The history of school uniforms

Julian Humphrys looks at the colourful history of school uniforms...

The uniform worn by pupils at Christ’s Hospital School in Horsham. (Photo by Rex Features)

This article was first published in the September 2014 issue of BBC History Magazine

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When did English children start wearing school uniform?

The wearing of a uniform that was distinctive to a particular school can be traced back to Tudor times (though it was by no means a national phenomenon). Take Christ’s Hospital School in Horsham, for example. They still wear long blue coats, yellow socks and leather belts – a uniform that differs little from that worn by its original scholars when the school was founded in the reign of Edward VI.

So do we Brits have the monopoly on archaic school uniforms?

No. In Japan, boys in many secondary schools still wear an outfit modelled on 19th-century Prussian army uniforms, while many girls’ schools still have sailor suits inspired by European naval dress as a uniform. These designs have nothing to do with Japan’s own military past but can be traced back to the 1870s, when Japan was influenced by Europe in the establishment of its formal education system.

When did students start to rebel against their uniforms?

As early as the 14th century, Oxbridge colleges were legislating against the “excess in apparel” being worn by scholars. However, while over the last 50 years or so students have sought to hide jewellery, thicken ties or shorten skirts, they are by no means united in a desire to abolish their uniforms. The students of Christ’s Hospital are not alone in having voted overwhelmingly to retain theirs.

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Are school uniforms ‘in’ or ‘out’ in Britain at the moment?

They are most definitely in. The vast majority of British schools have some form of compulsory uniform and there even seems to be a move away from the baggy sweatshirt of the 80s and 90s back to the traditional blazer. In its current advice to schools on the subject, the Department of Education barely pauses to discuss why schools should have uniforms (“The Department strongly encourages schools to have a uniform as it can play a valuable role in contributing to the ethos of a school and setting an appropriate tone”) before advising in much greater length on issues of discrimination and value for money.