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River Island – Children’s School Uniforms!

Children’s Uniforms: A Journey Through Time!

Even over the past few decades, school uniforms have changed significantly — so can you imagine how different they looked when children first started attending regular school around 150 years ago?

We’ve teamed up with River Island — a leading retailer of fashion for girls and boys — to discover how much school uniforms have transformed since the start of formal education…

Where did school uniforms start?

If you thought uniforms started as soon as it became law for all kids to attend school, you’d actually be wrong. In fact, the trend for this dress code began in 1222, when the then Archbishop of Canterbury declared that students had to wear a certain robe called a “cappa clausa”. Essentially, this was reportedly our first school uniform!

A few centuries later, we reach another milestone in the school uniform journey. Christ’s Hospital School in Horsham was the first to formally adopt a uniform for its pupils back in the 1500s. And even today, pupils attending this establishment wear yellow socks, leather belts and blue coats — which makes this the oldest school uniform still in use.

The 1800s

During the Industrial Revolution, society was rapidly changing in the UK — and this included the movement towards education for all. The Elementary Education Act of 1870 made education available to all pupils in England and Wales. Unfortunately, you had to pay, so many children from poor families couldn’t attend.

Ten years later, it became law to send all children aged 5-10 years to a primary school. As you can imagine, this caused a huge rise in school attendances, with some inner-city schools having up to 80 pupils in one class!

But what did this mean for the uniform and were there any differences between classes? The UK was still a very segmented society during this era and social status held a lot of weight — which is evident in the uniform situation of the time.

For example, working-class children went to ‘board schools’, which didn’t require uniforms unlike children who attended public schools. Typically, schoolgirls attending public schools wore a blouse under a tunic dress or pinafore, while schoolboys donned shorts, blazers and long socks.

Another interesting aspect of education during this era was that Victorian schools were very strict — most notably when it came to how children should dress for school. For instance, if you looked at images during these years, you’d see all boys with very short hair and every girl with theirs tied back.

The beginning of the 1900s

Moving into the 1900s, the situation was still rather bleak for a child’s education, unless you were wealthy. At the beginning of last century, the UK had no state-supported schools for low and middle-income families. However, by the 1920s, even board schools required pupils to wear a uniform.

So, what did school uniforms look like in the early 20th century? It seems that they reflected social status like never before! Not only that, but it appeared as if many private schools adjusted their uniforms to help their pupils look as different — or superior — as possible from poorer schools.

During this era, schools began allowing male pupils to wear trousers instead of shorts. As for young ladies from rich families, they were sent to school in straw boaters, pleated pinafores, ankle socks, and black Alice shoes with white socks. If you were an upper or even middle-class boy, you most likely wore a stiff ‘Eton’ collar that folded flat over the top of your jacket or waistcoat for school. Polished off with a pair of shorts or trousers, high socks and a tie.

Although the situation still seems pretty unfair for working class kids, it’s worth noting that uniforms were possibly the most diverse and ‘interesting’ they’ve ever been in this era. In fact, there is evidence that shows male public-school students in top hats and tails, with starched aprons and gloves for girls!

The 1950s

As the calendar reached the midway point of last century, we started to see the state take education more seriously. The Butler Reforms raised the school leaving age to 15 years, which meant that kids had to learn and develop their academic skills for longer than ever before. However, another interesting aspect of education in the 1950s was the great divide between grammar schools and secondary modern schools, which were prominent during this decade and started causing a lot of debate — both for and against.

With regard to uniforms, most education establishment’s implemented dress codes that we’d recognize today. There was also a growth in mixed-gender schools and many establishments started to tweak their uniforms depending on the season. During the 1950s, girls often wore knee-length dresses, ties and tucked in blouse, while boys donned ties, blazers, shirts, trousers, and leather satchels.

The 1960s and 1970s

Once society entered the 1960s, fashion seemed to rocket in influence and importance — and we can even see this in the style of school uniforms that were worn during this time.

Young schoolboys rejoiced in finally being allowed to wear trousers (before this point, it was only the older male pupils who could swap shorts for trousers) and most girls dressed in pleated skirts, tights, blouses, ties, and blazers when headed to school.

Perhaps a reflection of the era, but many schools had a more laidback approach to uniforms during these two decades. For example, boys could have longer hair and wide shirt sleeves and collars. Although, girls still had to wear skirts, not trousers.

By the late 1960s, the government encouraged local education authorities to replace grammar schools and secondary modern schools with comprehensives (or ‘comps’) — believed to have been a great step into fairer education regardless of wealth and class.

The 1980s and 1990s

If we compared uniforms from the early half of the century to those in the 1980s and 1990s, we’d perhaps see our greatest dress code contrast. These decades were all about rebellion and customisation — from how kids wore their tie knots, to the way they accessorised pieces of their uniforms.

Looking at images from this time period, we can see that girls’ skirts got shorter and a large portion of pupils opted to tweak their blazers and bags with badges, keyrings and other props. Fashion-conscious footwear dominated the school shoe department, and more casual forms of attire — such as trainers and polo neck shirts — were allowed instead of traditional shoes and formal shirts.

Positively, girls were finally allowed to wear trousers!


As we examine the school uniforms situation today with that of a few decades ago, it appears as if many schools are reverting back to the more conventional and conservative mentality of the pre-1970s’ days. To elaborate, schools seem to have refocused on a professional image, for example, requesting that all pupils don a blazer and tie every day. What’s more, many establishments have stopped letting pupils wear sweatshirts instead of blazers, as was common in the 1980s and 1990s.

However, this doesn’t mean that fashion trends play no part in how kids dress for school. Now, you can get polo shirts, dress shirts, trousers and jackets from top high-street clothing brands that have the ideal uniform-to-fashion balance. Plus, kids go to school in clothing like non-scuff shoes, stain-resistant shirts, slim-fit jackets, and tailored shirts, showing that technology-enhanced clothing has a place, too.

Currently, the Department of Education appears to be pushing the idea that uniforms ‘contribute to school ethos, are great value for money, eliminate issues of discrimination, and set the right tone for a schools’. However, there are ongoing debates between parents and educators alike regarding the validity of this idea.


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