School uniform is very much a part of British life. Summing up the ethos of a school in textiles and colours is something we, in this country, are extremely good at and well known for around the world, yet, for the most part, we take it for granted.
From the tailcoats and pinstripes of Eton College and the blue coats and breeches of Christ’s Hospital to the more everyday blazers and badges, caps and boaters of independent schools across the land, a uniform says more about a school and its pupils than a prospectus ever could. And the key to its longevity can only be the way it has successfully adapted and evolved in response to the changing attitudes of society over the centuries.
Even Christ’s Hospital pupils now wear Doctor Martens, a relatively modern innovation that does not detract from their historic costume but makes getting to and from lessons a lot more comfortable than the old leather shoes their predecessors would have worn.
Often with a nod to school traditions of the past, the clothes worn by most of today’s independent school pupils reflect contemporary expectations and aspirations, both of their parents and of their schools, and are in many ways a snapshot of our times.
Identity and belonging
Instilling a sense of belonging is perhaps the school uniform’s primary aim. Whether buying a replica football kit or mimicking the outfits of a favourite band, clothes are a very visible way to show that we belong and – perhaps with less pressure on us to conform now than in the past – something we as a society seem to have become more comfortable with.
“Most people educated in the UK have a memory of wearing school uniform and how it made them feel,” says Anna Bunting, managing director of school uniform designer and manufacturer Perry.
“Often those feelings are of growing up and being proud to be part of something beyond just themselves, being a member of a community.”
Uniform is, of course, a very public demonstration of belonging. The idea of pupils being members of a school community is a very powerful one, particularly when coupled with the sense of the school’s identity and values that the style of the uniform they wear can convey.
School leadership teams tend to go to a great deal of trouble to choose a uniform that they feel reflects the school’s unique ethos. After all, pupils in uniform – whether taking part in an inter-school competition or standing at the bus stop – are essentially ambassadors for their school, and representing their community brings with it an expected standard of behaviour.
“87% [of parents] said that the appearance of pupils was important in deciding which school to choose for their children” – James Leggett, MD, MTM Consulting
How they act when wearing the school’s uniform is likely to inform the public’s perception of the school, too, and once those perceptions have rooted, it can be very difficult to shift them, as any school marketer will agree, and this can have a real impact on recruitment.
“In a recent survey of independent school parents, 87% said that the appearance of pupils was important in deciding which school to choose for their children,” says James Leggett, managing director of education market research specialist MTM Consulting. “It reflects well on the brand of the school when pupils look smart, and this is one of the key differentiators between independent preparatory schools and state primary schools.”
The savvy decision by Blackheath Prep to choose an eye-catching check fabric showcasing the school’s brand colours for its new uniform cleverly sets its pupils apart from those attending the many neighbouring schools in a leafy residential area of south London, populated by affluent families.
Tradition and progress
A school’s uniform can be a very visible clue to its history, and many British schools have retained uniforms that have served them well for decades, or even centuries.
“A huge number of independent schools do still have traditional uniforms and see them as a real mark of pride, representing a school’s heritage and values,” explains Bunting. “Often these traditional uniforms are aspirational, as they carry a reputation of excellence. Parents also find reassurance in schoolwear that is recognisable and signifies a school they can rely on and trust with their children.”
However, for some schools, a change in uniform can mark a new era. Venetian-inspired brown-striped blazers were part of the uniform at Stoke College in Suffolk for the past 50 years, but the school’s change of ownership has prompted a re-evaluation of the entire uniform for 2022.
“The decision to replace the uniform coincides with an exciting time of investment and growth for the college – it’s a new uniform for a new chapter,” explains Stoke College registrar, Patrick Bell.
Not only was the old uniform costly and tricky to produce, it was considered by the school’s management team to be “out of mode alongside its regional peers”.
“There was a comprehensive review and eventually we settled on a woven tweed in contemporary blue, reflecting perfectly the ‘country school’ style of the college,” adds Bell. With trousers and blue shirts for both girls and boys and a unisex jacket, the uniform is also less divided by gender than previously and marks the school’s change in vision for the 21st century and beyond.
It’s true to say that people today expect to be consulted when there is any major change afoot that will impact them directly.
“All our research shows that most parents want to have a say when schools are considering updating the uniform,” says Greg Ellwood-Hughes, head of Parentkind in England, the membership association for PTAs. Parentkind’s recent survey of parents found that they are particularly keen to give their views on the value for money offered by school uniforms and the number of items on the uniform list.
Pupils, too, are keen to be heard, so when Downe House School in Berkshire was considering a revamp of its uniform recently, the girls were right at the centre of discussions.
“School Council reps took fabric swatches and mood boards illustrating various combinations and styles to their year groups in House to gather feedback,” recalls deputy head, Matt Godfrey. Requests from the girls included dispensing with red in the uniform, using a softer blouse fabric, breaking up the top-to-toe colour and introducing a skirt that wouldn’t show marks or fall open.
“The new look is recognisably ‘Downe House’, but with a more stylish fit and contemporary colours,” says Godfrey. The bottle-green boxy blazer has made way for a tailored version in a more contemporary shade and edged with pale blue piping, paired with a tartan kilt in rich dark greens and blues rather than the block colour of old, and completed with a pale blue blouse and a dark green V-neck jumper.
“As a 21st-century school with bold and innovative ambitions for the future, it is fitting to see its ethos reflected in the uniform, allowing the girls to take pride in themselves and in representing Downe House on a daily basis,” says Godfrey.
Caring for the environment is now a much greater consideration for families and schools than ever before, and just as the clothes we wear for work and leisure are now far more sustainable than they used to be, so school uniform is now likely to be made from hardwearing fabrics that are eco-friendly, too.
“Organic cotton, as well as polyester cloth made from recycled plastic bottles, is now in great demand for school uniform, and the Teflon coatings are gradually being removed,” says Bunting, but sustainability through durability is also crucial. “Great quality garments that stand the test of time and can be recycled within the school community is the most sustainable route for uniform,” she adds.
The clothes worn by most of today’s independent school pupils reflect contemporary expectations and aspirations and are, in many ways, a snapshot of our times
Informal handing-down and second-hand uniform shops are now recognised as vital in squeezing as much life as possible out of well-made, high-quality school clothes, and Perry helps schools to put arrangements in place to encourage parents in these practices. Many schools replacing their uniform altogether donate the old school clothes to charities who ship it abroad for the benefit of children elsewhere in the world. Stoke College’s old striped uniform will have a new home in Zimbabwe, while the uniform that has been replaced at Downe House School was collected up by charities with international links.
Performance and comfort
Today, we expect a lot more from our clothes. Not only must they keep their shape and texture after multiple washes and for longer than just one season, but we want our garments to be fit for purpose – whether that’s keeping us dry in the rain or keeping us cool while we’re working out.
Many schoolchildren, particularly in independent schools, wear their uniform six days a week – and during that time they will be indoors and outdoors, sitting down and running around – so parents expect every garment on the uniform list to be fit for its purpose, which means capitalising on the latest fabrics.
“Technical materials are increasingly popular in the uniform sector, particularly for sportswear,” says Bunting. “School sports kit, in many cases, is now similar in quality and performance to the kit worn by professional athletes and players.”
Informal handing-down and second-hand uniform shops are now recognised as vital in squeezing as much life as possible out of well-made, high-quality school clothes
Comfort is perhaps the most important factor. Pupils can easily be distracted from their learning by uniform that doesn’t fit well or is unpleasant next to their skin, and parents who face daily arguments with children complaining that their school jumpers are scratchy or their socks are falling down are likely to be tempted to source alternatives from elsewhere, undermining a school uniform’s uniformity.
This was a real concern among the pupils at Downe House and, in response, the new school kilt has a zipped closure to give freedom of movement all day long, without the awkward wrap-over feature of the previous kilt. The shape fits various heights and sizes, and the new school jumper has been made lighter to fit snugly under the tailored blazer.
Significant progress in our society over recent decades has been made in the arena of inclusivity. School uniform can only really be fit for purpose if every pupil feels comfortable in what they wear for lessons each day, and that can depend not only on the materials used, but also on the choice and style of garments on the uniform list, which should be suitable for every individual.
“When we are working with a school to design a new uniform, we always take time to understand the school community and ensure the uniform offering takes into consideration cultural requirements right from the start,” explains Bunting, whose company also offers free-of-charge modifications for pupils with disabilities or any additional needs.
School uniform is now likely to be made from hardwearing fabrics that are eco-friendly, too
Uniform lists themselves are becoming increasingly gender-neutral, with most schools now offering a range of items for parents and pupils to choose from, and more flexibility over who wears what, as opposed to the old prescriptive girls’ and boys’ lists.
“Displaying a ‘trouser uniform’ and a ‘skirt uniform’ can be helpful if a school prefers certain items to be combined, such as cardigans only with skirts,” suggests Bunting, “but beyond gender-neutrality, providing more options can also be about comfort. Fitted or slim-fit trousers, shorts or culottes are increasingly popular options for schools, whether in traditional school colours or offering trousers made from check or tartan cloth often used for skirts.”
At Thomas’s Battersea Senior School in London, ties have recently been made optional for all pupils, partly to reflect more casual modern workplace dress, but also with gender neutrality in mind. A red flash inside the collar of the uniform’s white shirt gives it a distinctive touch if being worn tie-less.
For more than four centuries, British schoolwear has kept pace with the changing attitudes and expectations of families and schools. Thanks to advances in the materials available and a desire to give more careful consideration to both style and variety, school uniform – like society itself – continually moves forwards.
Manufactured to last, not for landfill
By Anna Bunting, managing director, Perry
Sustainability is a key factor for us all, and is in particularly sharp focus in both schools and the school uniform sector.
Innovations in textiles and manufacturing processes go a long way to improving the sustainable uniform options available to schools; however, the most important aspect to the sustainability credentials of uniform is durability – well-made uniforms that represent good value for money, and that will last.
Manufacturing for longevity means going above and beyond to source textiles from environmentally-friendly, ethical suppliers, ensuring that natural raw materials used are produced in a responsible way, and using materials made from recycled materials wherever possible. School garments must be made to last. The thriving second-hand uniform service provided at each of the Perry partner schools demonstrates that uniform and sports kit has a long life and does not become landfill.
There is no end game when it comes to sustainability – school uniform manufacturers must continually strive to improve the sustainable credentials of the products we supply to ensure that we tread lightly and minimise our impact on the planet.
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