Private School Uniforms and Dress Codes

Answering your frequently asked questions

girl in uniform. Jun Takahashi/Taxi Japan, Getty Images

When you think of a dress code or uniform, what comes to mind? Most people will call to mind the stereotypical images we see in media: pressed and proper uniforms at military academies, the navy blazers or sports coats with ties and slacks at boys schools, and the plaid skirts and white shirts with knee socks and dress shoes at girls schools. But is this attire actually the norm at private schools?

Many private schools attribute most of their uniform traditions and dress codes back to their British public school roots. The formal starched collars and tails worn by Eton College boys are world-famous, but they are hardly typical of a normal school uniform these days. Much more common is a looser dress code consisting of the ubiquitous blazer, white shirt, school tie, slacks, socks and black shoes; or the option of wearing dresses, or a blazer and blouse with slacks or skirts are pretty much standard for girls.

What is the difference between a uniform and dress code?

The very word uniform suggests the raison d'etre for 'unis' as some of the private school crowd calls them. It is one specific and standard style of dress that every student wears. Some school uniforms allow for optional additions, such as sweaters or vests to wear over the uniforms. While the rules at every school will differ, some will allow students to add their own personal flair, dressing up their standard attire with scarves and other accessories, but there are typically limitations to how much can be added to the uniform.

A dress code is a strict outline of acceptable attire that isn't limited to one or two options. It serves as more of a guideline rather than a rigid rule, and provides more flexibility for students. Many view dress code as an attempt to create conformity as opposed to uniformity. Dress codes can vary by school and range from more formal dress codes requiring specific colors and limited choices of attire, to more flexible options that may simply prohibit certain forms of attire.

 

Why Do Schools Have Uniforms and Dress Codes?

Many schools have implemented uniforms and dress codes for both practical and social reasons. Practically speaking, a standardized uniform allows a child to get by with a minimum amount of clothing. You have your everyday wear and then a Sunday best outfit for more formal occasions. A uniform often serves as a marvelous equalizer of social status. It matters not whether you are the Earl of Snowdon or the son of the local green grocer when you don that uniform. Everybody looks the same. Uniformity rules.

Do uniforms improve test scores and enhance discipline?

Long Beach Unified School District, back in the '90s, instituted a dress code policy for its students. Proponents of the policy claimed that the dress code created a climate for education which led to improved test scores and better discipline. Research may vary on this, and responses from parents often differs from teachers, with parents (and students) arguing for more flexibility for personal style and expression, while teachers are often largely supportive of uniforms and dress codes because of the perceived improvements in both student performance and behavior. That said, private schools generally create a climate for learning more consistently than public schools do to begin with.

Uniforms and dress codes are just one part of the formula for success. The real secret to success is consistently enforcing rules and regulations. Hold students accountable and you will see results.

What About Teachers' Dress Codes?

Most private schools also have dress codes for teachers. While the guidelines for adults may not mirror that of students, they are often similar, engaging faculty members in modeling good behavior and dressing best practices. 

What Happens When You Disregard the Uniform or Dress Code?

Now, we all know that students of any age have their ways of getting around dress code requirements. The slacks have a way of becoming a bit more baggy than the school regulations intended. The shirts tend to hang out below the oversize jacket. Skirts seem to shrink overnight. This can be difficult for schools to enforce, and infractions can result in varying responses, ranging from verbal reminders to detention and even formal disciplinary action for repeated offenders.

Want to read more? Check out this article that covers the pros and cons of school uniforms.

Article edited by Stacy Jagodowski