England: Boys' Clothes: 1970s

I grew up in England during the 1970s. I attended the local infant school from age 4 to 7. It was mixed, and all boys wore grey shorts, other than that therewere no uniform requirements. Girls could wear anything, but they all wore dresses or skirts. No girl ever wore trousers or shorts, it was unthinkable. The boys all wore long socks, usually grey, but sometimes patterned fawn or brown, even black. We never wore white socks, only girls wore white socks. The girls did wear tights, thick woolly things, never nylons.

I recall one winter, when aged seven, a group of us boys were standing around complaining to each other thatthe girls had tights which covered their legs, but we had bare thighs. This is the only time that I can recall discussingclothing with other children. At home mum would rub some greasy substance onto our thighs, the shorts had a rough hem which rubbed the tender skin between our legs, I can remember crying with pain, and walking bow-legged on a wet windy day. The rain was worst, I did not mind the frost or snow, but wet legs in short pants was horrid. The rain would sting as it lashed onto delicate flesh, and my coat was not long enough to reach my socks. Sometimes I would walk behind an adult, so close that I might step onto their heels.

From the age of six we went to school alone, it was shameful to be taken by your mum, only babies were taken to school. Any kid who arrived holding his mother's hand would have died with embarassment.

My worst day at Infant school was when I lost control, and filled my pants at lunchtime. Oh, how I cried as the dinner ladies stripped my shorts & underpants, then cleaned me up. They rinsed my clothes and put them into a bag, then dressed me in spare shorts from a cupbord. The shorts were too big, and I felt awful. After school I had to go to my Grandad's house, mum was working. I did not want Grandad to know about the accident, so I hid the bag behind the toilet. When My dad came to collect me, I rushed to the loo & collected the bag. I never knew if Grandad had seen what I was up to, he probably did, but never mentioned it. Mum had to wash the borrowed shorts and I returned them the next day, feeling quite relieved to hand them over, it marked the end of the episode.

School started in September, and my birthday is November, so I was one of the oldest kids in the class. At age seven we moved to the Junior school, same clothing rules, shorts for boys, skirts for girls. The girls had a separate playground, what joy. We would occasionally push a lad through the gap into the girls yard, and he would dash back looking all embarrassed. On rare occasions we might run through their yard, but the big girls would trip us or catch us and pin us down then send for a dinner lady. Dangerous sports, if caught the dinner ladies would make us stand in the corner of the girls yard, and several girls would tease us.

In 1971 the oldest boys could wear long trousers, just the boys in the fourth year, those about to go up to secondary school. There was no set rule, it was custom & practise. My brother went into longs in September of his last year, and I asked mum for longs. She gave in on my ninth birthday, and I became the only kid in the second year of juniors to have longs. I never wore shorts again for school, but some kids wore them right up to their last day. I recall talking to one lad, when we were both eleven. He had worn longs, but was now back in shorts for the summer term. I asked him how he felt, and he said he prefered the shorts. I was jealous, but too embarrassed to ask my mum if I could wear shorts, I secretly hoped she might put me in them, but she never did.

In september 1973 I went to the Grammmar school (academically selective secondary school). The uniform list said "Trousers-grey. If a boy is to wear shorts they should begrey." No boy turned up on his first day in shorts, but half of us wore our caps. The list said we had to have them. I loved mine, I was so proud of qualifying for the Grammar school that I wore it every day for weeks. On that first day the Deputy Head came out and summoned all of the boys who were wearing caps. He said that we could remove them as not many boys wore them now. I used to keep mine in my pocket, and put it on at the gate. Twenty five years later I still have it. One boy did come to school in shorts, a few years later. It was during the hot summmer of 1976, and we were 14 by now. He got teased all day and never did it again. I think we were all scared that if he did it, we might be forced into shorts, and in those days shortpants were a symbol of juvenile status, an item of mockery & humiliation.

At home I never wore shorts, not even in the summer, from age 7. On schooldays I stayed in shorts all day, at weekends it was jeans. I have one photo of my brother & I attending a wedding in blue cardigans & grey shorts, I would be eight at most. Other than that there were no shorts, apart from cubs.

I went to cubs from age 7 to my 11th birthday, and wore shorts every time. I used to love ironing my shorts, getting a crease down the front and back, then putting them on still boiling hot from the iron. One day, when I was 10, the cub pack went on a day out. I went in my shorts, and was shocked to see every other boy in longs. I had not heard Akela say that we could wear longs, and there was no time to go home to change. We went to a forest, and met boys from 20 other packs. We played all day, and I was glad to see at least some of the others were in shorts as well. At the end of the day we all sat on the grass in a big circle, in a clearing in the forest. We played a game which was new to me, called "The Vicar of Bray". Each boy had a number, and the story was that the Vicar's cap was missing. When a boy called your number, you had to stand, make a speech denying guilt, then accuse another boy. There were loads of rules, about getting the speech wrong, choosing a wrong number, being too slow, and so on. Breeching any rule implied guilt, and the culprit had to go up for a smack.

Christopher Wagner


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Created: April 2, 1998
Last updated: April 2, 1998