seem to have been all designed and produced in exactly the same way with exactly the same ugly peak which people seem to wear when they want to anonymise themselves. I remember my old Warwick House school cap; which is probably the same as most other English/empire school caps. I think it is much more attractive that the caps boys wear today. English school caps have shades which are wider side to side and narrower than classic baseball caps and he looks like nothing so much as one of those old photos of UK evacuees during the Blitz."







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Created: November 25, 1998
Last updated: 7:45 PM 9/20/2015