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You Want Me To Wear What?: A History of School Uniforms, Part 2

Okay, so we've explored the origin of academic dress in the West by delving into Archbishop Stephen Langton's 1222 edict requiring scholar clerics of his archbishopric to wear the cappa clausa while attending university, thus establishing the first documented standard of dress in academia. But how did this dress code jump from scholar priests to schoolchildren? Well, the earliest recorded case of a school requiring its minor students to wear uniforms is that of Christ's Hospital Boarding School in England.

Moved by a sermon from the Bishop of London about the city's poor, King Edward VI founded Christ's Hospital in London's Christchurch parish—hence, the name—in 1552. In the Middle Ages, the term “hospital” referred to a charitable organization for those in need, young or old, or a hostel for church pilgrims and comes from the Latin hospitium, meaning “hospitality.” Within a year of its opening, Christ's Hospital School had more than 500 students, and each child was provided a uniform in the style of the day at no cost to them.

An early 19th century oil painting of a Christ's Hospital student by Margaret Carpenter.

As these students were selected from London's poor and subsidized by the City of London and its citizens, it's a safe assumption that the materials and colors drawn from to provide these uniforms were consistent with those available to the lower classes of England. So what did they wear? The most common material for clothing of the day was wool, and contrary to the popular assumption today—that everyone wore drab, neutral colors unless they had money to buy more colorful garb—the lower classes of Tudor England did indeed wear colors when given the opportunity. Admittedly, the nobility probably had more color options as they had access to the more expensive dyes that allowed for more vibrant colors, but the lower classes used a plethora of natural plant dyes for their colors—e.g. weld for yellows, woad for blues, madder for reds, cabbage, blueberries, onions, moss, bark, and so on—as well as other substances in nature such as rust or muds or clays.

Students of Christ's Hospital School, then and now
Students of Christ's Hospital School, then and now

So what did the students at Christ's Hospital School wear? Well, their uniform—which has hardly changed since its origins in 1552!—consists of a long blue coat belted at the waist and worn over matching knee breeches or skirt, a white shirt with neck “bands,” and yellow stockings. The coat did apparently have a yellow lining to match the stockings, but that seems to have fallen by the wayside sometime in the last 471 years. The original reason for this distinctive uniform seems to have been lost along with that yellow coat lining, but some speculate that it was chosen for the low cost of the blue and yellow dyes and to distinguish Christ's Hospital students from those of other boarding schools in London. Others suggest that the residual smell from the yellow dye, originally made using onions and saffron, repelled fleas and rats, so it would, in turn, help prevent disease—which would be important to them since Christ's Hospital was founded when Europe was dealing with the Bubonic Plague. Whatever the reason for the eye-catching uniform, it's become representative of the school and a matter of pride to modern students. In 2011, when the school surveyed its students about the uniform, 95% voted in favor of keeping the unusual uniform.

Young Eton "men" in their top hats
Young Eton "men" in their top hats

Another British boarding school noted for its “old school” uniform is Eton College. The school was established in 1440, but the administration didn't adopt a formal uniform until the late 19th century. Once they did, students were required to wear black pinstriped pants, a white shirt with a starched collar and necktie, a black waistcoat (vest), a black tailcoat, and a black top hat on or off campus. Over the years, this uniform did vary based on the particular wearer; boys with authority, boys of a particular age or size, or boys who'd achieved honors wore slightly altered variants of the basic uniform. For example, up until 1967, boys who stood less than 5'4” did not wear the tailcoat; instead, they wore a cropped jacket referred to as an Eton jacket, a mess jacket, or a “bum-freezer.” Similarly, boys who've been selected as House Captains wear a mottled gray waistcoat, and those who're members of the “Eton Society” wear white and black houndstooth-print pants and are allowed to wear flamboyant waistcoats in place of the black ones. They also wear a white bow tie and a winged collar instead of the standard collar. In 1972, dress codes were relaxed somewhat; they were no longer required to wear their top hats and they could venture off campus without the tailcoat.

Eton Society members wearing their fancy waistcoats and white bow ties
Eton Society members wearing their fancy waistcoats and white bow ties
The 17th Duke of Alba, seen here in a mess jacket instead of the tails
The 17th Duke of Alba, seen here in a mess jacket instead of the tails

Looking at the uniforms of the two boarding schools, it's hard to believe they both started as charity schools. Both are considered “public schools,” but the British definition of a public school is very different from that of an American. By American standards, a public school is one that is subsidized by public funds (a.k.a., tax dollars) and does not charge tuition for K-12 usually. In the UK, a public school is a fee-charging private school that is open to anyone (though, historically, boys) regardless of religion, region, or parental profession and not a privately owned, for-profit institution. But whereas Christ's Hospital Boarding School originated as a school for children whose tuition was subsidized either wholly or in part by donations and continues that tradition today, Eton College exemplifies the opposite end of the boarding school spectrum. According to their website, Christ's Hospital charges £41,850 (just over $51,000) for the full 2023/2024 school year and for 630 of the 900 students, that amount is fully subsidized or heavily reduced—11% pay no fees and 73% receive some level of funding. Only 22% of their students pay full fees. By contrast, Eton College was founded by King Henry VI in 1440 to provide a free education to 70 poor boys who would then go on to King's College, at the University of Cambridge, but as times changed, so did the school and its students. While the number of students has steadily increased, with the total attendance somewhere in the vicinity of 1,350 in 2023, only 107 boys paid no fees for the 2022/2023 school year and only about 20% received any financial aid in the 2021/2022 academic year. And with Eton's fees currently running about £50,000 (a little over $61,000) over the school year, that difference becomes dramatic.

So what difference does it make that students at Christ's Hospital School are more likely to be financially subsidized than those of Eton when it comes to school uniforms? It doesn't—not directly, anyway. But it gives us a snapshot of both schools that matters later when we start looking at the evolution of school uniforms in the U.S. In his book The School Uniform Movement and What It Tells Us about American Education: A Symbolic Crusade, David L. Brunsma suggests that the uniform for Christ's Hospital served to proclaim to the world that these children were members of the lower class. Similarly, the sumptuary laws of the time also attempted to use clothing to keep people in “their place” by restricting what people could wear.* When Eton adopted its uniform policy some 400 years after the founding of Christ's Hospital School, we see clothing again being used to proclaim class level, only this time it's screaming, “I'm your better!” instead. Eton, like most British public schools, is associated with the ruling class. Indeed, it's been called “the chief nurse of England's statesmen" as it has educated prime ministers, Nobel laureates, Academy Award winners, generations of both British and foreign aristocrats, and even the British royal family, including, for the first time, those in the direct line of succession for the throne, the current Prince of Wales (the heir to the British throne) and his brother, the Duke of Sussex—a.k.a., Princes William and Harry. Indeed, Eton has a reputation not only of academic excellence but also of tradition and elitism—which brings us back to the evolution of school uniforms in the U.S. They started popping up in American private and parochial schools in the early 1900s, and once again we see them most often used either as a signal that the wearer is upper class and “elite” or as a means to “other” the wearer. It wasn't until the mid-1980s that they moved into American public schools as a response to discipline and safety issues. But that's a tale for another day.

Princes William and Harry attending Eton College
Princes William and Harry attending Eton College

*For more on sumptuary laws and societal dress codes, check out my blog entry “I'm Being Arrested For What?”

Works Cited

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Pochin, Courtney. “Heartbreaking explanation behind Prince William and Harry being sent to Eton College.” Sept 21, 2023. Accessed Oct 11, 2023.

“History of School Uniforms.” ProCon/Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., May 10, 2023. Accessed Sept 6, 2023.

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Meares, Hadley Hall. “Fit for a Future King: Inside Eton College, Harry and William’s Posh Alma Mater.” Vanity Accessed Oct 11, 2023.

Meleen, Michele. “History of School Uniforms.” LoveToKnow Media. Accessed Oct 12, 2023.

Patel, Sophia Marion. “Christ’s Hospital Museum.” October 19, 2020. Accessed Sept. 13, 2023.

Patterson, Susan. “Dyes From Plants: Learn More About Using Natural Plant Dyes.” Accessed Sept. 28, 2023.

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“Public School (United Kingdom).” Wikipedia. Oct 3, 2023.

“School Uniforms Of The World: History & Heritage.” Barbara Frères Digital Gmbh. Accessed Sept. 12, 2023.

“Students of Christ Hospital Boarding have been wearing their uniforms since 1553.” Sept 11, 2020. Accessed Sept 12, 2023.

“Tudor Fashion And Clothing.” John Moore Museum. Oct 15, 2022.

Accessed Sept. 27, 2023.

“Ways To Give.” Eton College. Accessed Oct 11, 2023.

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