French School Uniform:  Garments

Figure 1.--Almost all of the boys at this French elementary school wear smocks. One boy wears a blazer over his smock. Many also wear berets. The photograph was probably taken about 1950. 

French school boys once dressed very destinctibely. The two school garments most associated with France are the beret and smock. The omage of a French schoolboy dressed in a berte and smock is an enduring one in French iconography. School children also sometimes wore a cloak-like cape garment. Most French boys wore kneepants or sgort pants to school, often under protective smocks. These garments are no longer commonly worn by French school boys who now wear the pan-European styles that have emerged in the 1980s, the sweatshirts, "t" shirts, track suits and jeans that are now worn throughout Europe. It is no longer possible to identify French school children by the clothes they wear to school.


French school boys until the 1950s also commonly wore berets. HBC does not have information specifically on school berets. In fact they were for the most part not school berets as such simply berets worn to school. A few private schools, however, did have formal school berets. While the beret is often associated with French school boys, other headwear such as sailor hats and caps, toques, and calots have also been worn.


HBC has not noted French children commonly wearing ties to school. Smocks dominated schoolwear for many years and boys did not wear ties with smocks. Some schools, mostly private schools, had uniforms or blue shirts and blue shorts with white kneesocks. This uniform was not normally worn with neck ties, but we have seen a variety of altenative neckwear including string ties. Some boys wore suits to secondary schools, but often with open collars. Usually only the older boys wore neckties.


Rompers are a garment we have noted being worn primarily by French boys before they began school. We have noted, however, boys commonly wearing rompers in kindergarten. Apparently, some boys in the CP class (1st Grade) also occassionally wore romper suits, although this was much less common. French boys had play rompers and also dressy rompers. These dressy rompers were for Sundays and hollidays, but appareltly they were also worn for special days at school. A French reader tells us, "I was with my Uncle one day. He and some associates were making an officil visit at a primary school (about 1953). I don't remember in which school it was. All the pupils were in class and a little pupil about 6 years old came with us for a while. He was dressed in traditional romper. I believe also that this same day several other little boys in class CP (comparable to 1st grade) wore a romper too. Probably a lot of children were dressed in Sunday clothes because of this visit. I was quite young myself. Thus my memory of this is quite vague."

Skirted Garments


We notice Fremch boys in the 19th and early 20th century wore tunic of various kinds to school. We do not, however, have a ggod idea as to how prevalent they were abd how popular. We have very little information on these tunics at this time. Our French 19th century archive is very small which sec=verely limits our primary source of ingormation. We hope to expand our understanding as our archive grows. We note boys wearing tynics with belts over them. The belt worn this ay was entirely decoirative, serving no practical purpose. We do note French boys wearing tunics to school in the early-20th century. Tunics were lso common in America at this time, ut wee not as commonly worn to school.

School Smocks

French boys have not commonly worn formal school uniforms like their across the Channel English cousins. French boys beginning in the 1870s, however, began wearing smocks to school. The smock certainly served the purpose of a uniform, covering differences in the clothes worn by children from different economic circumstances. It also protected the boy's clothes. In an era when clothes were expensive and writing was done with basic pens and ink wells, a black smock made considerabe sense. 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. One account from 1900 describes a French boy who began the lycee wearing a sailor suit with long curls his mother dearly loved. Smocks appear, however to have been fairly common school wear through the 1930s and early 1950s, but declined after World War II (1945). For some reason, many boys, especially before the 1920s, wore belts over their smocks. I'm not sure why this was--there does not appear to have been any practical purpose. They were still seen in thr 1960s, but mostly with younger boys. Smocks became increasingly less worn in the 1970s.


Younger boys generally wore smocks to school. Older boys, however, through the 1940s commonly wore suits to school, especially older boys attending secondary schools. This was generally the case in private schools, but even boys in village state primary schools often wore suits to school. We believe that this in part was because that many children did not have large wardrobes and thus they wore suits much more commonly than do modern boys. These were generally the boys own suits because so few schools required school uniforms. We have noted short pants, knicker, and long pants suits. In the 1950s casual clothes began to become more common.


French school children, both boys and girls, traditionally wore capes for inclement weather. They were worn by both boys and girls. They were mostly worn at private boarding schools where the children wore uniforms. HBC at this time, however, has little information about capes. I'm not quite sure, however, why French boys wore capes rather than coats. We have not noted them in other countries, except Belgium.




HBC is not sure what kind of pants boys wore in the early 19th century, but after mid-century, kneepants became increasingly common. Knickers were also popular. They were often worn with three-quarter socks. I believe they were primarily below-the-knee knickers. Short pants appeared after the turn of the century and after World War I had mostly replaced knickers, except for older boys. Some teenagers wore knickers, especially during the colder winter months. Knee socks were common in the colder months. French boys commonly wore short pants through the 1960s. Younger boys commonly wore suspender shorts and also bib-front shorts. After World War II (1939-45), shorts became shorter and began to be worn mostly by younger boys. French boys by the 1970s began to wear mostly long pants. The boys that did wear shorts began wearing mostly longer-cut ones.

Military Styles

Europe has a long history of cadet schools, ilitary schools to train officers at the secondary level for military careers. The number of these schools, however, was small. We suddently see large number of Frenh school boys with cadet-styled uniforms. These were not cadet schools training officers. They were regulr schools with normal academic programs. The only difference was that the boys wore cadet unifirms. This came about as a result of Frnces disaterous fefeat in the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71). The result was the capture and removal of Emperor Napoleon III. The French established the Third Repoublic. The performance of the French Army was so ineffictive that the new French Third Republic decided that something needed to be done to stiffen the character of French youth and build patriotic sentiment. The outward sign of this which is relected in the photographic record was introducung cadet uniforms in the schools. We are less sure anout the changes in the curriculum at this time. But the sudden appearance of military uniforms is easy to see. There was no one uniform style apprived, just a military syle. The different schools were left to determiune the details pf the uniforms. This was only part of the Third Republic's educational reforms. They also mandated smocks for primary school children to reduce social class distinctions.


French boys through the 1940s commoin wore heavy boot-like shoes. By the 1930s they were mostly seen in rural areas. Primary school boys commonly wore sandals through the 1950s. We have noted various styles of sneakers as early as the 1950s.


I believe that French boys mostly wore shorter socks at the beginning of the 19th century. As keepants became more common after mid-century, boys began wearing either three-quarter socks or long stockings. The long stockings were never popular as in America. We do see some boys wearing them. At one Catholic school in 1921 all the children wore them. We do not think that this was very common. Kneesocks appeard after the turn of the 20th century. While long stockings were not very common, we see a few children at some schools wearing them. Knee socks were commonly worn in the 1920s and 30s. A good example is the Ecole Talange in 1931. Most of the boys wear kneesocks, but a few wear long stockings. Gradually ankle socks became more common. French boys by the 1950s were mostly wearing kneesocks in the winter.

Book Bags or Satchels

French children seem to have had a lot of home work. We notice many of them with book bags or satchels. Before World War I they seemto have had the type worn over the shoulders, similar to the German styles. After the War, the portfolio ype carried with a handel seems to have been more common. We are not entirely sure just what French boys carried in these satchels.

Head Scarves

The issue of Muslim head scarves for girls arose in 2004. Head scarves were essentially a public display of religion. France has a long tradition of secular schools. The French Government thus prohibiyed the wearing og head scarves. This was a controversial decession at the time. A French reader tells us that "This issue has largely subsided. Muslim girls are no longer wearing head scarves. The criticism of the Government action by Islamic groups was at first quite vocal, but has now largely subsided."


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Created: October 30, 1999
Last updated: 3:54 AM 5/9/2017