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(Don't) Blame It On The Monks: A History Of School Uniforms, Part 1

painting of medieval university lecture
Students attend a university lecture in medieval Europe garbed in the standard closed cloak over their preferred clothing

School uniforms in the West are generally attributed to the Archbishop of Canterbury, Stephen Langton. Langton was born in Britain in 1150, but he attended the University of Paris and taught Theology there until 1206. During that time, he earned accolades for his piety and his knowledge and became recognized as one of the foremost English clergymen of the time. In 1206, he was called to Rome by Pope Innocent III and made cardinal-priest of San Crisogono, Rome. It's probably safe to say that he developed a fairly Eurocentric perspective during his years in Europe, so when the 57-year-old priest was named Archbishop of Canterbury in 1207 and returned to his archbishopric, made up of Southern England and Wales, it's not really surprising that English scholars with their “zeal for the latest fashions” were something of a rude awakening when compared to the more sober scholars of Europe.

Painting of Banquet servers in short tunics, hose, and poulaine shoes
Banquet servers in short tunics, hose, and poulaine shoes popular during the middle ages.

So among the orders he handed down at the Council of Oxford in 1222 was the requirement that the students of his archbishopric should wear the “cappa clausa” or closed cloak, which would bring England in line with the rest of Catholic Europe. Prior to that, while there was a standard style of clothing at the universities across Europe, there was no particular required dress. In general, students at these universities were members of the clergy—if not priests, then clerics (clerks) of minor holy orders. Imagine a Medieval “college town” based around a great cathedral's or monastery's accompanying religious school, so students typically dressed in the priestly version of the typical garb of the day and the area: usually a tunic and a long, closed cloak with openings for the hands. Think today's graduation gowns or judges' robes over modern fashionable wear.

Painting of French dignitaries, 11th to 13th century
French dignitaries, 11th to 13th century

And as with youth today, fashion could make for some interesting clothing choices. While the monastic scholars were soberly dressed in the monks' robes required by their orders prior to Langton's decree, the parish priests wore whatever struck their fancies—leaving room for the fads and fashions of the day. And the clergy were apparently notorious for their love of style. Some, in particular, “...were frequently berated for looking rather too flashy and being indistinguishable from knights.” So Langton's edict, which required the cappa clausa to cover those potentially outlandish fashions, was not always popular, giving rise to the “first recorded case of uniformed academics bucking the rules.” Humans being what they are, this new dress code was frequently ignored by those scholars loath to hide their fancy plumage with a sober covering, leading to reprimands for their unpriestly love of fashion. So evidently, students protesting their school's uniform policy has been going on for more than 800 years!


Works Cited

Busch, Jennifer. “School's In Session: the History of School Uniforms.” Accessed Sept 1, 2023.

Cartwright, Mark. “Clothes in Medieval England.” pub 28 June 2018. Accessed Sept 6, 2023.

Goff, Philip, FBS. “The History of Academic Dress.” University of London Academic Dress. The Burgon Society. Accessed Sept 1, 2023.

Kohler, Carl. “Medieval Clothing in France. 11th to 13th Century.” Carl Kohler Archives. Accessed Sept 7, 2023.

"Scholasticism." Accessed Sept 5, 2023.

"Stephen Langton." Accessed Sept 6, 2023.

“The administrative responsibilities of the Medieval Archbishops of York,” University of York Department of History.,ages%20this%20was%20often%20disputed. Accessed Sept 6, 2023.

Townsend, Lindsay. "15 Minutes of Fame: Medieval Fashion." pub. May 31, 2011. The Unusual Historicals Group. Accessed Sept 7, 2023.

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