ITCHY woollen vests and grey pleated skirts are familiar vestiges of strict school regimes. But ever since popstar Britney Spears appeared scantily-clad in sexy school uniform for her "Hit Me Baby" video in 1999, schoolwear has entered a new era.
This autumn the newly-branded "school chic" is taking the fashion world by storm. Designers are trailing adventurous and sexy interpretations of uniform on the catwalk, influencing young buyers to spend hundreds of pounds jazzing up dowdy and restrictive school dress.
This month Teen Vogue recommends 65 top "back to school" buys such as mini-tartan kilts, argyle cardigans and knee-high socks. Girls can achieve "school chic" with accessories costing from pound;100 for a woollen vest to pound;200 for kitten heel shoes.
Celia Kirby, fashion assistant for the magazine, said: "We give girls ideas how to customise their school uniform. The biggest thing is individuality and all it takes is a cute pair of shoes or a great print."
Designers like Marc Jacobs, DKNY, Cacharel and Anna Sui are all launching new collections inspired by the schoolgirl look. Miss Sixty, the high street retailer, is selling ties, waistcoats and skirts made from a patchwork of ties. Sara Berman, a relatively new designer, has adopted a 1940s twee English style, which she feels is appealing to girls.
Ms Kirby said: "Designers are cashing in on a younger market and school chic is part of that. Girls are shopping non-stop, that is where the money is.
"The teens we work with are very fashion conscious: they will save money to invest in a few designer pieces. I do not know if it is the same for boys."
Childrenswear is the fast-growing sector of the UK clothing industry with expenditure increasing 60 per cent since 1991.
Most schools have adopted no-designer labels policies, but they can be difficult to enforce. At the all-girl Copthall school in Mill Hill, north London, pupils wear a distinctive black tartan skirt and a shirt in a very particular green shade.
Lynn Gadd, headteacher, said: "My girls have not got a hope of wearing anything that is not legit. Some schools have half-hearted policies which cause huge problems. Pupils are buying bell-bottomed trousers one week and boot-legged the next.
"It is becoming more of a trend for senior managers in schools to dictate strictly-enforced policies because it stops these strange fashion statements."
Fortunately for those mangers, a recent survey for Woolworths and mykindaplace.com shows that more than half of eight to 16-year-olds prefer to wear a uniform in school, to avoid playground peer pressure - as long as the uniform does not include a tie.
But tighter regulations can often mean greater expense and while a government survey last year showed 89 per cent of parents preferred a uniform, it also revealed a third were worried about cost.
The National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux is now petitioning ministers to monitor demands for expensive items, such as blazers, more strictly.
Katie Lane, its social policy officer, said: "Dress codes are becoming stricter as schools compete to look smart. Uniform should be simple to stop competitiveness among children and to keep it cheap."
THE COST OF COOL
BRITISH parents spend pound;6 billion each year on their children's school uniforms, which can cost up to pound;300.
The national survey, carried out for retailer Office World, last year also revealed that pupils do not want to get rid of them. It found that 88 per cent of schoolboys and 77 per cent of schoolgirls want uniforms to remain.
Another survey by Trutex schoolwear suppliers this week shows that parents in the south of England spend an average of pound;140 on uniform. This is nearly four times as much as parents in the North, where less strict dress codes mean pupils can be kitted out for pound;21 to pound;60.
The amount spent does not increase with the level of income. Parents earning from pound;9,500 to pound;17,499 tend to spend the most on uniform.
Girls have long been battling against oppressive uniform regulations. The most notable case was Jo Hale, 14, whose mother Claire took legal action against Whickham school, Gateshead, for ruling that she must wear a skirt.
She pursued a sexual discrimination case on grounds that a skirt cost more, was less comfortable and put her at a disadvantage in terms of freedom of movement and protection against assault.
The Equal Opportunities Commission backed her campaign until governors backed down in 2002.
Trutex launched a new range two years ago for the booming back-to-school market. The Connected label takes its influence from the catwalks and high street retailers. Trousers start at pound;13.50 and blouses from pound;10.
Clare Rix, marketing manager, said: "Wetry to get a balance between acceptable but trendy and low-maintenancegarments. "