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Cover feature: wear it's at

The new school year will see a new uniform at some of the country's schools, while some interesting traditions remain in place

Posted by Stephanie Broad | August 27, 2015 | School life

Many pupils returning to independent schools this term will do so in a variety of new garments and outfits, incorporating modern and traditional materials in the classroom and on the sports field. Branding remains of major importance, while two schools continue to operate alternative arrangements to the norm. 

A kilt interweaving the school colours has recently been adopted at St Mary’s School for Girls, Colchester. “It was time for a change from the navy straight skirt that had been part of the school uniform for the past eight years,” said St Mary’s principal, Hilary Vipond. “The girls have taken to the kilt very quickly – it’s comfortable and practical to wear all year round. Parents like it because it is much more difficult for the girls to modify the length! Also it’s machine washable and doesn’t need ironing.”

As a privilege, from September students in year 11 may wear a smart navy blue suit, sourced by shop manager Johanna Lowery from a corporate outfitter rather than a school uniform supplier. “We found the corporate outfitter offered a range of styles in all sizes marking a distinction from the uniform worn by pupils lower down the school and made the oldest students feel very professional,” she said. Girls have the choice of a skirt or trousers with a matching jacket and a white or pale blue coordinating shirt. 

Similarly, the school’s PE kit has been upgraded to take advantage sports fabric technology’s innovations. Replacing the white polo shirt and royal blue shorts are a sky blue and navy girl-fit top, coordinating with a skirt and shorts in the same colours, a navy fleece, navy training top and bottoms and sky and navy hooped socks. “The new kit is much more comfortable while being active and this encourages the girls to put more energy and enthusiasm into their PE lessons and training,” said St Mary’s head of PE, Emma Hawkins. ‘It's also a flattering cut and pupils feel proud to be representing their school at sports fixtures and competitions when wearing it.” 

The introduction of girls into Ewell Castle School’s senior school this year has precipitated a new uniform. Pupils are able to wear the current or new uniform in the 2015/16 academic year (although a mix-and-match policy is not allowed) with the new uniform the sole option from September 2016. 

This new uniform includes the introduction of a new, bespoke wool tartan designed by the school and produced by Marton Mills, registered with the Scottish Register of Tartan (registration number 11,288.)  The tartan is dark blue, red, blue and white and will be seen on the senior girls’ and prep school girls’ skirts, the pre-prep tunics and the preparatory school ties.  The old unisex royal blue polyester blazer is being replaced by a navy blue poly-wool mix blazer in a boys’ and a more fitted girls’ styles and the prep school pale blue shirt is changing to white.  The senior boys’ tie is changing and features the same shade of blue and red with white appearing on the girls’ tartan skirts and the current grey jumpers are being replaced by navy ones with the school logo.

Most parents and pupils who have seen the sample new uniform much prefer it to the existing uniform, saying it is more contemporary looking, smarter and is better quality.  They also like the fact the new blazer is machine washable. “We are raising our standards and expectations throughout all areas of the school and we want to ensure our uniform reflects this,” said Peter Harris, principal. 

A novel uniform system operates at King Edward’s School Witley (formerly Bridewell Royal Hospital,) the creation of which was sanctioned by the same charter as that of Christ's Hospital and St Thomas' Hospital in 1553 by King Edward XI. Pupils are allocated uniform by the sewing room upon arrival and as they outgrow their uniform they simply go back to the sewing room, who undertake repairs if needed and replace the uniform with bigger sizes. Pupils return the uniform upon leaving and it is recycled if usable. 

The sewing room also provides a personal alterations service for pupils’ uniform, sixth form dress and home clothes, which the boarders wear on evenings and weekends. The school also has an onsite professional laundry so all returning pupils are greeted on the first day of term with pristine dry-cleaned blazers in their boarding house. 

Generally, uniform has a five-year lifecycle although exceptions include the ceremonial gowns worn by the head boy and head girl, which are passed down from generation to generation. These have just been replaced but last for over 20 years.

The sewing room at King Edward's Witley

Angus’s Lathallan School offers an impressive range of uniform extras, which started with a sun hat and scarves, introduced when Melanie Cassidy of the school’s parents’ association was a class rep. Melanie said: “The range was created primarily for the junior school, as items can be personalised with the children’s names, making them easy to return to their owner. Parents also appreciated such items being offered as it was difficult obtaining them in plain navy without a cartoon character on.” Top sellers include a kit bag produced by Montrose Rope & Sail, whose all-weather bags are the industry standard for the North Sea’s offshore workforce.    

Indeed, the school sources production of extras on an item-by-item basis, ensuring it obtains the best outcome, with products chosen to create brand awareness as much as to generate funds (a hardwearing bag will be replaced only infrequently but used – and seen – for years.) The recent introduction of an Old Lathallians tie has helped the school connect with pupils leaving decades ago, while consideration has to be given to present trends and future opportunities, according to Andrea Watt, head of development and alumni relations. “Our teddy bears are used for raffle prizes and we recently gave them to five pupils here from Australia. It is difficult to know what girls want; Robert Gordon’s College in Aberdeen sells a compact mirror with an engraved logo, but there was not a huge uptake when we proposed something similar. We are already looking forward to our centenary in 2030; it will take a long time to prepare for this – we may produce a coffee table book and special logo.” 

Uniform 'extras' at Lathallan

A uniform is conspicuous by its absence at Bedales School, where headmaster Keith Budge said: “Pupils, staff and visitors often comment on how refreshing it is pupils have their own identity when it comes to clothing. The strength of Bedales’ close-knit and long-standing community is proof uniform is not required to promote a sense of belonging. There are other ways to create a sense of community and identity and Bedales does this through mutual respect and long-held school traditions strengthening the bonds between staff and pupils and the community at large, such as the handshaking ceremony at the end of assembly. We do not have any guidelines when it comes to attire, other than it should not be offensive.” 

Clearly, the clothes worn in the country’s independent schools do more than keep their pupils warm, with the colours, cuts and patterns establishing belonging, whether to a centuries-old institution or brand new one. Updated attire can appeal to today’s image-conscious children, while uniform can prepare them for life after school.     

If you’ve got something to say about school uniform, email the editor: 

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