Schools and Education

English preparatory school

Figure 1.--These English boys at a preparatory boarding school are wearing their full school kit on a rainy day preparing to go to church in the morning.

School for most children is the major experience with the world outside the home. About a third of the day is spent at school and about half of a child's waking hours. There are a wide range of schools and educational approaches employed asround the world. And these approaches have changed significantly over time. School clothing did not used to be a great issue. Mom and dad chose it or the school had a uniform. In our modern world, kids haver become much more concerned with their clothes. The cost of those clothes and conflicts associated weith them have caused many schools and parents to reaasess the school uniform. Some countries are beginning to reverse the decline in uniform usage. School uniforms have varried from country to country and over time. The school uniform familiar to our British friends consist of a blazer, school tie, and dress pants which is worn by boys in many countries, especially English-speaking countries. This uniform evolvedin the England during the late 19th century. Blazers were at first sports wear, but in the 1920s began to replace Eton suits and stiff Eton collars and by the 1930s had become the standard uniform at many private schools.

Historical Background

School uniforms in America, until recently, have generally been associated with high-cost exclusive schools for the well to do. Even in England where most children wear uniforms to school, elaborate school uniforms were mostly associated with what many Brits considered to be hoity-toity elite preparatory and public (i.e. private secondary) schools for the rich. The historical origin of uniforms, however, is quite different. Uniforms were first instituted in 16th Century England at the charity schools for poor children. It was not until the 19th Century that the great English public schools began instituting uniforms and even later for them to be widely accepted at state schools--especially state elementary schools.

French school smocks
Figure 2.--Little French boys continued wearing smocks in the 1960s, but all elementary-age boys once wore them in addition to some younger teenagers. These smocks appeared in a 1952 French advertisement.

Uniform Garments

Some of the most common elements of modern school uniforms originated in England. Garments like peaked caps, Eton collars, striped ties, blazers, grey short trousers (originally called knickers), kneesocks with colored bands in ther school colors (called three quarter turnover top socks), and school sandals all appeared in England. Many of these garments are now used at schools around the world. Other countries have also contributed to the various items worn by modern school children, including French smocks and American baseball caps. Many countries have in recent years adopted older formal styles into more comfortable, informal garments.

Hair Styles

Just like uniform and other schoolwear styles, hair styles have also changed over time. And school photographs are a good way of following these changes. This is complicated somewhat by the fact that msny schools have had very strict hair style regulations or attempted to regulate hair styles. In part this was a public health issue, but with improving sanitaion standards it by the mid-20th century was essentially a fashion matter. With teenagers attempting to make a statement and schools tending to insist on conservative hair styles. At schools with uniform, hair styles were the only fashion stateement pupils can make, other than wearing the uniform slovenly. But uniform schools tended to be stricter about hair styling. Other schools have had only general dress code regulations. Many schools leave it entirely up to the children and parents. We note wide variations in styles and school rules over time. Often educational philopsophy is more important here than fashion. There are also significant differences among countries. Currently we only have a page on Russian girls, but this is a section that we hope to expand. Hopefully readers will provide some insights on this topic with descriptions of their experiences.

Chronology

Schoolwear like all clothes have changed along with fashion fluctuations over time. School uniforms are to a large extent associated with England where they were first used to ientify charity children in the 16th century, Only in the mid-19th century were uniforms adopted by exclusive private schools. It was in the 20th century that uniforms were adopted by schools all pver the world--often as a dempocratic reform. American schools for generations avoided public school uniforms, although that begun to change in the 1980s. Many European countries have also avoided scool uniforms. Surprisingly even the NAZIs did not adopt school uniforms at state schools.

Belgian school uniform
Figure 3.--For many the uniform at a school is a reflection of discipline and other standards and is important it forming opinions about the school. Not everyone can carefully study a school's operation. Anyone can glance at a school's pupils and form a quick opinion as the boys travel to and from school.

Significance of School Uniforms

The school uniform is the single-most vissible element of any school. Boys in school uniform are in fact walking advertisements for a school, giving an impression of the school for good or for bad throughout a an entire town or city. Many believed the uniform to be an accurate reflection of a school's discipline standards and discipline. Most people are not educational experts, but a smartly uniformed schoolboy can be noted by all but the blind. Some scoff at the importance of discipline, but as any school teacher can tell you, discipline is critical to the functioning of any school. No school can function effectively without a disciplined student body. A disciplinarian is not necesarily a good teacher, but unless a teacher can control his class room, it will be impossible to teach no matter how learned he is. But descipline without an effective education program has little value. Thus uniform standards can be misleading. A school might produce excellent results, academically, artistically or atheletically--but slovenly dresses students suggested to many that the school was not effective. Likewise, neatly tuned out boys suggested to many that a school, no matter how dismal the results, was an effective one. Parents, teachers, and students still debate the value of school uniforms. Many teenagers and in America adults argue that a uniform promotes uniformity and has nothing to do with education. But beyond these discussions, the debate over school uniform can take on an importance far beyond the issues involved. More importantly it is an impression that everyone in the vicinity of a school forms, most of whom do not have the opportunity and interest in assessing a school's program.

American schoolwear
Figure 4.--School uniforms are not common in all countries. American public (state) school students have not taditionally worn uniforms. This image shows high school students in 1922. The boys mostly wear knicker suits. Norfolk jackets were especially popular. Click on the image for another of this group. Note the middy blouses the girls wear and the huge hairbow one girl wears.

Types of Schools

Schools come in a wide variety of different types with many varying tendencies regarding school uniforms. There are schools structured for varying age groups and schools with all age group ogether. There are single-gender schools and coed schools. There are state and private schools. There are secular and religious schools. There are suburban, rural, and inter city schools. There are schools for specific ethnic or national groups. There are academically selctive and comprehensive schools. There are boarding and day schools. Many other different types of schools exist. There are also specialized schools addressing the needs of handicapped children, such as the Perkins School for the Blind. in the United States. These schools in different countries have had a variety of uniforms and dress codes. Some of these schools had destinctive uniforms. Many schools, especially state schools, have not had uniforms--although this trend has begun to change in some countries.

Year Level

HBC readers have suggested that it might be helpful to have a page comparing school year designations in various countries and how they relate to ages. As the schools often made a variety of uniform destinctions contingent on yea-level, understanding school year destinctiins is helpful in understanding these destinctins. In talking to people from other countries, I've found that some translations are easy, such as Canadian "Grade 6" is American "6th Grade", but how do these compare to British "6th Form"? This information is currently sprinkled about various pages, but is summarized here for the readers information.

Uniform Regulations

Schools have differed greatly from country to country and over time concerning the type and style of uniform. One of the most controversial elements have been the type of pants the boys are trquired to wear. Curiously while British boys in the 1970s at some schools were arguing to be allowed to wear long pants, some American boys were asking for the right to wear shorts. Schools have had various ways of assessing the proper length or who could wear longs. In most cases it was by grade or form, but in some cases by age or even height. Schools and students have also disagreed over the length of the shorts. Schools have had rules in some cases prohibiting to long or to short shorts or other details such as material.

Singapore school uniform
Figure 5.--All state schools and most private schools in Singapore require school uniforms. White shirts, brown short pants, and white kneesocks are a common style.

National School Uniforms

Uniform styles and traditions vary widely from country to country. Some styles are so distinctive that they became almost a symbol for their country, given the distinctive uniform styles. Many of the Continental countries, for example, had schoolboys wear protective smocks over their regular clothes rather than a uniform like the British. The French schoolboy in beret and smock became an easily recognizeable symbol of France. Likewise the English schoolboy in peaked cap, blazer, and short pants was a virtual symbol of England. The English styles were widely copied in their colonies around the world, especially Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa. The British influence was not just limited to former colonies. Even countries as far away as Chile adopted British styles. The Japanese in the early 20th Century, in typical Japanese fashion, chose secondary school uniforms based on the uniforms of the leding military power of the day (Prussia) for boys and the leading naval power of the day (Britain) for girls. After World War II, many elementary schools adopted European fashions (short pants) for boys. Many Western European countries have never adopted school uniforms for boys. The current climate in Europe would prbably not allow the introduction of uniforms. however, have moved away from school uniforms. American public school children have generally not worn uniforms. Uniforms are used at some American schools, especially private and parochial schools. Many American educators and parents, however, are rethinking the uniform issue. Even President Clinton became has become an advocate for school uniforms. Some Americans still see uniforms for children as an unwaranted governmental intrusion to promote conformity. An increasing number of parents, however, noting declining descipline standards and the high cost of designer clothes, are increasingly turning to uniforms.

Activities

The primary activity at school, of course, is classroom instruction. Even this, however, varies widely. This varied according to age group as approches varied, chronologically as teaching trends vary, by country. subject matter, and other factors. While it is the classroom that is the center of any school, a lot of activities occur at school beyond classroom instruction. It is probably in America that extra-curricular activities first becsme pronounced. The most important extra-curricular avtivity is probably sports, but most American high schools have extensive extra-curricular programs. English schools have given condiderable attention to sports, but this has been the private schools more than the public schools. They are now common in many other countries. American scghools, however still tend to have more extensive extra-curricular programs than is the case in Europe. French schools continue, for example, to have a findamentaly academic focus. Here we will focus on the many varied school activities. We will look at activities both in and outside of the classroom. HBC has archieved several thousand school images. Many of these images are portraits or class photographs. There are, however, also many images showing the children at school involved in a range of activities. We have worked on the school activities in several of the country school sections.

South African school uniform
Figure 6.--Many South African schools have uniforms based on British styles. Summer uniforms of kahki shirts and short pants are also common.

Events

A child's first day at school is another major event in his life. For some it is the hardest day in his life and often his parents--especially mom. It is probably not as important as it used to be as many children now are taking care of in pre-school daycare, often from an early age. Even so that doesn't always make the event easier for some and tears may still be shed. Before World War II (1939-45), school was more commonly the first important event away from home. It could be a heartwrenching experience full of big and small worries for the boy and for his parents. Children were and still are uneasy about starting a new routine, getting along with other kids, and being away from mommy and daddy. While that firt day at school was the major event. Each year as the boy moves from grade or form is also important, especially the transition from primary to secondary school. In England and other countries, boys often changed from short pants to long pants when they moved, or soon after they moved, from junior to senior school.

Transport and Travel

Schools over time have had various regulations concerning travel. This has varied both by country and by type of school. The wealth and infrastructure of a country has affected how children travel to school. More affluent countries can afford to transport children to school. The yellow school bus is a mainstay of Ameruican education and busses are important in many other countries. Municipal transport, trains, and subways are also important in many countries. Less affluent countries are less able to afford transport and the children mostly walk to school. The level of school is also important. Primary schools tend to be relatively small and many children live within walking distance. Secondary schools tend to be larger and fewer children live within walking distance. The type of school is also a factor. Boarding schools often required that boys wear the formal uniform when traveling to and from school. Train stations in England were often crowed with different school uniforms during the seasonal times that boys traveled to and from schools. A less formal uniform was often worn while at school. Day schools often required boys to wear their blazers and caps while coming to and from school, but they may not have to wear them during the school day. Field trips were another time that the formal scool uniform was required. Many schools hace now adopted more informal uniform policies.

American military schools
Figure 7.--Many private American schools do have school uniforms. Military schools are the most obvious examples.

Military Schools

Private military academies for schoolage boys have operated in many European countries as well as the United States. I know some operated as early as the 18th Century. Napoleon, for example, attended ones. Military schools were founded in many European countries, including Austria, France, Italy, Prussia, and other countries. Military schools were well established in America by the Civil War. Attitudes toward the schools differef greatly from country to country. Interestingly, England, the country with the most extensive boarding school system appears to have had relativeky few military shools. Some hospital (charity schools), however did wear military uniforms.

Gender

The school uniforms in many countries followed British styles had very destinctive uniforms for boys and girls. There are destinctie headwear styles for boys and girls. The boys wore pants and the girls dresses, often gym frocks, or skirts. This is the convention in all schools that we know of with uniforms. The colors vary. Blue and gray are the most common. The girls dresses are both solid colors and patterns--almost always plaid. Many schools have the girls wear white socks, both ankle and knee length. Few schools use white socks for boys uniforms, although we note one school in Brisbane where the boys wear white kneesocks. Some have shoe requirements such as strap shoes or sandals, but this varies. At non-uniform schools in recent years girls have begun wearing pants, both jeans and shorts. Some schools with unforms allow the girls to wear shorts and long pants, but this is not very common.

The Merits of School Uniforms

Schools around the world have taken many different approaches to the dress of school children. Some countries have national polices. Others have no policies at all. Some countries (Japan) have put children in military uniforms. Other countries (America) have until recently steadfastly opposed school uniforms. Where ever school uniforms have been employed, they have proven surprisingly controversial. Often the same arguments are used by both sides of the debate, such as cost. In some countries (France) school uniforms have been used to reduce class differences. In other countries (England) school uniforms were used to identify boys as members as a privlidged eliete. Now the debate has spread to America, where uniforms have traditionally been resisted. Many Americans are beginning to see the school uniform as one way of addressing the probems of public education, especially the lack of discipline and even violence.

Home Trends

Boys varied as to what they did when they came home from school. Some boys immeiately changed out of their uniforms. In some cases this was because they didn't like their uniform as thus a baromter of attitudes. In other cases, mums insisted that they change to keep the uniform good for school. Trends varies over time. Many boys before World War II may not have had special clothes for school. It also was affected by the age of the boy. Yonger boys were generally less likely to change than older boys.

Future Work

The subject of school uniform is a complicated one and it will be some time before it can be addressed in detail. I will probably eventually work on a site specifically on this subject, but first want to add more historical information to this web site. There are, however, some interesting links available elsewhere on the web.

Literary Characters

Boys being boys, most of these characters are schoolboys. Tom Brown's exoloits are the first school story. The beginning of a fasinating genre in English literature. The characters, however, vary widely to the extent tpo which their exploits concern school. The Jennings and Billy Bunter series are set in schools. The William and Jim Starling series hace relatively little to do with school. Several different issues occur to us about these school stories. One is the type of schools in which the adventures are set. Another interesting question is the relative popularity of the characters. A reader writes us, "You say that 'William Brown is the one of the two most famous schoolboy in English literature. (The other of course is Jennings.)" Well, what about Billy Bunter? I would have thought that he is the most famous of the three. [Collings] This is an interesting question.

Personal Accounts and Articles

Some personal accounts are available describing the uniforms or clothes worn as schoolboys. Quite a number of personal acounts or loaded on the individual country pages. HBC will eventually cross reference those accounts here.

France--The lycee: 1900

Individual Schools

HBC is collecting details on uniforms at specific schools. This information is useful in assessing school uniform styles and trends. At this time the indidual school information is assessable under the different country pages, for the counties for which HBC has information. We are working on these pages foe England, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Scotland, the United State, and other countries. These county individual school pages will eventually be cross reference here. In the interim, we would be very interested with information about the school that you attended.

Economics

The economics of school uniforms and school clothing is an interesting question. School uniform was first created in England to provide school wear to poor children in charity schools. Eventually this changed and uniforms in the early 19th century were adopted by some of England exclusive private schools to prevent boys competing with each over with outlandisg styles and colors. Evetually the uniforms and games kits adopted by the schools were became very involved and expensive. School uniforms took on a aura of exclusivity and privlidge. The French took a different appraoch. A new republican government in tbe 1870s adopted smocks work over a boy's clothes to reduce the appearance of class differences. Italy adopted a similar approach. America never adopted school uniforms and the uniforms worn at private schools were c The Catholic schools did adopt uniforms and in the 1980s many public schools began experimentng with uniforms. Today in many countries without uniforms, buying school clothes has become a late summer ritual. onsidered a symbol of privlidge. This has, however begun to change. Simplified school uniforms began to be seen as a way of limiting school clothing expenses.

Other Topics

Several other topics touch on school uniforms and schoolwear in various ways. One of those topics is youth groups, many of which have strong connections with schools. There are a variety of ceremonies conducted at school such as classroom pledges, flag ceremonies and risings, and more formal patriotic ceremonies. Some schools make a major event out of a child's first day at school. There are all prize giving or end of term ceremonies as well as graduation. There are religious ceremonies associated with many schools. This is of course most common at schools affilited with religious groups. This can be both private and state-supported schools. The children often dress up for these ceremonies.

Essays and Articles

Overall--Archetypical school boy










Careful, clicking on these will exit you from the Boys' Historical Clothing web site, but several are highly recommended

  • Apertures Press New Zealand e-Books: Appertures Press has published three different EBooks about New Zealnd schools.
  • British Preparatory Schools: A photographic book depicting life at British preparatory schools during the 1980s. Most of the schools are English or Scottish, but schools in Italy, New Zealand, South Africa, and Ulster are also included. The pictures show the uniforms worn at many different schools.
  • British Prep School eBooks: Apperture Press has published six eBooks about different vaspects of British public schools. Volume I is a general assessnent. The other volumes deal with more specific aspects of the schools ahd school life.