French School Uniform:  Individual Experiences

Figure 1.-- 

HBC has begun to collecinformation on French boyhood school experiences. Our earliest account comes from the 1870s. They include expeeriences at both state and private Catholic schools. One American reader has provided details about his school experiences.

The 1870s: The Last Class

The state schools in Alsace Loraine were taken over by German authorities and the language of instruction became German. Teachers were replaced. I do not know to what extent French language private and Catholic schools were allowed to operate if at all. The majority French population never accepted the German annexation and continued to see themselves as French. This must have resulted in incidents at school. Presumably the teachers saw themselves as Germans and many if not most would have tried to instill German patriotism in the children. School smocks must have been much less common in these provinces than the rest of France, if they were worn at all. HBC does not at this time know just how the children dressed in the Alsace-Loraine schools.

The 1890s: A Lycée

An interesting book provides some fascinating details on French boyhood during the 1910s. It offers insights on several different topics, clothes, hair styles, and school life. It is the memories of Paul Vailland-Couturier who was born in 1893. The book was translated from the French by Ida Treat, an American paleontologist and journalist. I've included some text about his clothes at 4 years of age and about his first experiences in school. Included also are some sketches of Paul at about 7. Compare the information in the text with the photographs available for Emile Zola's son Jacques, a contemporary of Paul. The sailor suit with knickers worn by Paul are similar to the ones worn by Jacques who also wore curls and latter bangs. One of the things emphasized in this book is the isolation of French children until they were quite old. School was the first time Paul played with other children. Even in the country in the summers he was mostly around adults. French families seem to have been very close knit units.

The 1950s: Home Tutoring and Catholic Schools

Unlike my brother who lived at home, I did not attend a regular school. Instead my uncle had me tutored in his house. A few other children were tutored with me. The result was very good. I got an exceptionally good education. I still have some of my school-work. Normaly school was compulsory. Home schooling was not as common as it is today. Once or more per year an inspector came from an academy to assess our academic progress. A note from one of these visits in 1949 read, "Alain Paul prèsente un niveau scolaire acceptable. Il s'exprime bien. Il comprend et parle couramment espagnol." I was 6 years old at the time.

The 1950s-60s: A State Elementary school and Catholic Secondary Day School

French boys have not commonly worn formal school uniforms like their across the Channel English cousins. Through much of the first half of the 20th century, elementary school boys in France wore school smocks over their clothes. As this was a very common practice, it gave the appearance of a school uniform. Not all French schoolboys wore smocks. Many did and some had uniform requirements. The children had to wear the same color andstyle of smock. This was most common at private schools, many of which were Catholic schools. A French contributor to HBC has provided us some details on his his boyhood experiences during the 1950s. I was born in 1950 a few years after the end of World War II. From my earlist days I rember wearing smocks. French boys in the 1940s still commonly wore school smocks but it became less common in the 1960s. Wearing smocks at home for play was even less common. Most little boys wore short pants with sandals during the summer and kneesocks during the clothing item for a boy to wear. It protected my clothes and we had littlemoney during the 1940s for new clothes. Thus mother believed that a smock was just perfect for me.

The 1960s: Catholic Boarding School

I was in Elementary school until eleven. The elementary school did not requite a uniform as such, but we had to wear smocks. We boys thought it was a good thing because it didn't matter it ink blots got on it or we got it dirty. We wore the smocks in elementary school, in the classroom, and at playtime. We never wore berets. We has a special white cassock for First Communion. Next I went to a Jesuit Catholic boys college (private secondary ) school. My mother is a very traditionalist Catholic.

The 1960s: American Boy at a French School

The strongest memories that I have about the clothes I wore as a boy were my short pants. My parents insisted on shorts, even when my friends didn't wear them. As a 12-year old boy finishing elementary school, I never thought I'd dress up in short pants and knee socks. That was before my dad got a chance to teach at the Sorbone in Paris. We were soon off to Europe. After a summer of touring Europe, we settked down in Paris and it was time for me to begin school. Had it not been for Dad's opportunity to study at the Sorbone I would never again have worn shorts for anything other than casual wear, But instead, I, as a tall, 12-year old American 7th grader, would find myself put back into short pants that I, as most Americans had come to think of as little boy clothes. We spent the summer of 1964 touring Europe (Scandinavia, the Low Countries, and the British Isles) before settling down in Paris. Every where we went, I saw European boys in short pants--often strikingly short, sometimes with knee socks, neckties and jackets. When my parents saw the way European boys were dressing, I was instantly put back into shorts. Long pants were banned.

Christopher Wagner

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Created: October 30, 1998
Last updated: April 9, 2002