A Brief History of School Uniforms Across the Globe

Dive into the wardrobe of time and explore the fascinating history of student uniforms from every corner of the globe.

Updated January 17, 2024
group of teenage students who are waiting to go into class in the high school

Implementing school uniforms may be a hot topic, but it's certainly not a new concept. Students have been sporting school uniforms around the world for centuries. Dive into the interesting history of uniforms in schools and why they came to be in the first place.

Information About School Uniforms in England

Most historical information points toward England as the start of modern-day school uniforms.

Early Uniforms

According to Britannica, the first recorded use of school uniforms was in England in 1222. Students at one school were required to wear a robe-like outfit called a "cappa clausa." However, it wasn't until the 16th century that modern school uniforms made an appearance in recorded history.

During this time, Christ's Hospital boarding school mandated uniforms, which, according to the BBC, citizens provided. The uniforms consisted of a blue cloak and yellow stockings, thus earning charity schools like Christ's Hospital the nickname "blue cloak" schools.

Private and Preparatory School Uniforms

Later, school uniforms became associated with the upper class as private and preparatory schools began to use them more. The uniforms at these schools were incredibly formal. For example, ProCon.org notes that students at the prestigious Eton College were required to wear a black top hat and tails as their uniform up until 1972.

Modern Trends

Today, many students attending elementary and secondary schools in England are required to wear uniforms. The tradition began as a way to give schools a sense of identity and cohesion. School uniforms were meant to bring equality to students regardless of their parents' wealth, according to BBC.

In the past several years, uniforms have become more modern. Instead of the traditional uniform of a blazer and tie in a thick fabric, T-shirts, polo shirts, and sweatshirts in school colors have become standard. Plain-colored pants or jeans are also worn at some schools.

On the other hand, some schools have chosen to keep things just the way they have been for hundreds of years. According to BBC, Christ's Hospital polled students in 2014, and 95% voted to keep the traditional uniform, citing school pride as a top reason.

Fast Fact

In England, the Department of Education does not require but strongly recommends school uniforms. In 2021, legislation was passed to prevent excessive uniform costs

Related: 16 Fun After-School Ideas for Kids & Parents

United States: Public School Uniforms and Controversy

The use of school uniforms in the US. started in the early 1900s for parochial and private schools, but it wasn't until the 1980s that public schools began to use uniforms. Schools in Maryland and Washington, D.C., were the first to implement uniform policies, although they were voluntary, according to ProCon.org.

School officials at this time noticed changes in the students' attitudes as well as a decline in disciplinary issues after the uniform policy was introduced. This led a few other schools to start using uniforms as well.

Statistics Backing the Use of Uniforms

It wasn't until 1994 that school uniforms began to gain popularity in public schools. A study of a school in Long Beach, California provided some statistical information to back up the claims on the benefits of school uniform policies.

PBS reported that the California school's findings included a decrease in crime of 36%, a 50% drop in school muggings, and a 74% drop in sexual offenses.

Mixed Findings

However, some argue against the Long Beach study's findings, because implementing the uniforms wasn't a change made in isolation. Though research is limited, some experts argue that recent evidence suggests that school uniforms could actually have a negative impact on students. 

Fast Fact

School uniforms in the US remain the subject of controversy — limited research and mixed results mean we don't have definitive answers. 

Uniforms on the Rise

Although there have been many pieces of legislation regarding school uniforms in the United States, there are currently no states that require or ban them by statute. The National Center for Education Statistics reports that in the 2017–2018 school year, only 20% of public schools required uniforms. (This is the most recent survey on the number of public schools requiring uniforms as of this writing.)

They also suggest that elementary schools are more likely than secondary schools to implement uniform policies, as are city schools, over suburban and rural schools. The number of schools that require pupils to wear uniforms has been on the rise over the past 10 years, in particular.

Related: 10 Cons of Having Cell Phones in School

Uniform History Around the World

Each part of the world has a different past when it comes to school uniforms.

School Uniforms in Australia

Australian School Uniform

In the 1920s Australian boys were often seen wearing short pants and peaked school caps to school, just like boys in England. The major difference was that boys in Australia tended to go to school barefoot.

After World War II, uniforms in Australia became a lot more casual. Today, this casual style is becoming increasingly normal in Australian schools. According to The Uniform Company, "more traditional schools will usually opt for a formal look with blazers, ties, and long socks. On the other end of the spectrum, some schools may only require students to wear a matching tracksuit and tennis shoes."

School Uniforms in Africa

African School Uniform

The work of missionaries throughout Africa started the history of school uniforms in the country. Uniforms were used as a way to differentiate students at the missionary schools from kids running the streets. Before and after World War II in Africa, school uniforms became particularly popular with totalitarian states. The uniforms were used as a way to recruit and control young people.

Today, the school uniform is probably more prevalent in Africa than anywhere else in the world, despite its sometimes negative connotation. The sense of commonality is what keeps school uniforms thriving here.

School Uniforms in China

Chinese School Uniform

China widely adopted school uniforms in the 19th century as a symbol of modernity. Early uniforms were influenced by Western fashion mixed with traditional Chinese attire. This inclusion of the country's own history made the uniforms different from those of other countries.

Chinese school uniforms in the past have been criticized for being dull and showing little difference between styles for boys and girls. Today, uniform styles are more influenced by Korean fashion, with girls wearing bow ties, blouses, and plaid skirts while boys wear suits and ties.

School Uniforms in Japan

Japanese School Uniform

Japan is one of the few countries not directly inspired by traditional English school uniforms. Although the use of school uniforms wasn't prevalent until the 1900s, uniforms are now a common sight in Japan. School uniforms here were modeled after French and Prussian military uniforms.

School uniforms started in Japan as a way to show other countries how upstanding Japan's citizens are. Girl's uniforms were modeled after sailor uniforms, and boy's uniforms were modeled after army uniforms. It is common in Japan for students to wear their uniform outside of school with a few more personal touches.

Interesting Facts Behind School Uniforms 

The history of how and where school uniforms began, as well as why they still exist, can help parents, students, and school officials better address the controversial issue. Though there is a long history of school uniforms across the globe, different countries have different approaches, and there are mixed findings when it comes to the pros and cons of wearing them. Looking at a little bit of the history can help if you're interested in starting a conversation on the issue of school uniforms in your area. 

A Brief History of School Uniforms Across the Globe