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.
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 survey last year showed 89 per cent of parents preferred a uniform, it also revealed that 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."