School Uniforms and Fashion

School Children in Uniform

School uniforms have their historical antecedents in very old traditions. If understood broadly, "students" have donned special garments to set themselves apart for religious (monastic and priestly training) and economic purposes (apprentices wearing guild attire) for centuries. However, school uniforms as understood in their modern sense are a particular manifestation of a more general uniformization of populations apparent from about the early nineteenth century. This regulation of appearance is more specifically understood as "standardizing" and "disciplining" workers and citizens to meet the requirements of industrialization, capitalism, and national loyalty. Though historically some schools mandated uniforms for religious reasons or to maintain their "tradition," by and large school uniforms have been ideologically inspired by a notion that bodily control and regulated appearance beget social order, within the school and in society at large.

Uniformity Versus Individuality

School uniforms may be thought of as representing in material-cultural form the point in which the forces of two great upheavals, epitomized by the industrial and French revolutions, converge. However, despite encour-aging the uniformizing of students (as well as workers and citizens), these two momentous transformations often work at cross-purposes. The industrial revolution was an economic project that eventually required formal schooling to learn radically new habits for rationalized labor. School uniforms came to symbolize the person as interchangeable and modular. Meanwhile, a more political project, the French Revolution (and other similar revolts of the same period), encouraged self-determinism and individuality, ideals that were often contravened by dress uniformity (in addition to demanding uniformed students-that is, workers-in-training-the industrial revolution immeasurably facilitated the spread of student uniforms through mechanical standardization and mass production). The tension between economic production and political liberation continues to shape debates about school uniforms: Some argue that school uniforms increase social order while others contend they run the danger of violating a person's right of self-expression. To what degree school uniforms actually do the latter, along with threatening a student's autonomy, self-worth, and dignity is, of course, debatable. In any case, contemporary discussions about school uniforms also reveal deeper concerns about student performance, school safety, the maintenance of social order, and the relation between the individual student (citizen-in-training) and the state.

Practical Considerations and Functional Criteria for School Uniforms

Though the debate about the actual merits of student uniforms continues in the United States, advocates of school uniforms believe there are key elements to the successful uniformizing of a student body. These include: determining the style of uniforms should involve teachers, school administrators, parents, and students; uniforms should be affordable and available in all sizes; seasonal options should be available; the wearing of uniforms should be mandatory while allowing for special exemptions; recycling programs are suggested, as are the selling or trading of used uniforms; and uniforms should be introduced in the early grades first so students become accustomed to them as they progress through the higher grades.

School authorities might consider mandating age or grade-specific uniforms. Additionally, school authorities and educational administrators ideally should offer a variety of uniforms that are appropriate to gender and local weather conditions.

As for the materials used, important considerations include: durability (how many years it can be worn); dirt-resistant colors; colors that suit most complexions (for example, many suggest that bright red is discouraged since it does not flatter many people's natural coloring); fits all shapes and figure types; washability (preferably, materials should require little-or even no-ironing or dry cleaning); small two-way patterns for economical use of fabric.

Special climatic conditions should be assessed. For example, in Australia and New Zealand, there are criteria for "sun-safe" school uniforms. Or in other places, winter uniforms must be loose-fitting enough for individuals to layer clothes underneath the uniform.

Other practical considerations include degree of adjustability; comfort (enough so that students are not inhibited from engaging in typical school activities); how available mandated uniforms are at local outlets; if uniforms are within the price range of all students; and choosing an appropriate seller and supplier of uniforms.

Obviously, with so many students, selling school uniforms can be extremely profitable, and any in-depth analysis must explore the agenda of apparel manufacturers in advocating the use of school uniforms. Besides clothes manufacturers, giant retail chains such as JCPenney, Sears, Macy's, Target, Wal-Mart, and Kids "R" Us sell school uniforms.

From a more abstract perspective, one way to view the role of uniforms is by considering the person vis-àvis uniformed dress. In regards to appearance and bodily regulation, one's person is either impressed upon (by societal rules) or it gives off impressions (by subjective intention). There are, then, two angles from which self-presentation practices associated with uniforms can be approached. The first is "person as a mannequin": one's body is inert, a passive object with clothes hung on it by others. The self is under control; one dresses for others. Roles and social status are imposed. The second angle is "self-governing": one's body is animate, something active, a self-regulating entity. The self is in control; one dresses, as it were, for one's self. Personal style and individuality are expressed. Arguably, one's appearance is a mixture of both these forms of self-presentation, but it is worth highlighting the self-governing perspective in order to illustrate the role of individual agency. Such a maneuver is necessary to account for what might be termed "resistance" (though not necessarily of a well-thoughtout, explicit kind). For example, Japanese schools are known for enforcing uniform regulations, and yet many students routinely flaunt the rules by affecting a slovenly look, donning nonregulation articles, and even altering uniforms. Such dress practices are not political statements about the state, capitalism, and "the system," but rather personal expressions of insolence aimed at teachers, parents, and what is perceived to be the old-fashioned style of the older generation.

Here the difference between dress codes and uniforms needs clarification. If "uniformity" is a crucial component of any definition of uniforms, it is prudent to envision a continuum of dress codes, dress uniformity, and uniforms. In many places, there is debate about how much uniformity is desirable, and regulations vary widely. Some school policies are very liberal, requiring that students follow a school dress code that does not require uniforms, while others ask students to don uniforms, and still others mandate that all students wear uniforms (though students are allowed to opt out for religious or personal reasons). Policies can even go further; in Japan, some schools are notorious for strictly enforcing, in military-fashion, every component of dress, including skirt length, hair style and color, and book bags.

Recent Historical Origins

Many British schools have a long history of school uniforms that have influenced school dress codes elsewhere (although the styles generally regarded as British school uniforms made their appearance in the late nineteenth century). By the early nineteenth century in Britain, the ensemble of student uniforms had more or less stabilized. At schools such as Eton and Harrow, a student uniform would include a short round jacket with deep lapels made of checkered woolen or strong cotton materials. By the 1920s, a typical boys' uniform for middle and upper-class schools might consist of a gray flannel suit (or blazer) with breast pockets, "Eton collar," school cap (or straw boater), and necktie with school colors. School badges or insignia would be affixed to the uniform. A typical girls' uniform might consist of a low-waisted dress in navy wool, pleated skirt, white collar with navy silk bow, navy blazer, black stockings and shoes, and a panama hat. Popular colors were navy blue, black, brown, or dark green. In the late nineteenth century, the introduction of sports, games, and gymnastics into the curriculum resulted in the modification of girls' uniforms.

Examples of dress uniformity among youth outside the school walls indicate broader cultural trends and attempts to acquaint children with the imperatives of formality, self-discipline, social order, and patriotism, as well as attempting to suppress working-class anomie and militancy. The uniforms of youth movements (such as Boy and Girl Scouts) illustrate these attempts. Another example is "sailor suits," which relied on a generalized "military metaphor"-children will be "recruited into society" through uniformization. The popularity of sailor suits, originally introduced in schools that trained boys for Britain's navy, spread to other countries (including Japan, where their influence can still be seen in girls' uniforms) among both boys and girls of all ages during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Such continued popularity is arguably an illustration of how uniforms generally preserve older, even obsolete, styles (for instance, boys' uniforms in Japan are modeled on Prussian officer uniforms).

School Uniforms in the United States

Schoolchildren in uniform

In the United States, dress codes were commonly enforced in schools in the 1950s (girls, prohibited from wearing pants, had to wear skirts or dresses). During the 1960s, blue jeans, black leather jackets, and other accoutrements associated with gangs were prohibited among boys (and, of course, girls as well). By the 1980s, problems with gang violence led to dress codes that attempted to do away with gang colors. Dress codes have routinely been used to prohibit clothes with threatening language, insulting racial slurs, and alcohol or drug-related messages. They have also been used to ban miniskirts, tube tops, halter tops, and see-through clothing (such restrictions raise an interesting gender issue; some note that they unfairly discriminate against women since male students supposedly face less bodily regulation). Uniform policies began to spread in the late 1980s and then steadily increased throughout the 1990s. Though parochial and private schools have a long history of mandating school uniforms, the first public-school system to require uniforms, California's Long Beach Unified School District, has become a model for uniform policies in other places. Begun in 1994, this program involves about 60,000 elementary and middle school students.

An important symbolic push for school uniforms came in January 1996, when President Clinton endorsed their use during his State of the Union Address. One month later, the National Association of Secondary School Principals also endorsed them. Then, shortly after the presidential endorsement, the U.S. Department of Education sent a manual, "School Uniforms: Where They Are and Why They Work," to all 16,000 school districts. The manual listed examples of model programs and explained what are perceived to be the benefits of school uniforms, such as improved discipline and a decrease in violence and gang activity.

By 2000, thirty-seven states had passed laws empowering local school districts to establish their own uniform policies, while numerous local authorities have instituted their own policies. Definite figures are hard to come by, but estimates of public schools that have adopted uniform policies range from 8 to 15 percent of American schools. Other estimates are even larger, and claim that nearly half of the large urban school systems in the U.S. have adopted school uniform policies for some or even all of their schools.

Arguments for School Uniforms

Advocates of school uniforms possess a large array of arguments about why they are beneficial. Such arguments can be categorized into three types:

Education-Socialization Benefits

Supporters of school uniforms commonly cite improved discipline, increased self-esteem, and more school pride. Learning, rather than being distracted by "fashion wars," becomes the focus of schooling (though some schools have adopted more casual styles for uniforms, which might include blue jeans). Peer pressure is reduced. Embarrassment from not being fashionable, teasing, and bullying is mitigated. Moreover, any pedagogical practice that encourages students to find their sense of self-worth in something other than outward appearance is highly welcomed by parents.

Administrative Benefits

Some teachers and administrators claim they have witnessed a decline in disciplinary problems while they have seen an increase in solidarity and camaraderie in schools since everyone appears to be on the same "team." Additionally, uniforms make it easier for school staff to identify who belongs on campus, thereby enhancing safety.

Social Engineering

School uniforms act as "social equalizers," hiding the differences between the "haves" and "have-nots." Moreover, because parents do not have to contend with purchasing new clothes to keep up with constantly changing fads, educational expenses are kept down.

Arguments Against School Uniforms

Reasons against uniforms are fewer than those for, and usually include arguments about how uniforms dampen freedom of expression and inhibit individuality. Some complain that, at schools with a uniform policy, teachers are burdened with being "fashion police." There are also legal issues: Opponents contend that dress codes violate the constitutional right of freedom of expression (though court decisions have generally upheld the constitutionality of dress codes). Others argue that the push for uniforms is a superficial response to serious problems and distracts from more pressing educational needs, such as lack of adequate school funding, dilapidated facilities, and drug use.

There are significant legal implications between dress codes and uniforms that involve students' rights and freedom of expression. A dress code usually stipulates what cannot be worn (proscription), while a uniform policy stipulates what must be worn (prescription). In the United States, the courts have viewed the former more positively. However, mandating the wearing of school uniforms faces more of a constitutional challenge (see DeMitchell, Fossey and Cobb; Starr).

Some policy-makers in support of school uniforms report dramatic declines in suspensions, fighting, sub-stance abuse, robbery, and assault on teachers in schools in which uniforms have been adopted. Despite these success stories, research on the results of school uniforms is still inconclusive. Indeed, several studies have argued that there is no empirical evidence that uniforms have a positive effect on student behavior or academic achievement. More sophisticated studies are needed that factor in sociological variables such as type of school, composition of student body, class size, and socioeconomic level of school districts.

School Uniforms in Japan

Japanese High School Students in uniform

Major themes emerged from a study of the views of Japanese student on uniforms.

Unity, Integration and Solidarity

The most common terms that came up in discussions about student uniforms were "integration," "unit life" (shûdan seikatsu), and "solidarity." McVeigh relates that students commented on the feeling of unity, esprit des corps, school identity, and, later corporate identity enhanced by uniforms.

Social Control and Order

Notions of social control and order were evident in how some students explained that uniforms make it easy to identify one's social role and to which unit one is affiliated. Additionally, students learn to follow rules, a benefit for when they enter society.

Suppression of Individuality

On the negative side, McVeigh notes that a number of students tapped into the debate about how a dress code infringes upon their "human rights" and "freedom," denying them "expression of personality" and diminution of individuality.

Institutional Face

Many students made a strong association between uniforms and a school's "image." Being a student means wearing the "institutional face" of a school off-campus. Others explained that uniforms made them proud of their school and that a uniform is the "school's face."

Being Observed and Monitored

Some students reported that uniforms gave them a "consciousness of rules" and being under control (person as mannequin). Uniforms allow teachers to keep an eye on students who can thus be more easily monitored in public.

Class Distinctions and Discrimination

Not a few students felt that uniforms were important not for only instilling a sense of solidarity, but also for hiding class differences that might lead to jealousy. One student reported liking to wear uniforms in middle school, "But when I entered high school, I noticed that low- and high-ranked high schools all had their uniforms. If one attended a lower-ranked school, people had a biased view of you. So I think high schools shouldn't have uniforms" (McVeigh 2000).

Ethnonational Identity

Though it is very difficult to gauge to what degree uniforms construct ethnonational identity, it is worth at least noting the linkages. McVeigh relates that one student explained how wearing a uniform made her "proud of being Japanese" while another said "uniforms protect Japanese culture." Some students linked uniforms to supposedly Japanese "virtues" and "tradition" such as harmony, unity, and politeness.

The "Consumerist Revolution"

The "who" and "why" of clothing guidelines changes the debate about uniformization. Militaries have used uniforms since ancient times, and policing and security forces have been more recently uniformed, while those subject to extreme control or sanction, such as criminals, paupers, and the mentally incapacitated, have been increasingly regulated during the last two centuries. Such practices of bodily regimentation are more or less uncontroversial. However, debates and discussions about the uniformization of youth are more contentious and will not soon disappear.

From a more scholarly perspective, student uniforms are significant because they implicate a number of concerns that still require investigation. These include how to disentangle-or link up-socialization, power, personhood, and self-presentation. Such topics deserve attention since they come together in what may be termed the "consumerist revolution." This is the emergence since the nineteenth century of what seem to be two contradictory trends that nevertheless mutually reinforce each other: (1) the desire or right to have choices over one's consumerist practices (wearing or not wearing certain articles of clothing; person as self-governing agent); and (2) the imperative to signal one's allegiance using clothing to the politico-economic machinery that produces these very choices (person as mannequin). As an instance of material culture, school uniforms offer a visible, concrete manifestation of this paradoxical historical development. Herein lies their significance.

See also Academic Dress.


Uniforms and Nonuniforms: Communication Through Clothing
Uniforms and Nonuniforms: Communication Through Clothing

Brunsma, David L., and Kerry A. Rockquemore. "Effects of Student Uniforms on Attendance, Behavior Problems, Sub-stance Abuse, and Academic Achievement." Journal of Educational Research 92, no. 1 (September/October 1998): 53-62.

Cunnington, Phillis, and Anne Buck. Children's Costume in England. London: Adam and Charles Black, 1965.

DeMitchell, Todd A., Richard Fossey, and Casey Cobb. "Dress Codes in the Public Schools: Principals, Policies, and Precepts." Journal of Law and Education 29 (January 2000): 31-50.

Joseph, Nathan. Uniforms and Nonuniforms: Communication through Clothing. New York: Greenwood Press, 1986.

McVeigh, Brian J. Wearing Ideology: State, Schooling, and Self-Presentation in Japan. Oxford: Berg, 2000.

Nunn, Joan. Fashion in Costume, 1200-1980. London: The Herbert Press, 1984.

Starr, Jennifer. "School Violence and Its Effect on the Constitutionality of Public School Uniform Policies." Journal of Law & Education 29, no. 1 (January 2000): 113-118.

Tanioka, Ichiro, and Daniel Glaser. "School Uniforms, Routine Activities, and the Social Control of Delinquency in Japan." Youth and Society 23, no. 1 (January 1991): 50-75.

Wade, Kiley K., and Mary E. Stafford. "Public School Uniforms: Effect on Perceptions of Gang Presence, School Climate, and Student Self-Perceptions." Education and Urban Sociology 35, no. 4 (August 2000): 399-420.

Internet Resource

"School Uniforms: Where They Are and Why They Work." U.S. Department of Education. Available from .

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