School Uniform: English School Cap--Sizes and Fit

Figure 1.--Boys wore school caps of different sizes and fits. They also varied as to how they wore them. Some schools had strict rules about such matters. Other schools were more relaxed on the sibject.

School caps were once a familiar sight in England (and the rest of Britain), though nowadays they are seen far less often. Their heyday was in the first half or so of the twentieth century. During the 1960s many schools where they had previously been compulsory now made them optional. Where this happened, and at schools where they had never been compulsory, boys came to wear them less and less, to the point where so few were being purchased by parents that school outfitters no longer considered it worthwhile to stock them and they disappeared altogether. A small number of schools, mostly independent and mostly for younger boys (preparatory schools in the British sense of the term), have gone against this general trend and still require pupils to wear them.


A HBC reader asks about how school caps were sized. He wore caps in both elementary school and grammar school and seems to remember that there were sizes like 5 and a quarter and so on. Typical sizes were 6 and a quarter, 6 and three eighths and so, so there were quite fine gradations usually in eights. Obviously, if a boy's cap was to fit properly it needed to be of the correct size. Like other items of headgear, school caps were usually sold in sizes which went up in eighths and were based on the width of the head - and hence the diameter of the cap - in inches: a boy with a small head might require, for example, a size 6, a much bigger boy a size 7?. Although the sizes were based on measurements in inches, however, the latter term was not used: a cap, that is, would be referred to as 'size 7' (or whatever), not as 'size 7 inches'. In a few cases, school caps have been sold in a more restricted range of sizes marked 'S' (for 'Small'), 'B' ('Boy'), 'Y' ('Youth'), 'L' ('Large'), or 'XL' ('eXtra Large'). A company which currently sells school uniforms for a few Surrey schools over the internet requires the circumference of a boy's head to be stated in centimetres, 51 to 57. These correspond to the more usual diameters of 6 3/8 to 7 1/8 inches.

Buying a Cap

A former grammar school boy informs us, "In my time during the 1960s, school outfitters could usually guess a boy's cap size just by looking at his head." Once the rough head size was estimated, several caps above and below the size were brought out and tried on. Curiously, new caps had a particular smell and just writing this brings the smell back into my mind. Another reader reports that for hats you were measured round the widest part of the head and then a a hat size chart was used to find out which size of cap you need. In the shop, a boy would usually be made to try on a few caps of his size and often of the immediately surrounding sizes - say 6 7/8, 7, and 7 1/8 - until one was found which was a good fit: even caps of the same nominal size actually varied a little in the snugness of their fit. School outfitters, doubtless through long experience, always seemed very adept at estimating a boy's correct size. I remember, for example, buying a new Luton Grammar School cap on one occasion when I was old enough to go to the shop on my own, and I went on my way home from school. The female shop assistant asked my size but I didn't know it. I did take off the cap that I was wearing and looked inside it: it was a 6 7/8, but since the reason for buying the new one was that the old one was too small, that was not especially helpful! The assistant looked at me for a few seconds, made her judgement, and then sorted through a large drawer of Grammar School caps - there were dozens of them - and picked out three for me to try on. One of them - a size 7, in fact - was just right.

If the Cap Fits!

Of course, these different sizes were intended to ensure that a boy's new cap was a proper fit. But boys grow, whilst the caps themselves, after several downpours of rain, would shrink a little. They thus required replacement from time to time. In many cases, however, particularly in the post-war years and by older boys especially, this was often neglected. Some boys at my own grammar school even wore the same cap at eighteen that they had when joining the school at eleven! Such a cap, as well as looking tatty, could do little more than perch on the back of the head, rather like a skullcap. Some boys, however, had mothers who would not allow that, and properly fitting caps were purchased when necessary: my own mother was one of them! Since, unlike many boys, I actually liked wearing my school cap, both for school and on other occasions, I had no objection to this: on the contrary, I preferred a cap which fitted properly and did not look shabby. Apart from anything else, a properly fitting cap offered much better protection against cold and rain or snow.

Earlier School Caps

In fact in the early days of the school cap - the later 19th and the early 20th centuries - it was normal and 'proper' for caps to be worn well back, with fringe or forelock showing beneath the typically small peak. Thus in an early P.G. Wodehouse school story, the demoted prefect, Cairns, 'was to be seen with a common School House cap at the back of his head in place of the prefect's cap which had once adorned it' ("The Pothunters", reprinted in The Pothunters and Other School Stories (Harmondsworth, 1985, p. 34); and at the real Bedford Modern School: 'Traditionally the cap was small and rested on the back of the head'. [Underwood, p. 170.] T.C. Worsley characterised the type as 'the small peaked caps, worn on the back of the head, familiar to any reader of the cheaper school stories'. [Worsley, pp. 91-94), and they were indeed normal in the illustrations to the Billy Bunter stories in the Gem and the Tom Merry stories in the Magnet, two once very popular boys' papers in Britain.

Later Developments

Later, school caps tended to become fuller with the introduction of a small pleat (or tuck) at the bottom of each side adjoining the peak; the peaks themselves also tended to become rather larger. The caps thus became more suited to wearing squarely on the head, and many schools required them to be worn in that way. (But, as already indicated, many older boys in later years ignored the ruling and schools often turned a blind eye.) Ian Niall recalls how at Southall, London in the 1920s his school cap 'had to be worn squarely on the head'. [Niall, p. 53.] And I can recall from my own days at Luton Grammar School how, in about 1958, the Headmaster called a First Year boy (thus aged 11 or 12) onto the stage during morning assembly and made him put on his cap: we were then shown how we were expected to wear our caps, which at that time (though not for much longer) were compulsory. They should be worn, we were told, four-square on the head with the badge centrally placed and with the end of the peak just visible when the eyes were raised. On the other hand, it seemed to be accepted that my 1950s and 60s contemporaries at neighbouring Dunstable Grammar School would wear their caps pushed slightly back on the head with fringe or forelock showing, whilst the form of the Rochester Mathematical School cap (still being worn by some boys in 1970) was such that it was most suited to wearing pushed slightly back on the head. Some schools might prefer or even require the cap to be worn properly pulled down whilst retaining the older style with a small peak and without side-pleats, as at Dartford Grammar School in Kent and at King Edward VII's Grammar School, King's Lynn, Norfolk.


Niall, Ian. A London Boyhood (London, 1974).

Underwood, A. Bedford Modern School of the Black and Red, (Bedford, 1981).

Worsley, T.C. Flanelled Fool: a Slice of School Life in the Thirties (London, 1967).

Terence Paul Smith

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Created: December 11, 2002
Last updated: December 11, 2002