River Island

Children’s uniforms through time

River Island, retailer of Girls and boys clothing, have put together a small article on how school uniforms have changed around the world.

Birth of school uniforms

• Wearing an outfit individual to a particular school is not a modern idea — The Archbishop of Canterbury declared in 1222 that students had to don a certain robe called a “cappa clausa”.

• Christ’s Hospital School in Horsham — established in 1552 — was the first to formally adopt a uniform for its pupils back in the 16th century. And even today, attending pupils wear yellow socks, leather belts and blue coats, which makes it the oldest school uniform still in use.

Late 19th century

• The Elementary Education Act of 1870 made education available to all pupils in England and Wales. This meant that there had to be a school in every town or village. Unfortunately, you had to pay for school, so many children from poor families couldn’t go.

• By 1880, all children aged 5-10 had to go to primary school. This caused a boom in school attendances and some inner cities had up to 80 pupils in a class!

• Working-class children went to ‘board schools’, which didn’t require uniforms unlike children who attended public schools.

• Girl from wealthy families either attended boarding school or was taught at home by a governess, while most rich boys went to a public or grammar school.

• Typically, schoolgirls wore a blouse under a tunic dress or pinafore, while schoolboys donned shorts, blazers and long socks.

• Victorian schools were very strict and stern about how children should dress for school. Boys hair had to be short and girls had to have theirs tied back.

Turn of 20th century

• There was still no state-supported schools for low and middle-income families by the early 1900s. But by the 1920s, even board school required pupils to wear a uniform.

• School uniforms in the early 20th century mirrored social status like never before, and many private schools altered their uniforms to get as far away as possible from poorer schools. Although, schools did start allowing male pupils to wear trousers during this time instead of shorts.

• Girls from rich families were sent to school in straw boaters, pleated pinafores, ankle socks, and black Alice shoes with white socks.

• Upper and middle class boys pulled on stiff ‘Eton’ collars that folded flat over the top of their jacket or waistcoat, shorts/trousers, high socks, and a tie.

• Uniforms were possibly the most diverse they’ve ever been in this era, with some public schools dressing male students in top hats and tails, with starched aprons and gloves for girls.


• The Butler Reforms raised the leaving age to 15 years and we saw the greatest divide in modern education: the grammar school and the secondary modern school.

• Uniforms and schools in general started to reflect what we recognise today.

• There was a growth of mixed-gender schools and many establishments started to tweak their uniforms depending on the season.

• Girls wore knee-length skirts, ties, tucked in blouse, while boys had blazers, ties, shirts, trousers and leather satchels.


• Over the 1960s and 1970s, there was a clear shift towards casual uniforms.

• By the late 1960s, the government encouraged local education authorities to replace grammar schools and secondary modern schools with comprehensives (or ‘comps).

• Girls during this era dressed in pleated skirts, tights, blouses, ties, and blazers for school, while young schoolboys rejoiced in finally being allowed to wear trousers.

• The massive fashion changes of these two decades even infiltrated schools, with many schools allowing a more laidback and dressed down approach to uniforms.

• Boys had longer hair and their shirt sleeves and collars got wider and more unruly. However, girls still had to wear skirts and not trousers.


• In the 1980s and 1990s, girls’ skirts got shorter and pupils started to customise things like their tie-knot.

• Now was an age of customisation, especially blazers and bags, and we saw a huge surge in fashionable school shoes, sweatshirts and polo neck shirts.

• Girls finally were allowed to wear trousers and casual footwear, even trainers, were permitted under certain circumstances.


• Nowadays, schools seem to have refocused on a professional image (i.e. some schools have restored the blazer and tie). Many establishments have even stopped letting pupils wear sweatshirts instead of blazers, as was common in the 1980s and 1990s, and the Department of Education is 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’.

• There’s definitely more fashion in uniforms today. Now, you can get polo shirts, dress shirts, trousers and jackets 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.

• In a nutshell, uniforms are fighting fit and look set to stay, albeit with help from good fashion designers. In fact, 95% of pupils from Christ’s Hospital School in Horsham voted to keep their blue and yellow Tudor uniform when given the option.