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The strange fashion for uniforms

From parkas to puffas, minis to micros, what teenagers wear to school reveals perhaps more than they intend. David Mosford reports.

WHATEVER happened to school uniform? In the 1960s and 70s it seemed to be on its way out with skirts getting shorter - or longer - than regulations ever imagined possible, with blazers being replaced by US Army Surplus parkas and the ubiquitous satchel disappearing in favour of an Adidas sports bag.

But then something happened. Britain pulled back from total abolition. Today that group of scruffy adolescents at the school gate will - more likely than not - be wearing variants on the same basic blue, black or green dress code.

And it's not just a legacy of 1980s power-dressing - both parents and schools have voted for them. Ties may be askew and cheap quilted jackets may have replaced the blazer but a basic uniformity still underpins what is worn at most schools.

One Oxfordshire headteacher who has watched the evolution of school uniform for four decades reckons that the 1990s were characterised by "lumpiness".

"Everyone wanted to get into clothes too big for them. Boys in particular went for sleeves that covered up their hands and shirts that trailed out half way to the ground. The smarter kids went for anoraks with racing-driver stripes down their arms but most of the lads were desperate to look as if they were falling out of their clothes."

Boys and girls view uniform differently. One head of lower school in a Welsh comprehensive said: "The boys like to give the impression that they don't mind what they are wearing but the girls are experimenting with what suits them.

"They're entering into subtle competition with each other. Now they've started pushing the limits with platforms instead. Our heel rule is one-and-a-half inches maximum but you know some of them are trying to ape the Spice Girls."

Much of the rest of the world would probably see Britain's school uniforms as an anachronism - so why have many schools voted to retain them?

"The appeal to parents," says Malory Wober of the University of Michigan and author of English Girls' Boarding Schools.

"Uniform represents order and the majority of British parents still want that from schools."

Among headteachers the argument is often put that uniform reduces competitiveness between fashion-conscious pupils and obscures the differences between rich and poor children.

However, the lengthy shopping list for parents produced by state schools such as the London Oratory, whose sole uniform supplier is a Sloane Square department store, does not come cheap.

The current vogue for teenage girls is trousers at school, and the Equal Opportunities Commission has started proceedings for a test case on the issue. It is backing Professor Claire Hales, who has been fighting rules which say that her 10-year-old daughter must wear a skirt to Wickham school in Gateshead.

British teenagers like the challenge of a uniform. One head said: "When I think of the efforts they go to to subvert the rules I think it's almost an essential part of growing up.

"We've had huge battles with the girls over jewellery, over hair length and, recently, over trousers. Personally I'm all in favour of trousers but I'm sure that if we made them compulsory first thing tomorrow you'd see a whole line of girls in mini-skirts."

Islamic scarf row, 14


School ties: should be dragged to one side revealing an unbuttoned collar.

School bag: as large as possible with a very long strap.

Blazers: if worn at all, must be customised. Cheap quilted jackets are acceptable as long as they are too big. Fleeces should sport a logo, preferably of some ski resort the pupil has never visited. For girls, trench-coats are in.

Shoes: heels as high as one can get away with; platforms obligatory. Boys: as clumpy as possible.

Hair: boys' must be worn with buckets full of gel. Girls should avoid tying their hair back, especially during art, science and cookery.

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