How's the form? The fashion of uniforms around the world

Bellet-proof, satellite-linked or prim, school uniforms reflect social concerns, writes Deirdre McQuillan

 

Japan
Japanese girls think their school uniforms are so cute that many wear them all the time, even at weekends. Introduced over a century ago, the Japanese school uniform – seifuku – began with the traditional combination of a formal kimono and shirt with a hakama worn over the kimono.

Sailor suits for girls drawn from British navy uniforms became popular in the 1920s and the basic design remains the same today, although pupils have inventive ways of making their own style statements by customising with shiny pins, bows or colourful shoe laces. Boys wear a black military-style uniform.

The seifuku’s classic design has entered Japanese popular culture in manga (Sailor Moon), games (PaperMan), TV series (Waterboys) and schoolgirl dramas (Life). Many teenage cosplayers (costume enthusiasts) use imitation uniforms to remake themselves into their favourite manga characters.


US
In the wake of the Newtown school massacre, some schools are now introducing safety and bullet-proof vests for children’s protection. Otherwise, the most common US school uniform is a button-up or polo shirt, trousers or skirt in khaki, navy or grey, which allows for plenty of leeway in interpretation.

Working on the theory that school uniforms might reduce school violence, the percentage of US public schools requiring school uniforms has increased from 3 per cent to 19 per cent since 2000.

President Bill Clinton’s 1996 state of the union address could have been renamed state of the uniform address because he is the one generally credited with the trend, having argued for the adoption of uniforms.

Citing growing worries about violence and the safety of children in schools, he used the example of Long Beach, California, where mandatory uniforms introduced to the district’s public schools were said to have halved the number of fights and weap- ons offences in schools and reduced sexual offences by three-quarters.

A 2010 study found that schools with mandatory uniforms had fewer instances of alcohol and drug abuse and saw a lessening of gang behaviour.


Kenya
Colourful uniforms reflect the value and privilege of education in African countries such as Rwanda, Ethiopia, Sierra Leone and South Africa – although the issue of cost is an ongoing preoccupation for poorer parents.

In rural Kenya, a 2009 study of a programme in an impoverished area found that when a student was given a uniform, it reduced that child’s absenteeism by 44 per cent and increased test scores, according to the Economist.

Two things were interesting about this; one, the value of providing a uniform, and two, how the inability to pay could impede education. In Ghana, more than 8,000 uniforms were distributed to children in a disadvantaged area of the country by the government in 2010.


Brazil
In the northeastern Brazilian city of Vitoria da Conquista, the uniforms of some 20,000 students are embedded with locator chips that help alert parents to truancy or tardiness.

All of the city’s 43,000 students from aged four to 14 will have their T-shirts fitted with these devices under the school’s crest when they return to school this year. The government has invested $670,000 to design, test and make these GPS chips, the same as those used to track pets, but the issue is controversial. In the US, privacy advocates have been campaigning against their use. The American Civil Liberties union was involved in a case where a student refused to use a RFID (radio frequency identification) school identification card.


France
The French are rethinking the abolition, in 1968, of uniforms in most state schools, “to fight the tyranny of designer labels, to bring a measure of equality among the pupils and sense of belonging at the school”, according to Bernard Locicio, principal at Sourdun Internat d’Excellence boarding school in Seine et Marne, where uniforms were introduced this year. Parents voted 75 per cent in favour of the plan and students chose the colours. Each boy received two pairs of trousers, four shirts, two jumpers, one tie and blazer. Girls got black skirts or trousers with a white blouse. Elsewhere in France, uniforms are mainly used in private schools, in the military and in the elite Legion d’Honneur school in Saint Denis in Paris.

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