Uniforms down the ages

Vandana Aggarwal

A sea of blue and white greeted me when I went to pick up my son from school one day, years ago. I looked around desperately, my maternal pride severely dented because my bundle of joy was hidden somewhere among the running, playing tots and I could not recognize him, until a little mop of black hair ran joyously towards me screaming, “Mummieeee.” I knew the voice. Thank God my son had found me!

Many of us have gone through this experience. In fact very often the first thing that parents notice upon entering a school is how alike the students look in their uniforms. That is what a uniform does to students. It clubs them together as one single unit.

Origin of the word uniform
The word ‘uniform’ finds its origin in Latin and is derived from two words, ‘unus’ meaning one and ‘forma’ which means form. So, the word ‘uniform’ stands for anything that has only one form or character. It is something that does not vary. In the context of a student, the uniform is a standardized set of clothes that needs to be used during the period that the child spends in school or in certain educational groups.

Gurukuls and monasteries
In the Indian subcontinent schools are known to have existed as early as 3rd century BC. There were prestigious Hindu as well as Buddhist centres of learning but we have no evidence that the pupils wore a uniform. Even under the Muslim rulers, schools were common but there is very little evidence to show that any kind of uniform was imposed on students and they dressed in whatever the norm, according to the society and religion that they followed.

Tradition of Gurukul
Contemporary carvings show inmates of gurukuls and monasteries dressed in unstitched garments which covered the lower half of their bodies. At this time the materials known to man were cotton, linen, wool, and animal skin. The natural dyes were crimson, magenta, and yellow. It can therefore be safely assumed that a modest lifestyle coupled with a limited availability of materials, led to a dress code being followed.

The focus during the student years during this period was on self-control and discipline where luxuries and pleasures were to be eschewed. There may not have been a uniform but there was uniformity in the way the pupils dressed.

Early uniforms in Europe
The earliest recorded evidence of uniforms comes from Europe. Poor students, many of them orphans, were the first to be assigned a uniform. They wore a black and white dress which symbolized humility and purity. Since the educational establishments of this time were almost exclusively run by the Catholic Church, the students dressed up like the monks, although it is possible that these colours may just have been the most convenient choice given the paucity of coloured dyes available at that time.

In their paper, ‘The Origin of Black Smock and White Collar’, Muhsin Hasapcioglu and Filiz Giorgetti note that in the mid-17th century, the De La Salle brothers set up missionary schools and orphanages in France. Jean-Baptiste De La Salle strongly favoured uniformity as a means of modesty and condemned a lack of uniform as, “a proof of madness”.

Jan Steen's depiction of ‘The Village School’, painted in the year 1665
On the other hand, Jan Steen’s depiction of ‘The Village School’, painted in the year 1665 gives us an insight into how ordinary school children in Europe dressed casually for school. We have few indications that uniforms were commonly worn at this time. Uniforms varied because there was no mass production. They were stitched at home by hand.

In Tudor England, the choir singers were all dressed up in similar costumes and as early as the 16th century, the Christ’s Hospital of London introduced a uniform for its students. The uniform came to be known as ‘blue coats’ as it comprised a long blue coloured coat that was to be worn by all students. Blue was chosen because it was a dye known at that time and also because it was cheap. It was simple, severe and a grim reminder to the students that they were to be disciplined at all times. The uniform thus embodied the humble origins of the students who wore it and the aristocracy kept clear of it. But not for long!

This 16th century tomb in a church at Tenby, South Wales, shows boys wearing a costume closely akin to the bluecoat uniform

Private schools adopt uniforms
However unassuming the origin or intention behind the school uniform, by the early 19th century the elite private and public schools of England were adopting their own uniforms to distinguish their pupils from other ordinary students. Blazers and caps were de rigueur as were school emblems and ties. Uniforms soon became status symbols and the stigma that only the needy wore uniforms gradually faded away. Uniforms gained popularity and it was a matter of pride to be seen in what soon came to be known as, ‘the school colours’. We see here an obvious shift towards elitism.

Uniforms were also introduced for the sake of discipline. Scions of wealthy families that studied in these schools were known for breaking rules, rowdy behaviour and indiscipline. It was believed that a uniform would restrain students and make them follow rules. Changing seasons also necessitated different uniforms for summer and winter.

Britain has had a major impact on the kind of uniforms that we commonly see today. The website ‘Historical Boy’s clothing’ credits Britain with making striped ties, blazers, knickers, knee length socks, etc., popular uniform garments all over the world. Skirts, frocks, or pinafores for girls are also a legacy of the British with blue and grey being the most commonly used colours.

Many European countries like Italy and France led the trend to wear a smock over the regular clothes instead of a conventional uniform.

A description of the sports uniform with material samples for the sports uniform and the general uniform, c.1900
The colonies jump on to the bandwagon
The British colonies were not to be left behind. Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and the Asian colonies all adopted the British style of school uniform. The English had established schools in their colonies and imported the uniforms lock, stock and barrel to the natives. Students in tropical countries like India and South East Asia were soon marching off to school in skirts and blazers, kitted out smartly in ties, socks, and shoes which were not only alien to the native sense of clothing but wholly inappropriate to the weather conditions in these countries. Till today the British influence in school uniforms in India is obvious.

Origin of military uniforms
The French Revolution which took place in the latter part of the 18th century impacted uniforms as well. It is here that we notice schools adopting a military style of uniform for their pupils. This trend was imitated by the Turkish military schools during the Ottoman regime.

From the early part of the 19th century there was an increased tendency in Europe to have a uniform in military schools. After all a uniform embodied discipline and adherence to certain principles and what better way than to have the cadets dressed in uniforms, which personified everything that a student should ideally be.

In Japan, boys in secondary schools traditionally wore an outfit modelled after the 19th century Prussian army uniforms. While the Japanese students nowadays favour a more casual look, the popularity of manga and anime in Japan has actually brought the military style school uniform into mainstream dressing style. Teenagers in Japan love to dress up casually in military style uniforms!

In the United States
School uniforms were fairly common before the 1960s in the United States. However the free spirited, hippie movement of that time led to school uniforms falling out of favour. A study conducted in the year 2000 found that only 23% of public, private, and sectarian schools had any sort of uniform policy. Most schools there follow a dress code rather than a school uniform. However, an alarming increase in bullying and indiscipline has led to suggestions that this behaviour could be controlled by implementing a uniform in schools.

In 1994, Long Beach School District became the first school to implement school uniforms in all elementary and middle schools. In 1996 President Clinton announced that, ‘if it means that teenagers will stop killing each other over designer jackets, then our public schools should be able to require their students to wear school uniforms.’ There seems to be a pro-uniform movement gathering in the US ever since.

For school activities
Apart from everyday school uniform students have traditionally worn uniforms for certain activities that they participate in at school. Once again we do not have any formal records to tell us when such uniforms were first introduced. Scouts, Guides and other uniformed groups all have their prescribed attire. Lord Baden Powell, the founder of the scouts’ movement justified the uniform when he said that, “The uniform makes for a brotherhood, since when uniformly adopted it covers up all differences of class and country”. It’s true that we can recognize uniformed groups like the Girl Guides or NCC students from a distance as they stand out because of their uniforms.

Students at a school in India dressed up in prim and proper winter wear.
A school record of Loreto Convent dated 1898 mentions the drill or sports uniform for the year. “Every school year brings some novelty, this time it is the Swedish Drill. Loose costumes to be worn for the drill, ours are of dark blue serge, trimmed with white military brace.”

Similarly sports uniforms have been adopted by schools so that students can enjoy playing outdoors in comfortable t-shirts and sports shoes. Donning an apron or cap during lab lessons makes perfect sense as it protects the clothes and keeps hair in place.

Continuous evolution
A casual look is now favoured over the prim and proper dress code of Victorian England. Schools are doing away with the old ceremonial uniforms where stiff collars, ties and different uniforms for boys and girls ruled the roost. Socks are no longer pulled up tight but have disappeared into the shoes as ankle length socks find popularity. Nor are shirts tucked in tightly into trousers or skirts. They hang loosely after the fashion of the day. Shirt buttons are often left open at the neck. These are all a part of natural evolution.

Comfortable and casual uniforms that are gaining popularity.
Schools have bent rules by allowing girls to wear trousers and divided skirts are now relics of a bygone era as students of both genders prefer shorts on the playgrounds. Similarly many schools have done away with black leather shoes and are adopting the more comfortable canvas shoes, especially in tropical countries. There is a trend towards embracing a more informal and contemporary attire.

School uniforms or dress codes remain the preferred manner of clothing in many nations around the world, many of which base their school system on the Western model. Different countries and communities have different approaches to uniforms. While the stiff upper lipped British and their colonies have paid great emphasis on formal uniforms, the Japanese have shown a leaning towards a military style of uniform. Schools in the US, on the other hand, veer towards a free and easy style of dressing.

The uniform as it is worn today has seen a lot of change over the centuries. What remains constant is that it was present then and it is present now and it is still following its primary principle which is to promote team spirit, discipline and equality among all students.

1. American Educational History: School society and the Common good – William Jeynes
2. History of education in India By Kumar Rajendran
3. A song for the Blue-Early Loreto uniforms
4. http://histclo.com/schun/schun.html
5. http://www.academia.edu/1469932/The_Origin_of_Black_Smock_and_White_Collar

The author has been a teacher and school administrator in India and Singapore for nearly 20 years. She is currently Manager – Learning Vertical at Kloneworld Pte Ltd. She is also a freelance writer and can be reached at vandanaaggarwal@hotmail.com.

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