School Uniforms are in the News this week
It is the 8th September 2016 and the BBC News and MSN seem to think that reporting ‘school uniform stories’ is newsworthy. Going back after the summer holidays some secondary school children have been sent home for not wearing the correct or appropriate clothes to school. Why that is considered newsworthy I am not entirely sure.
However it does prompt reflection on the school uniforms we wore in the 1950-60s. At Haberdashers’ Aske’s Boys in South London the checking and enforcement of school uniform regulations was mainly carried out by the school prefects in the playground prior to going into Morning Assembly at 9.00 am.
A prefect would come down into the playground at 8.50 am and ring a hand bell which was a signal for boys to line up abreast in two rows for each form as shown in the sketch.
The form-captains, under the supervision of a sixth former would fill in an attendance slip giving the number present and noting the names of any absentees. After Assembly at the beginning of the first lesson the Masters taking the lesson would simply countersign this slip and the form-captains would take it to the school secretary’s office on their way to the next lesson. So no time was wasted in taking a register.
It was during the lining up before going into Morning Assembly that uniform checks were carried out by the Prefects. In the first and second years, that is up to the age of about 14, there was little opportunity for ‘stress-testing’ the school uniform rules because boys wore short grey trousers (so bare cold legs in the winter), grey knee length socks a school blazer and tie and plain black lace-up shoes and of course a school cap. However by the third year most boys had graduated to long trousers. The exception to this in my class was a pretty freckle faced boy called Robin Carter whose mother kept him in short trousers until the fourth year. But for the rest of us, long trousers, our age, and the age in which we lived, generated the conditions for attempts to subvert the regulations in three areas, socks, shoes, and trousers.
Narrow trousers (drainpipes) were not allowed – there was a minimum width at the ankle which may have been 15 inches.
It was the age of fluorescent socks – lime green was a particular favourite – but these were certainly not allowed although they were not always obviously on show. So sock inspections were carried out from time to time when boys would have to hold their trouser legs up so that the prefects could see if we were wearing regulation grey socks.
The enforcement of regulation shoes was more subjective and more difficult to enforce. We were supposed to wear conventional plain black leather lace-up shoes. In an age when ‘winkle-pickers’ were becoming fashionable the line between a normal round toe and a more pointed toe could be, and was, tested by some boys.
If you were deemed to have infringed any of the uniform rules the penalty was either ‘lines’, that is writing a 100 lines on some allocated topic or a Prefects Detention.
Outside of the inspections there were of course other issues regarding uniform. Boys were required to wear school caps (or straw boaters in the summer) at all times both to and from school. Being caught not wearing your cap by a Prefect would result in a Prefect’s Detention which took place for an hour after school on a Wednesday. (Teachers’ Detention was for an hour after school on Tuesday or for two hours on Saturday Morning, although the latter detentions were only held about once a month and were only given after a serious offence).
When I started at Aske’s in 1955 school caps (or straw boaters in the summer) were a required part of the school uniform for all boys even the 18 and 19 year old sixth-formers. There was however a gradation of caps as follows:
From the first to the 5th form the cap was plain navy blue with the school badge embroidered into the front panel segment. The only variation in the standard cap was the colour of the cloth button on the top of the cap which identified to which of the five ‘Houses’ you belonged.
The Sixth-Form cap had a circular light-blue band around the middle.
The cap for Probationary Prefects lost this element and simply had a light-blue band around the base of the cap at the back.
Full Prefects wore a cap with blue bands between each segment radiating down from the house button on the top to the base of the cap.
The only time I ever had a Prefect’s Detention was for walking out of the school gate on my way home without having put my cap on although I was holding it in my hand and about to do so. I remember that the Prefect who was stationed outside the gates and who gave me the detention was Martin Symms and that means that I must have been in the third or fourth year at the time so probably 15 years old.
I was slightly miffed that by the time I reached the sixth-form and expecting to enjoy the status that went with the sixth-form cap that they had been abolished for the sixth form the year before, although caps were still required uniform for some time after that by 1st to 5th form boys.
While socks trousers and shoes were the ‘uniform stress-points’ for boys, for girls it was probably skirt length as well as shoes, hair, make-up and jewellery (or rather the prohibition of the latter two).
As the 60s got into full swing skirt lengths were strictly regulated and the only way round it for many girls was rolling over the waist band to make the skirt temporarily shorter while being able to quickly pull it down to avoid detection by teachers.
As was, and still is, relatively common, Girls wore a school tie as part of their uniform. It has always struck me as odd that probably the only time in their life that most girls will wear a tie is at school ? How has that tradition clung on ?
Prendergast Girls Grammar School where my first wife went in South London had similar rules although in the summer they wore straw Panama hats and white gloves with a cotton dress and blue blazer. An ensemble that brought derision from the girls of Catford County School which Prendergast girls had to walk past on their way to their games field at the top of Bellingham Road.
On arriving in the first year at Prendergast the girls spent part of their time in the winter of that first year in Home Economics lessons (or whatever it was called in those days) making their summer uniform dress out of blue gingham. My first wife’s aunt was a professional dress maker so Gill told me that she ended up with a reasonably well made dress for the summer but some girls with less help or talent were unfairly condemned to spend the summer in ill-fitting badly constructed dresses.
Returning to my own experience of school uniform I managed to legitimately subvert the normal uniform through a curious aberration in the printed regulations which had been in existence for many years. They stated that the uniform consisted of either a “blue blazer with a school badge and brass buttons with the school crest on them” or a “black jacket”. I managed to persuade my Mother to buy me a black jacket in the fifth form and so did not have to wear a school badge or the brass buttons for the rest of my time at Aske’s. And of course once in the sixth-form no school cap either after 1960. So I could not be identified as a schoolboy when I played truant going up to London instead of going to school.
At the same time and in common with some other boys I used to wear a shirt with detachable heavily starched stiff collars – needing collar studs of course. It sounds incredibly formal by today’s standards, but it was standard menswear in the 1950s and early 1960s. The collars had to sent away to be washed and starched at the Gleniffer Laundry in Bellingham.