** English school uniform: chronological trends

English School Uniform: Chronological Trends

Figure 1.--The boys at this school in 1897 wear a variety of suits, but all boys wear the school cap. Such caps were commonly worn by virtually all English school boys. The most popular style appears to be a Norfolk suit with an Eton collar. The caps all have piping, some are worn with badges.

Modern school uniform has in many ways been a British creation. The first uniforms were implemented in the 16th century for charity children at the famed hospital schools. Eventually more modern styles emerged in the 19th century, but at the country's elite private schools. School uniform garments like peaked caps, boaterrs, and blazers emerged at this time. The British school uniform as we now know it became widely worn in the 1920s as soft collars and ties replaced Eton collars. These basic styles have been little changed since the 1920s. There have, however, been some changes. The peaked caps once so common are now little worn. The school sandals once worn with a narrow center strap now mostly have wide straps and look more like shoes. The major change has been in the trousers worn by boys. Short pants once so common are in the 1990s much less commonly worn, but there are still some schools that continue to require them for the younger boys. Available information on school uniform trends is as follows. HBC has rather limited information on many decades and would of course appreciate any interesting information that our English readers may have to fill in the blanks.

Celtic Britain

We have no information indicating that Celtic Britons had any formal schools.

Roman Britain

Romans did have schools. The Roman conquest began (43 AD). The Romans were an urrban culture. They began turning Celtic settlenebnts into cities. Almost surely after the Roman conquest, schools would have been created in the new Roman cities. The archeological remains of the ses cities have been discivered un great detail. We have no information, however, about any evidence that archeologists have found about Roman schools in Britain. Hopefully one of our readers will know of some archeological finds, but we do not at this time. Surely there much have been scholls. Rome was a higly literate culture. And the dea than Roman Britians were iliterate is absurd.

Medieval Era

The medieval era was an extended historical era, lasting about a millennium. With the departure of the Romans (5th century AD), formal education virtually ceased. The nvading Anglo-Saxon tribes were basicall illiterate (5th century AD). They wiuls come to dominate miost of Britain. Chritianization brought literacy which at first meant Latin. The Anglo-Saxons ntofuced the Germanic base of the English language. Gradually schools were established, prmarily through the aegis of the Church. This was at first bprimarily the work of the mnasaries which established song schools. The Vikings who followed the Anglo-Saxons were also illiterate (9th century). The Normance intridyced French which would give English an imrtant Romance kanguage additive.

Dark Ages (5th-9th century)

After the Roman Legions were withdrawn from Rome in the early 5th century AD, Roman society was overwealmed by native Britons and Anglo-Saxon invaders. The only institution which survived was the Church, at first the Irish (Celtic) Church. St.Augustine arrived and establishd the okdest known school--King's School at Cnterbury. It was a cathedral school, similr to the few schools in Europe wih the the Church. Augustine and oy=ghers would help orient the Church toward Rome. This had important repercusions regarding learning as the Church would be the primnary instution responsible for learning. The first schools were slmost surely Song Schools organized by monasteries. They helped prepare boys for a life in the Church. The first known grammar school was established at Cantrtbury. Grammar schools began to be established throughout England (600s). This included Dorchester, Hereford, Hexham, Lichfield, Malmesbury, Winchester, and Worcester. As far as we know, the only schools in Briton were Church schools or more scular chools like the grammar schools that had connections with the Church. The Venererable Bede completed his Ecclestical History, the first work of English scholarship (711). The English scholar Alcuin founded a school at York (776). He would go on to become a major intelecual figure in the Carolingian era. The Viking invaions begin in ernest (866). Almost all of the Anglo-Saxon kindoms were destroyed along with the the monastaries and schools that had developed in England.

Middle medieval era (10th-12th century)

Only Wessex survived Viking onslaught. Alfred the Great of Wessex managed to stop and begin to reverse the Viking onslaught (870s). Alfred himself, only learned to read at age 12 years. The fact that the greatest king in Engkisdh hisdtorty wa poorly suggest that mmany monarch at the time as well as much of the aristocracy, if not illiterate, were poorly educated. Even so, as king, Akfred showed a real interest in education, something lacking on the other sjide of the Dane Law. St. Dunstan was an English bishop who became Archbishop of Cnterbury. He played a major role in resoring monastic life in England reforming the English church (mid-10th century). This mean that schools began to appear once more. There is considerable debate as to jusy how many biys the momasteries actually educated. [Leach] His work restored monastic life in England and reformed the English Church. Ælfric, schoolmaster at Cerne, emerges as the first major English sdcholar simce the Viking onslaught (990s). Canute became King of England (1066). He expresses concern for educating poor boys. Duke William invades Englland (1066). French replaces English as the vernacular for teaching Latin. Over time French will merge with Old Engkish to firm the modrn nglisj lngafes with both Gernan and Latin roots. The frst evident that is occuring at Oxford appears (1096). Concened about foreign influences, King Henry II banned English students from attendung the University of Paris (1167). The Church continues to play a cental role in education. The Third Lateran Council decrees tghat every cathedral scould have a school master.

The high medievl era (13-15th centurues)

An early reference we have noted to actual schoolwear deals choirboys at Benedictine monestaries. The boys reportedly wore a light blacl cassock during study periods. The boys provided the treble voices for the sung Massess held in monastic chappels. Along with the music training, the boys received a basic education. Earlier these boys were trained as part of their preparation for a life in the Church. We are not sure that this was true by the 13th centuiry. Some of these boys may have persued secular careers with the education they acquired. We are unsure as to the age of the boys that attended these Church schools. Boys at British choirs today generally a voice change at about age 13. This occurred later in Medcieval Europe. There must have been boys still singlr treble parts at age 15 and oerhsps some boys as old as 17 to 18. I am unsure, however, if these older boys continued in the choir schools. Desenchnted scholars from Oxford move toi Cambridge (1209). Chab=cellors are estanished at Oxford (1214) and Cambridge (1226). The first Oxford cillege is estanlished --University College (1249). The first Cambroidge college is estanlished -- Peterhouse (1284). The Bubonic Plagie (Black Death) devestated England (1348-49). Education is severely affected as a result of the loss of so mny scholars. Katharine Lady Berkeley founded a grammar school at Wotton-under-Edge in Gloucestershire (1384). This was first of the chantry schools. William Wykeham was granted charter for Winchester College, an independent school, which opened (1394). Parliament reenacts the Statute of Apprentices (1406). The fact thatb itvwas reenacted naen that it must have been hard to enfirce. It forbids those earning less than 20s (£1) a year from apprenticing their children. This made iut diffuicukt fir serf children to better their lot in life, but curiiously Pariamednt also forbid feydal master from foirbidding their peeasants from attending schools. Archbishop Chichele established a college at Higham Ferrers in Northamptonshire (1422) Alice Chaucer founded Ewelme School in Oxfordshire (1437). William Byngham founded God's-house at Cambridge (1439). King Henry VI founded Eton College (1440) and King's College Cambridge (1441). Eton is England's most famous school. It was a carity school to prepare poor boys for university education at King's College, Cambridge. Henry modeled Eton on Winchester Collefe which he often visuted. He chose the headmaster at Winchester anbd some of the pupil to launch Eton. Archbishop Rotherham's college founded to give 'free instruction in grammar, song and writing'(1483). Pico della Mirandola (1463-1494) wrote De hominis dignitate (Oration on the Dignity of Man) - the 'Manifesto of the Renaissance' (1486). The Renaussance would fundamnentally change the nature of learming in the Westy. Scotland would lead the way toward punlkic education in Britain. The Scottish Parliamebnt passed a statute required barons and freeholders of substance to send their children to school (1496). Joannes Guttenberg in Germany intoduced modern printing--moveable type (1455). This was impossiblke in Chinese asnd diffiucuylt in Arabic giving the Western wortld a destinct advntage. Wells School in Somerset used printed schoolbooks (1498). This appears to be the first school to do so.

The 16th Century

Modern school uniform has in many ways been a British creation. The first uniforms were implemented in the 16th century for charity children at the famed hospital schools. While charity schools emerged, there were no publically financed schools for boys. Schools were fee paying private schools. Many of Englands famed public schools emerged at this time. They were public in the sence that enrollment was open to the public, at least the public that could afford the fees. Boys from really wealthy families, especially aristocratic boys were schooled at home. There were no uniforms required at the public schools. Henry VIII wjo would have aprofound impsct on education bdcomes king (1509). St Paul's School founded by John Colet (1509). Parliament requires thast that boys aged between seven and seventeen should be provided with a bow and two arrows (1512), The longbow was a decisive English weaon inmany battles. Dutch humnist Desiderius Erasmus (1466-1536) writes De Duplici Copia Verborum ac Rerum to be used Colet's school at St. Paul's (1512). Marin Luthrr nailed his 95 thesis on the church door Wittenberg (1517). Although hery did not address education, they woud have a profonnd impact on Western education. King Henry abhored the Reformation, and pens Assertio Septem Sacramentorum (Defence of the Seven Sacraments) dedicated to Pope Leo X. (1521). The Pope would declare Henry 'Defebder iof thecfaith'. It is an iinybof historu that Henry would make the Reformation possible in England. Henry breaks with Rome over his desire to divirse his queen and wuife and marry Anne Boylen who happens to be a fierce Protestant. This made it possike for Thomas Cromwell (Henry's Chancellor) and another Protestant to order copies of William Tyndale's new English Bible to be placed in every parish church in the Realm (1535). Cromwell conviunces Henry to order the dissolution of the friaries, monasteries, and nuneries (1535-40). This destroys institutions that pakyed a huge role in English educarion. While the monnastaries gone, stripped of their assets. The major source of education funding was gone, especiually funding for charity schools. Thus the Reformation damaged English in the short term, in the long term it was hugely beneficial. The monasteries had also established grammar schools in the cities and many of these did survive the Dissolution of the Monastries by being refounded, some of this was done privately and some at the order of Henry. In the kong term it was hugely beneficial. The Protrstants believed that everyone hould read the Bible. And to make that possible, public education was required. It took Engknd longer to get there than mnu other countries, but it did evntuslly get there. Cromwell next sent' visitors' to the universities with orders to re-orient studies and powers to enforce the required changes (1535). Parliament swayed by Cromwell authorised Henry to establish new cathedrals and collegiate churches with grammar schools. Henry execultes Boleyn (1536). Heney was so pleased with Cromwell getting rid of his first two wives for him that he paids little attention as to how Criw=omwell has pushed the Reformation. These actions were implemented (1450-52). Henry founded five Regius professorships - in divinity, Greek, Hebrew, medicine and civil law - at Cambridge (1540). Henry eventally had Cromwell executed (1540). There were a variety of reasons, but a part of it was his criwing realization of how Cromwell has engineered the Reformation. Canterbury Grammar School refounded (1541). A committe produced a 'Shorte Introduction of Grammar' for Henry, better known as Lily's Latin Grammar (1542). Henry wanted to constrain the Reformatioin and had Parliament ban artisans, husbandmen, labourers, servants and almost all women from reading or discussing the Bible (1453). This, however, prived impossible to enforce. Partliament oassed the first Chantry Act providing for the dissolution of the chantries and guilds (1545). This was never carried through because of Henry's death (1547). Henry founds five Regius professorships - in divinity, Greek, Hebrew, medicine and civil law - at Oxford (1546). As much as Henry hasted he Protestabnt teachings, he could not reverse what Anne and Crimwell had launched. Reconciliation with Rome was impossible. And he was suceeded by hus son 9-year old son Edward who had been raised a Protestant. And his regebncy was conducted by Protestants. The regents and Edward reorganised the grammar schools that had been largely run by the monks and estanlished new ones. They also made them free, making them availbke to poor boys. Of course the huge portion of boys did not go to any school. Some histoirins report that aubstantial foundation for the devlopmrnt of higher eduction bgan around (1560). [Stone} This of course meant Elikzabeth's reign.

The 17th Century

The 17th century is arguably the most tumultuous in English history during which after a civil war and beheading a king, the modern constitution meaning parlimentary suprenecy was fundamentlly set. Queen Elizabeth I died abd James VI of Scotland became James I of England (1603). This was the beginning of the Stuart dynasty and a fundamental clash between the molnrchy and Parliament. Little changed in the 17th century. Well-to-do fmilies might have tutors. Merchants and the landed gentry tught thrir children in the home. This was primarily fir the boys, but grls were often also invilved, especially if they were interested and capable. People of modest means sent children to dane schools, also calles petty schools. Some were essentiallychild care plaves, but the children art aout 5-7 years of ge were taught to read. Deoending on the danr there might also be math and writing instruction. Gurks might be tught music and needle work. his varied greatlt depending in the knowledge of the dame. The next steo was the grmmars chool, but only for boys, If girls were to advance further, it was up to parents. And mabyh oasrenbts did notthinkjit was od any vslue to educate girls further. The charity hospital schools continued to require uniforms while the private schools, including the public schools, did not. Styles did change only in line with overall fashion trends in society.

The 18th Century

No important advances were mae in Eglish edication until the late-18yh century. School boys like their fathers wore knee breeches through most of the 18th century. There were major developments in children's fashions during the 18th century. After mid-18th century, specialized childrens styles emerged for the first time. These specialized styles like skeleton suits were mostly for boys. A huge step in English educatiin was the Sunday School novement. Robert Raikes helped to launch it (1780s). the Sunday School Movement began as an effort to teaching poor boys. There were no child labor lawa and no free public schools. Childrenm worked long hours. Sunday was their only free time. The ame is misleading. Sunday School today denotes sectarian religious instruction at churches. The Sunday School movenent was to teach poor children to read and was not conducted at churches. There was Bible study, but primarily for moral uplift and was non-sectarian. Ha nnah Ball established the first Sunday School, but it was Robert Raikes who systenilized the and launched the fsith-based program (1780s). Raikes began by teaching poor boys confined in work houses. He saw education as a way of prevent chrinality. The focus was on teaching the boys to read in addition to studying the Bible and the catechism. The effort ws eventually expanded to childre in poor slum neignborhoods and to include the girls. One teacher describes the effort. "The children were to come after ten in the morning, and stay till twelve; they were then to go home and return at one; and after reading a lesson, they were to be conducted to Church. After Church, they were to be employed in repeating the catechism till after five, and then dismissed, with an injunction to go home without making a noise." The effort began a small trial. It expnded very quickly and within only afew years, some 250,000 English children wer participating and learming to read. ith limited finding, the movemnt would take advantage of older students would help teach the younger ones. The Sunday school movement was truly inspiring. Some of the greatest minds of the day observed it and were deeoly imoressed. This included economist Adam Smith (1723-1790), philosopher Thomas Malthus (1766-1836), and Methodist preacher John Wesley (1703-1791) to commebt on how effective it was in promoting popular education. Adam Smith, for example, wrote, "No plan has promised to effect a change of manners, with equal ease and simplicity' as did the morals-based literacy training provided in the 18th-century Sunday school. [Trumbull, p. 118.] It was an important beginning tero toward public education.

The 19th Century

The Sunday School Movement had provided eductional opportunities for the first time to largemunbers of poor, working-class children. as well as moral uplift. Establisged xchool continued to expand as Enhlnd benefitted from the Industrial Revolution. Many of these schools had uniforms. Modern styles emerged in the 19th century, but at the country's elite private schools. Eton boys by the early part of the century were wearing long pants suits with short jackets, long pants, and what was to become known as Eton collars. This style proved to be enormously popular at the country's public (private) schools, although each school had their own differences. Most public schools, however, did not require uniforms. Actually many parents refused to send their children to the public schools and educated them at home. Gradually the outrageous and in many cases dangerous situation at these schools forced the schools to introduce a variety of reforms to control student behavior. One of the reforms was to require standardized uniforms which until the 19th century had been a feature only at charity schools. School uniform garments like peaked caps, boaterrs, and blazers emerged at the the public schools. Especially after mid-century as part of the educational reforms sweeping the public schools, preparatory schools for the younger boys began to proliferate. Many younger boys, however, continued to be educated at home or attend dame schools where uniforms were not required. Even more imortantly, England began to develop a pubically financed state school system. While lagging behind several countries on the continent there was a great expansion of schools for the average English boy during this period. A wide variety of schools were opened, including ragged schools, board schools, national schools and several others. Only by the late 19th century did educational reforms began creating a national system of state schools out of the variety of schools that had been created. Uniforms were not required at these elementary schools. State financed secondary schools were a rarity throughout the 19th century.

Figure 2.--English boys for much of the 20th century wore short pants and knee socks. Many of the first form boys at this grammar school in 1961 wore short pants and kneesocks even though there was no school rule.

The 20th Century

The British school uniform as we now know it became widely worn in the 1920s as soft collars and ties replaced Eton collars. These basic styles have been little changed since the 1920s. The styles were primarily set at the prestigious public schools and followed at state schools. Primary schools did not require uniforms, but clothing styles were strongly affected by hat was being worn at Public and prepartory schools. State secondary schools were still relatively limited until after World War I. Many of the schools that did exist began requiring uniforms, usually following styles adopted at the public schools. While the styles adopted by schools in the 1920s continue to be worn today, there have been some changes. The peaked caps once so common are now little worn. The school sandals once worn with a narrow center strap now mostly have wide straps and look more like shoes. The major change has been in the trousers worn by boys. Short pants once so common are in the 1990s much less commonly worn, but there are still some schools that continue to require them for the younger boys.

The 21st Century

Little information is available yet on 21st century trends, but HBC will be watching closely to try to find any emerging new trends. Most English secondary schools and some primary continue to require school uniforms although the subject is increaingly being debated. Many primary schools have increasingly casual uniforms. Even prep schools have adopted the more casual styles. One teacher reports in 2000 that in the school that he works it has been interesting to note that there has been a slight rise in the number of older students wearing grey shorts during the summer. Ties have been replaced by the more casual use of school emblem sweatshirts and traditional black school shoes are slowly being replaced by black trainers. Baseball caps are increasingly worn as a safeguard from the dangers of the sun. Almost every pupil now wears white socks where as not so long ago boys would object, considering them girlish! The now popular survey provide a very accurate picture of what English boys are wearing to school. Some question school uniforms, but they remain very common.

Personal Accounts

HBC has acquired a wide range of personal accounts contributed by our readers as well as other sources. Most of course are from the 20th century. These readers describe the uniforms and clothes that they wore as schoolboys. We also are searching for literary notes


Leach, Arthur Francis. The Schools of Medieval England (New York: Mcmillian, 1915).

Stone, Laswrence. "The eductional revolution in England, 1560-1640," Past & Present No. 28 (July 1964), pp. 41-80.

Trumbull, Henry Clay. The Sunday-School: Its Origins, Mission, Methods, and Auxiliaries (Philadelphia, John D. Wattles, 1888.)

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.