Nearly 30 years ago Suzy Menkes, the doyenne of fashion journalism, wrote in that designers' bible The TES: "The key word in fashion today is simplicity. This year's flexible zip-fronted tent dress epitomises the simplicity of line which is lacking in the traditional [school] uniform. There are too many pieces costing too much money and lasting too short a time." At which mothers the length and breadth of the country must have said "Amen to that", if not to the tent dress.
Things are very different now. Ms Menkes long ago exchanged gaberdine for Galliano and in the school uniform section of John Lewis you can not only find a zip-fronted tunic in polyester and viscose (Pounds 15-Pounds 21) but bib tunics with and without pleats, swing skirts, skirts with knife pleats, box pleats, pencil pleats, inverted pleats and kilts in any number of tartans.
School uniform, like the little black dress, has become one of fashion's timeless classics, surviving the vagaries of contemporary style and prevailing political dictats relatively unscathed over the decades. Indeed, it could be argued that uniforms, or dress codes, are now more popular than ever.
Trend-setters in this particular cul-de-sac of haute couture have always been the public schools. At Harrods, which supplies uniforms to more than 70, Amanda Grosso, the buyer in the schoolwear department, has noticed a gradual "Americanisation", with items such as sweatshirts and polo shirts growing in popularity.
"Mothers are becoming more involved in school uniform," she says. "As a result, it is becoming more practical. Fabrics are changing and becoming increasingly human-friendly.
"The rise in allergies, for instance, means more cotton."
Harrods has a number of suppliers which each contribute individual items to a school's specification. A new school recently approached the store with a brief to start from scratch. "We have to ask them what they want, their ideas of colours and give them samples from stock. There is a lot of money tied up in it and for a school, it is not that easy. It is quite fiddly and time-consuming and something that usually gets left with the school secretary."
But you don't have to go to Harrods to be at the cutting edge of school fashion. One of education's leading suppliers will be unveiling its ready-to-wear summer collection at the Education Show.
School Trends is a relative newcomer to the world of campus couture but in six years it has already built up an enthusiastic following, clothing 1,700 schools with pupil age-ranges from four to 11. Unlike the prestige suppliers, which are often tied to uniforms, some of which have remained unchanged for hundreds of years, School Trends has responded to changes in high street styles by incorporating them into schoolwear. And because they are dealing with bulk orders, they are invariably cheaper than their competitors.
Lorraine Stent, the sales and marketing manager, says: "We are trying to make the clothes more in line with what you see in the high street and to a certain extent it is fashion-led."
So what will the well dressed be wearing this summer? For girls, School Trends has ditched the ubiquitous gingham or stripes in favour of a sleeveless plaid dress (Pounds 8.50) in four bright colours, strawberry, peppermint, sunflower and sky. These come with matching accessories in the shape of scrunchies and alice bands at Pounds 1.50 each. Capitalising on the current vogue for "fleece" clothing, which began in the outdoor clothing industry, School Trends also offers fleece shorts and shirts at Pounds 5.50 each. To complete these ensembles there are sweat cardis with embroidered school badge, designer baseball caps, backpacks and book bags all in a variety of colours and customised to your school's specifications.
"There is definitely more of a trend for fashion colours within school wear," says Lorraine Stent. "Jade is now very popular mixed with navy. Schools seem to be going for two colours rather than just one, so that they can mix and match polo shirts and sweatshirts."
School Trends is experiencing similar changes in fabric demand to Harrods. "There is definitely a move away from knitted and woollen garments," she continues. "And towards cotton-based fabrics that can be put on the radiator. Polo shirts, for example, in a polyester mix, that just drip dry."
One of the most innovative creations to emerge from the School Trends salon is the Legionnaire's cap to replace the baseball cap or boater. These were developed in association with several health authorities, including Cornwall, Kent and Devon, which are promoting sun safety for children. The caps come with a peak like a baseball cap and a cotton flap at the back to protect the child's neck from the sun and help to keep them cool. These come in seven colours, costing about Pounds 3.25 each and are undoubtedly the season's must-have accessory.
In an age of competition, where schools are obliged to package themselves to attract potential parents, a school uniform can work wonders. Proponents say that it enhances group morale and gives children a strong sense of identity, while acting as a social leveller. Parents, on the other hand, are impressed by smartness and consider it a symbol of an orderly and academic community.
Beck Primary School in Sheffield only recently acquired a uniform for the simple reason that Sheffield had outlawed them back in the Eighties on the grounds that they were expensive to maintain and stifled individual freedom.
Pam Davidson, the deputy head, says: "Parents like it because they no longer have to argue with their children about what to wear. It lasts longer, it's cheaper and it can be passed on to other families." Not only that, but it also "improved behaviour and the work ethic", she says.
The school, with 750 pupils on its roll, had balloted parents on the subject and the result had been overwhelmingly in favour. Pam then approached a number of suppliers for sample uniforms. "I washed them all for six weeks," she says. "School Trends wasn't the cheapest but it was the most hardwearing. The colours didn't budge."
Pupils now have a choice of navy blue and bottle green sweatshirts with a white or gold polo shirt. This is teamed with the school's badge which was chosen from an in-house competition.
If parents warm to uniforms because it makes life easier, those who are obliged to wear them have mixed feelings. For five-year-old Harriet Markwell who has just started at a new school in Wandsworth, the system has its shortcomings: "If you do ballet, you have to get a blue leotard and a blue skirt," she said. "I'd prefer to have pink. The blue thing is really uncomfortable."
And given the choice, she would ditch her grey skirt with straps for "my orange dress with pineapples on. I'd wear that to school every day if I could."
The spring issue of Elle magazine reinforces both School Trends' and Harriet's fashion nous: "This spring sees the return of bright colours and vibrant prints. For the less brave, black and white is still the smart combination jazzed up with accessories ... ballet pumps and a bright shoulder bag will instantly update your wardrobe." For wardrobe, read school uniform.
* School Trends, Unit 1, Portland Business Park,Richmond Park Road, Handsworth, Sheffield S13 8HS.Tel: 0114 256 0641. Stand C20
More dash than cash
Do you look in your child's wardrobe and sigh?The TES offers this style counsel for those who aresartorially challenged in the uniform department, with a summary of the best buys on offerin the high street.
Sports enthusiasts should sprint along to John Lewisto catch acrylic cricket sweaters and slip-overs for an economicalPounds 13-Pounds 22 and cricket whites for Pounds 18-Pounds 24. Girls' cotton gamesknickers now come in a profusion of jolly hues from Pounds 2.55-Pounds 3.95. British Home Stores is selling Lycra sports briefs in cherry andnavy with bold white stripes for Pounds 6 a pair. BHS also has thecheapest Lycra shorts for boys at Pounds 6.50.
From Marks Spencer microfibre track suits are a good investment, although at Pounds 27-Pounds 36 for the top and Pounds 17-Pounds 25 for jogging bottomsnot a cheap one. Microfibre does last, however, its yarns are finer than silk and it "breathes", allowing moisture out. Expect many more garments in this fabric in the future.
For girls' daywear, MS has a lovely selection of wash-and-go summer frocks which can be washed, tumbled dry and ready to wear without ironing. They come in stripes or gingham check in yellow, green,pink, navy, red and pale blue. With the best of the bargains,BHS has short-sleeve, candy-stripe blouses for Pounds 3.33 each. Straw hats and boaters come in a variety of styles at John Lewis, with andwithout ribbon. A rigid straw boater costs Pounds 17 and asoft straw hat Pounds 11.50.
For boys, John Lewis has a range of blazers with a woolnylonmix at Pounds 39-Pounds 69 down to a polyester, machine-washable style at Pounds 17.50-Pounds 26.50. At BHS long and short trousers with Teflon, which protects them from water and stains (a must!) cost Pounds 15 a pair. Woollen caps at John Lewis start at Pounds 9.50 withembroidered badges extra.
Most stores do a twin pack for school shirts (short or long sleeves) but the cheapest is John Lewis at Pounds 6.95-Pounds 9.55. While stocks last, John Lewis is also offering machine-washable parkas for Pounds 16.
For girls and boys MS has the most stylish cotton polo shirts, which are also excellent value at Pounds 6-Pounds 10.