Nothing uniform about school uniforms now
By Sue Williams
Trousers for girls. Swim shorts for boys. Unisex shirts. And hoodies now often for both sexes.
School uniforms are finally being updated, with a number of schools across Australia listening to the views of students and their parents, and redesigning their uniforms to suit kids’ changing needs.
And the drivers of this modernisation vary wildly: From young people increasingly dealing with their own gender issues to body shapes that have altered dramatically through the generations, from cultural concerns all the way to global warming disrupting weather patterns.
“School uniforms do date and a lot are often no longer appropriate to students’ ages, figure types or to the times,” says couture designer Jonathan Ward, who’s increasingly being called in by schools to revamp their uniforms.
“Young people today are very different to how they were 30 years ago, both physically and mentally. Girls develop younger, boys are taller, and they both need to be provided with clothing that suits different body types and makes them feel comfortable and confident so they perform better at school.”
Kids now typically grow 3-4cm taller than their parents, with puberty beginning much earlier; from 12 and a half for girls, who often also have breasts developing from the age of seven. In addition, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, a quarter of children aged 5-17 are now overweight or obese.
Many are also struggling with their own gender identities so the option of trousers and shorts for girls, blouses and shirts that look similar and more unisex items gives students more choice.
Phillip Heath, head of Sydney’s Barker College, who has hired Ward to redesign its red and blue uniforms, says: “Allowing students a choice is, I reckon, the answer to the whole gender identity question.
“It’s important not to engineer children’s lives at a very complex time of their emerging identity but to allow them choices and a kind of wriggle-room that’s so important as they explore who they are.”
At Melbourne’s Wesley College, principal Dr Helen Drennen, also in the process of introducing a new uniform in traditional purple and gold, agrees. “Having mix and match options, as well as gender-neutral clothes, is important,” she says. “They work for boys as well as girls and cross-gender students. We haven’t had a case of a boy choosing to wear a girl’s summer dress because we’ve got options that give our student population a level of comfort.”
While independent and private schools often commission named designers to draw up changes to their uniforms, most public schools in NSW and Victoria tend not to go to that expense. Although Balmain High School in Sydney used a Mambo print for its school uniform in 1993, most rely on school uniform suppliers’ in-house designers to either suggest updates or they choose from online catalogues.
“We don’t like to talk publicly about that service,” says the managing director of one major uniform suppliers. “The schools themselves like us to be discreet.”
But Dianne Giblin, CEO of the Australian Council of State School Organisations, says that most updates result from pressure from students. “One school in western Sydney always had bottle-green trousers but the kids all started wearing black, so in the end the school agreed to change the uniform to black,” she says.
“Lots of the white shirts have gone too and are being replaced by polo shirts or T-shirts with the school’s emblem or monogram on as they’re easier. And most of the public schools now allow girls to wear trousers or shorts as that’s what they themselves want to wear as it’s a lot more practical.”
Barker College’s Heath believes there is a link between uniforms and the learning process.
“We now know that activity, and kinaesthetic experiences [learning by students carrying out physical activities rather than passively listening to lectures] augments brain function,” Heath says. “If you’re going to solve a complex maths problem or learn a foreign language, then the best thing is to go for a run beforehand.
“So a uniform needs to fit that kind of purpose too, as well as helping boys and girls feel as though they belong, and are proud of the school. It has to be comfortable to move around in, role-play and interact in small groups, so students can enjoy the whole range of learning experiences, especially as the climate appears to be getting hotter.”
As a result, most of the new, revamped uniforms are being made from much more contemporary blended fabrics, which tend to be lighter, more durable, stretchier and easier to care for.White shirts are also frequently giving way to coloured, striped or patterned shirts which can look smarter for longer, and don’t show off girls’ bras beneath.
Wesley College students are enthusiastic about their new uniforms, both academic and sporting, after a long series of consultations with pupils, parents and the community to replace the early 1990s uniform designed by Prue Acton.
“Many of the basic uniform designs came to Australia from independent schools in the UK, and they don’t fit an Australian environment and climate,” Drennen says. “So we needed a generational change with a more contemporary and forward-thinking feel.
“Students wear clothes differently now, so they’ll now have the opportunity to layer their uniform with more options. In the past, they just had a school jumper but now they’ll have a cardigan and vest as well as a jumper especially when the weather now is so unpredictable.”
Justin Garrick, the head of school at Canberra Grammar School, says Australian schools have generally fallen behind contemporaries in Britain, which gave us those original uniforms. Canberra has just replaced the old khaki shorts and long socks with modern silt-coloured shorts and ankle socks.
“Our uniform would have had its origins in Britain but, having worked in the UK for 13 years before coming back here, I saw that British uniforms moved on a long time ago,” he says. “But often Australian schools have hung on to styles that have long gone in the UK.
“In our case, we knew that not many of our students are going to grow up to wear knee-high socks, so it was time for a look that was more professional, smarter, sharper and more modern. We’ve been really keen to put more choice in too. Gender issues were also a part of our thinking in building more unisex items that can be worn by both boys and girls.”
His school has also introduced a hijab, or headscarf, that can be worn by girls who would like to, while Wesley College has a long, dark aubergine tunic option.
“It’s important that students feel like they belong, but not lose their own identity,” says Barker College’s Heath.
“We need to cater for a diverse population and be inclusive, as well as understanding the realities of early onset maturation.”
While the new uniforms all tend to be respectful to the old, with similar colours, crests and looks, it’s now all about making kids feel relaxed and comfortable, says Mr Ward.
“Girls can be self-conscious in a dress; some of the old trouser designs were pretty unflattering for boys,” he says. “But you look at how they dress on the weekends, and how they feel in those looks and fabrics, and design clothes that might feel similar – and won’t distract from their studies, their play and their understanding of what life is all about.”