English School Uniform: Retailers

Figure 1.--John Lewis continues to offer an extensive assortment of schoolwear to British consumers. This ad shows styles worn in the late 1990s, especially the longer cut short trousers and the colored jumpers.

Schoolwear is often sold at local shops which specilalize in the neighborhood schools. Until after World War II , this primarily meant private schools. Few pre-War elementary schools had uniforms although some did have caps. Almost all the private scools, including the grammar schools did require uniforms and were brought in local tailor shops.


The 19th century

Many of England's major department stores were founded in the 19th century. I am not sure, however, which was the first store to open a schoolwear department. Almost surely this occurred sometime in the 19tg century. These departments catered to the affluent who could afford private school educations. Most private schools by mid-century had uniforms and the clothing lists for these schools would be mind-bogling to the modern parent.

Inter-war Years

Buying a school uniform in the period between the two world wars could be a pleasurable experience. The department stores had reached the peak of development. Most women shopers focused their shopping on these often luxurious stores. School uniform reached its peak of popularity during the inter-war era. Many new schools had opened and the resulting riot of blazers, caps, ties, socks, and other garments in an amazing diversity of colors and patterns made the schoolwear section of the major department stores a colorful place indeed. Come August, well off families would coverge en masse on London from considerable distancesd as well other major cities (Liverpool and Manchester) to kit our the children. In would be a major shopping expedition with other family purchases taking place at the same time. Shopping was a much more civilized experience in those years. Chairs were distributed throughout the stores for tired shoppers. The stores were also well staffed with sales clerks standing by to offer tactful advise.

School uniform wasbig business in the inter-war years. A schoolwear department could generate substantial profits. An affluent family might typically have two or 3 children. Outfitting them through pre-prep, prep, and public school involved a substantial effort. Typically this meant three or more different schools, each with very distinctive and extensive requirements. The boys and girls schoolwear departments in the pre-World War II era were always seperated, often located on different floors. This complicated making all ones's purchases on the same trip.

Post-war Years

After the World War II (1939-45) a much larger number of schools began to require uniforms. This meant not only the new primary schools, but also the new state secondary schools as the Labour Government's school reform significantly expanded access to education. As a result, some of the retail department stores began giving greater attention to schoolwear.

Private schools in the 1950's commonly required the uniform to be purchased from a particular gentlemans tailor who would have a schoolwear department and a local monopoly especially on blazers, caps, ties and socks with short trousers being purchased at the chain store. In later days the schools noted there was a profit margin being lost so many schools set up their own uniform shop. This is especially so at the Private schools.

Late 20th century

Today the specialist shops which attend to the individual needs of the schools as per their printed uniform requirements (and service actually includes visiting the schools) are Harrods, John Lewis, Billing and Edmunds and Bentalls.

School Clothing Lists

The school clothing lists provided the parents until World War II were by most moden standards imposing indeed. The school uniform itself was complicated enough. But the schools did not stop at just the uniform. Very specific instructions were also provided on underwear, games (physical education) kit, sheets, blankets, eiderdowns, rugs (remember there was no central heating), and many other items. Of course, a number of most items had to be purchased. Typically a boy might require six pairs of short trousers, 12 pair of socks, four pair of pajamas, four sets of sheets, and many other items such as a trunk to hold it all.

Chain and Department Stores

Companies like John Lewis, and Marks and Spencers began carrying extensive stocks of schoolwear. Generations of British school boys now look back at shopping at these stores. Thrifty British mums report being able to buy sturdy goods and prices below those available at neighborhood shops.

The big department stores like Harrods, John Lewis, Lewis', Selfidges and Bentalls all had specialist schoolwear departments. A store like Harrods would probably handle about 100 schools today, whilst a local John Lewis department store about 25 schools plus standard schoolwear for all the other local schools. The chain stores like Marks and Spencer, BHS and Littlewoods all had schoolwear sections but these were never more than standard items ( grey shirts, shorts, pullovers and socks) and did not include specific uniforms for individual schools.


The schoolwear at a place like Harrods and Billings and Edmunds are by far more expensive than normal schoolwear and this is probably the "prestige" cost of the public school only wanting to use the most exclusive stores. John Lewis however advertises " never knowingly undersold" though this is hard to quantify when the item is their own brand. However their items seem to compare favourably with Marks and Spencer whose shorts are slightly inferior being unlined. The cost of school clothing in general is no more expensive than ordinary wear.


Sandals unlike many other school uniform items were often purchased in a local shoe shop. Large department stores like Harrods also had shoe shops. Some schools might specify specific styles and colors of sandals. Other schools were not as strict about the sandals as other school uniform items.

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.
  • School Uniform Web Site: Informative review of British school uniforms with some excellent photographs
  • 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 specufuc aspects of the schools ahd school life.
  • Information: Information about school uniforms in America