*** U.S. School Clothes: Public Elementary Schools

U.S. School Clothes: Public Elementary Schools

American public school children, unlike private school children, have never worn uniforms. Only in the 1980s did schools begin expeimenting with school uniforms. Most American children went to rural schools until the turn of the 20th century. The clothes in rural and urban schools could be quite different. The clothes worn by children in rural schools were a good reflection of changing fashions. Younger boys in the late 19th century might wear ruffled collars and bows or sailor suits to school. Keen pants were common, until being repalced by knickers in the 1920s. Some younger boys wore short pants. Boys once dressed up to go to school, but that changed dramatically after World War II (1941-45). Eventually jeans and slacks replaced knickers as casual styles became prevalernt. Increasing problembs with discipline have compeled many schools to introdfuce voluntary uniform policies.


Most Americam public elementary schools are the schools maintained by each of the 50 states. Each are part of the separate educational systems maintained by the states. None of these state educational systems require school uniforms. The clothes worn to school were simply a reflection of contemprary children's fashions. Most schoolsby the 1950s , however, did have dress codes. Individual schools, however, in the 1990s began instituting voluntary school uniforms. This has been most common in inner-city schools. Besides the state elementary schools, there were some schools maintained by the national or Federal Government. These included schools on military bases and on native American reservations.


America until the turn of the 20th century was a largely rural country. One of the great progressive steps in American history was the support of public education thrrough the varioud Federal land programs like the Homsteading Act. The early rural schools were very basic and children usually dressed in work clothes. City schools were nmuch better equipped and childrren also dressed up to attend them. Only in the 1940s did differences between rural and urban schools begin to disaapear.

Rural schools

One interesting image, apparently, from a Connecticut school in the 1870s shows the boys wearing suspenders, jackets or shirts, one boy has a jacket with plaid collar, a lots of broad-brimmed straw hats. No one wears a fancy Fauntleroy-like suit that was to become so popular in the next decade. Some of the girls appear to be wearing pinafores over their dresses.

Urban schools

Boys going to urban schools were more likely to dress more formally than rural children. This began to change in the 1940s as Americans increasingly dressed in casual clothing. By the late 1940s, most elementary boys were wearing jeabs and other casual clothing to school. Most high schools, however, did not permit jeans until the 1970s.

19th century schoolwear
Figure 2.--These children at a Connecticut public school, probably in the 1870s show a wide varirty of clothes--but none of the fancy styles that were to become so popular in the next decade. Many boys wear straw hats.

Chronological Trends

American public school children until very recently have not worn uniforms. The clothes they tended to wear were simply a reflection of contemporary fashion. Often boys would dress formally for school. The idea of wearing jeans and "T" shirts did not take hold until well into the post World War II era.

The early 20th Century

American children in the early part of the 20th century dressed more formally for school than children do today--at least in urban areas. Children did not, however, have the extensive wardrobes that they have today. Often boys might have a suit for best and a few other changes of clothing. Often the clothes he wore for play were simply his older clothes, not clothing especiallu made for play. Boys might wear suits. Younger boys might wear sailor suits or event lace collars. Large collars and bows were still common for the younger boys, especially in the 1900s. Most boys wore kneepants, but long pants were not unknown. Many boys began wearing knickers in the 1910s--often above the knee styles. Knee pants and knickers with long stockings were common even in highschools. Hats and caps were very common, few boys went to school without one. Rural children dressed much less formaly. In part this was a reflection of lower income levels in rural areas. Overalls and bare feat were common for the boys, at least in the warmer months before cold weather and snow made coats and boots necessary. Of course this varied substantially by region. Cold weather clothes were less necessary in the South.

Amerucan schoolwear
Figure 3.--This is a typical rural primary school class during the 1920s in rural America. This is a good indicator of how rural children dressed at the time. City boys would have likely been dresses mostly in knickers.

The Inter-War era (1920s and 30s)

Public school children, however, have never worn uniforms. Elementary school schildren by the 1920s generally wore what they wore at home, but usually better clothes than for play. Actually parents would normally purchase a new clothes for children in August. Those clothes would be saved for school wear and last years school clothes would be used for play. Common boys' clothes were a flannel shirt and during the 1920s and 30s knickers. Elementary school boys in cities dressed more formally than in the country. Beginning in the 1920s school children began to dress more informally. Boys did not normally wear suits to school, but would get dressed up for photographs. Many elementary boys would in the 1920s continue to wear knickers to high school, but this declined as the decade progressed. Boys had mostly worn long stockings and commonly above the knee knickers in the 1910s, but by the mid 1920s American boys were mostly wearing below the knee knickers and kneesocks. Some younger boys might wear short pants, although this varied very much by regiion. Shorts were most common in the South and California, but much less common in the mid-west and north-east--except in private schools.

rural primary school
Figure 4.--A realistic look at a small rural school and how the children dressed about the 1930s. Notice the three boys dressed in overalls, dungarees (jeans), and knickers.

The 1940s

By the late 1940s jeans (called dungarees at the time had become prevalent at many public schools. American children would normally wear leather shoes to school. Sneakers which appeared in the 1930s were not generally worn to school until the 1960s. Children in the early 20th century did not have the extensive wardrobes they have today. Children in urban areas dressed better than children in rural areas that might come to school in overalls and barefoot. Overalls were considered work clothes. Thus city boys would not generally have worn them to school.

One of the most significant development in American school wear was the gradual adoption of jrans as schoolwear. City boys did not generally wear jeans to school in the 1940s, although bibfront overalls were still worn in rural schools, especially in the South. This was declining, however, as economic conditions improved during the War. Only after knickers disappeared in the 1940s did jeans (we called then blue jeans) become standard school wear for city boys--but only in elementary schools. Many men wore them in the service during World War II an this gave a significant boost to their popularity upon returning home after the War. One notable observation is that boys always wore longpants jeans. Jean shorts were never worn to school. I do not think they were even made. Elementary children, especially the younger boys, did wear short pants to school in some areas, but never jean shorts.

osrichial school
Figure 5.--This photograph appears to show a parchoical school classroom during the 1940s. The girls do not wear uniforms, but the boys appear to be wearing what has become the standard parochial school uniform.

Some interesting images exist of American elementary schools. Unfortunately it is not always clear if the children pictured are wearing their ordinary clothes or got dressed up for the camera. Many teachers would have incouraged the children to dress nicely if they were to have known a class photograph was to be taken.

On this page is a picture of St. James School in the 1940s--presumably a parochial school. The person standing at the left is probably a pupil and not the teacher. It is likely that a nun would have been teaching a parochial school in the 1940s. Nuns are much less common today and there is many more lay staff in modern parochial schools. The class room shows the standard arrangement, with the desks in straight rows facing the front. Of course there is a flag for the compulsory morning pledge of allegiance. (In British, New Zealand, Australian, and many other countries, a flag in the classroom is rare.) The children are separated with boys and girls on different sides. The girls do not wear a uniform, but all wear very proper dresses--no pants or shorts for girls in the 1940s. The boys all wear white or solid color shirts, ties, and dark pants. You can not tell if they wear knickers or slacks. Presumably they are not wearing dungarees. This looks very much like the basic uniform now commonly worn at pariochial schools, white or solid color shirts, ties, and dark pants.

A public school classroom would have looked very similarly, except the boys would have been less likely to wear white shirts and ties--unless they got dressed up for a photograph. Also flannel shirts and dungarees would have been standard boys' wear. Even the Scouts acknowledged changing fashion trends in the 1940s, first the Scouts and then even the Cubs.

Figure 6.--This idealized drawing shows how parents and teachers would have liked American children to wear to school. This is how girls did dress in the 1940s and 50s, but boys rarely wore ties.

The 1950s

Yonger boys during the 1950s and 60s might wear short pants. None of the girls until the 1950s commonly wore shorts or pants, except perhaps for camp wear. Girls only wore dresses. Most boys in public schools by the second or third grade (7-8 years old)--or even younger--insisted on long pants. Boys who wore short pants would in most areas be teased. This was not the case at many private schools, especially the more exclusive ones, because affluent families were more likely to wear short pants. In addition, many of these schools emulated British clothes and educational approaches. This also varied some what by region. Boys in the South or California were more likely to wear short pants. In most of the country, however, few boys at elementary school in the 1950s and 60s would wear short pants. Jeans were commonly worn by the 1950s. The kind with the flannel linings were popular in the winter. There was considerable variations. Boys in California or the Southeast were more likely to wear shorts to school. As shorts became associated with casual wear, some schools, even elementary schools banned them.

The 1960s

Most American elementary schoolboys in the 1960s wore long pants to school. There was some regional diversity. Boys in California were more likely to wear shorts than elsewhere, but boys in most areas wore longs. This was true even in the warm spring and early summer months.

Anrrican elementary school
Figure 7.--American boys now normally wear their every day clothes to school. Thus jeans and cords with flannel shirts are common in the Fall and Winter--much as they were in the 1940s and 50. When the weather warms in the late Spring the styles are quite different than at mid-century. Boys now wear the long baggy shorts currently in style are common at public schools. Many schools, however, are now studying school uniforms.

The 1970s

Boys attitudes toward short pants began to change in the 1970s. Except for younger boys, shorts were no longer commonly worn for dress wear. Boys began to tyhink of shortds as casual wear. College age kids had begun wearing Bermuda shorts as casual clothes in the 1950s. This had spread to high school boys by the 1960s. Thus shorts became increasingly acceptable to younger boys for play wear. New styles like cutoffs which first appeared in California helped to cement the image as casual wear. Boys who would have never worn shorts were quite happy to wear cutoffs. Gradually in the 1970s you began seeing more elementary boys going to school in short pants. During the 1970s, however, it was mostly the yoinger boys.

The 1980s

This has generally changed since the late 1980s and 1990s. Elementary boys of all ages now commonly wear shorts to school in the warm weather.


Additional Information

Related Links: Careful this will exit you from the Boys' Historical Clothing web site, but both sites are highly recommended.

Apertures Press International Project: Pictures at schools in different countries and a book on British schools
Apertures Press New Zealand book: New book on New Zealand schools in progress
School Uniform Web SiteInformative review of British school uniforms with some excellent photographs
Boys' Preparatory SchoolsLovely photographic essay of British preparatory schools during the 1980s containing over 200 color and black and white photographs.


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Created: June 5, 1999
Last updated: March 24, 2000