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How to Survive School Uniforms

 by Patricia Lynn Henley   Posted on August 21 2013

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This July, soaring temperatures in Cardiff, Wales, prompted 17 schoolboys to add an unusual item to their summer school uniforms: they wore black skirts to protest a strict uniform policy banning shorts, even in hot weather.

After a quick trip to the headmaster's office, the lads were soon back in long pants -- but not before getting their point across in a dramatic fashion. It's just one of ways that people around the world get creative when coping with the inflexibility of school uniforms.

A tradition at most private schools in the United States, school uniforms are also increasingly common on public school campuses. In 2009-2010 (the most recent academic year for which official statistics are available), nearly one in five US schools required their students to wear uniforms.

In a more recent but somewhat less official report, the National Association of Elementary School Principals partnered with clothing retailer Land's End to survey 517 U.S. public school leaders. They announced in July that 49% of those responding either required uniforms or had a strict formal dress code on their campuses. That's up from 21% in a similar survey in 2000.

So school uniforms are a fact of life for many. Standardized clothing that meets typical local school requirements is available at a wide variety of retailers, from Kmart and Walmart to Old Navy and Nordstrom.

The typical cost for the relatively casual school uniform of interchangeable standardized pieces which is favored by most public schools is $25-$200 per outfit; or it can cost $100-$500 per outfit for the more formal school-specific uniform found on many private campuses (often available for purchase from just one or two specific retailers).

Cash-strapped parents cope by shopping for the best deals at back-to-school sales; using department store discount coupons; holding uniform swap meets to trade last year's out-grown outfits; and buying basic items at consignment and thrift stores.

Students cope by getting creative within the uniform rules -- adding distinctive shoes, belts, sweaters, jackets, jewelry, headbands, oversized watches and other accessories to express their individuality within a cookie-cutter world. Seventeen and Teen Vogue magazines explain how to liven up a dull uniform.

Even local businesses learn to cope. When the Allentown School District in Pennsylvania announced it was requiring its students to wear uniforms, local retailer Santo Napoli realized the move would have a strong negative impact on his two stores, which sold exactly the type of brand-name-logo-emblazoned fashions that were being eliminated by the new school policy. So Napoli converted several sections of his stores from selling t-shirts and shorts to school uniforms, and bought space on 24 local billboards to advertise the uniforms. Business is booming.

Whether adding just the right accessory to personalize an outfit, turning a business challenge into a business opportunity, or even protesting in skirts, parents and students are learning how to cope and live with school uniforms, with style.
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