How the School Uniform Became 2021’s Unexpected Trend

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Just a visit to fashion TikTok or a peak at Instagram’s cast of voguish celebrities and influencers, one might find pleated skirts, sweater vests, blazers, or chunky loafers and oxfords recycled and restyled. Apart from the trendy course these pieces are rapidly going down, they may look familiar (or perhaps rev up memories of the school bell or school yard antics).

The school uniform has unexpectedly made a statement in recent trends. Once considered stuffy and restrictive in its dress code ethics, the ensemble has surprisingly found its roots in fashion, through designer runway collections, surging styles, and in pop culture – 2021’a circle back to its signature items is reminding us it’s not going anywhere. With fall just around the corner, CR looks the history behind education’s controversial outfit and how it’s become the romanticized affair its become today. Grab a fluffy pen and decorated notebook because class is in session.

The idea of the school uniform can be traced back to 13th century England but it was during the 16th century that the archetype for modern-day uniforms were formed. Back then they looked different than what comes to mind today (clerical-like blue cloaks and yellow stockings) but it held the idea of uniformity most known to the outfit. This then turned into top hats, trousers, and waistcoats that became a symbol of wealth and status. In the United States, uniforms gained traction in private and parochial schools by the 1900s and reached public schools by the 1980s, however styles did move through different styles as it went through the decades.

Like any kind of fashion though, uniforms have too undergone its fair share of debate. Universally, uniforms have maintained a long-standing implication of togetherness, discipline, and rank. Yet, it’s also been labelled as an expression suppressor and a catalyst of sexism. The societal back and forth that has surrounded school uniforms has also made it an article so controversial, it’s become a government affair in many countries, including cases that have reached the U.S. Supreme Court.

Despite its stance, pop culture and fashion across the East and the West have managed to transform the school uniform into a voguish commodity. In American films and television, it’s often reiterated as its conventional definitions but nonetheless notable.

In the cases of The Princess Diaries, Cruel Intentions, and Gossip Girl the school uniform is painted as the go-to for the elitist, preppy private school stereotype, successfully cracking down on the social expectations placed on the bourgeois clothing (thanks to a wardrobe surmounting with plaid skirts, badged blazers, and ties). Interestingly, the latter also traces the lineage of school uniforms particularly with its 2021 reboot; the original Gossip Girl saw the cast in early 2000s trends like patterned headbands and obnoxious belts while the show’s 2021 recruits trade in skirts for biker shorts, backpacks for fanny packs, mini skirts over pleated ones, and relaxed silhouettes over stiff styling. In other films like Lady Bird or The Virgin Suicides, uniforms takes on the stricter, orthodox, and more realistic aesthetic.

On the other side of entertainment, school uniforms have popped up in music videos, often times as a sign of misbehavior… obviously condoning the kind associated with heartthrob appeal. Britney Spears’ “…Baby One More Time” is a prime example of the first. The single has not only sustained decades due to its sonic catchiness, but also for the school girl costume worn in the music video. Oddly coquettish (or fetishized depending on how you look at it) yet perfectly matched with ’90s styling and the slinky trends coming in the 2000s, the pleated mini skirt, tied-up shirt, heeled loafers, and of course pink pom-pom hair ties ushered in a new kind of uniform in pop culture. In the same frame, The Spice Girls also wore uniforms for their Polaroid camera adverts which, considering their unapologetic aura, was meant to exude a “school’s out” kind of statement.

In the East, school uniforms have been placed in films too, but if there’s one leg of entertainment it’s most frequented in, it’s K-Pop. When it comes to conveying the aforementioned dreamy misdemeanor alongside innocence and naivety K-Pop has become a major romanticiser of school-inspired wardrobes whether groups are of the age or not. As early as the industry’s conception, groups have tried the “school concept” in one form or the other, feigning naivety and commercial cuteness. Because its influence has trailed since the ’90s, into the mid-2000s, and up until today, K-Pop’s utilization of the idea has also marked the evolution of the ensemble.

Unlike the ’90s, which saw groups like H.O.T. don unadorned ensembles fit for reality and Fin.K.L’s androgynous, attainable styling, the 2010s saw a wave of looks that seemed more gendered and rebellious in attitude. Music videos like EXO’s “Growl” or BTS’ “Boy in Luv” star untucked shirts, loosened ties, sometimes sleeveless blazer vests to radiate bad boy heartthrob energy. For the girls, Apink’s “Mr.Chu”, f(x)’s “Rum Pum Pum Pum”, Twice’s “OOH-AHH (OHH-AHH)”, and BlackPink’s “As If It’s Your Last” are examples of the shortened hemlines, tighter cuts, highly accessorized uniforms, and preference for heels that suggested a bit of risqué to the concept. Today’s rendition of school concepts are more polished and strangely mainstream because of the way uniform pieces like sweater vests and pleated skirts have come to the forefront – rookie groups like Tomorrow X Together and Itzy have been prone to wear the modern versions.

In the real world, uniforms have also popularized on Japan’s fashionable streets, particularly seen with the Kogyaru or Kogal subculture often pocketed in Tokyo’s Harajuku and Shibuya districts. While the term encompasses a style that has been birthed and remolded since the early 1900s, the consensus of the style is an intentional rejection of the norm and consists of mini skirts, loose socks, cute or “kawaii” accessories like teddy bears or fluffy animated characters, and overdone hair and makeup.

Luxury fashion has noticed the prominence of the school uniform too and has reimagined it in both ironic and practical ways. If there’s any designer who’s championed the concept it’d be Thom Browne, who’s branding has centered around the outfit in both meanings of the word. Simple in color (notably primarily charcoal or heather gray), plastered with schoolwear motifs (think plaid pleated skirts and shorts worn with knee high socks and pristine blazers layered over crisp button-up shirts and ties), and topped with his signature three stripes, his unisex uniforms are built for the adult fashion world. Better yet, earlier this year he debuted a childrenswear collection which has already been worn by Minari actor Alan Kim on the Oscars red carpet and modeled its campaigns –the tinier iterations take on a new meaning of voguish yet sensible school attire.

His pragmatic suiting not only showcases his skill for tailoring and branding, but is also an intentional sartorial decision; in Browne’s world, uniformity and conformity (two terms that contrast fashion’s typical self-expression mantra) are the pursuits of individualism.

While there aren’t many designers that’ve honed in on school quite like Browne, that doesn’t mean it hasn’t walked on other runways. The school uniform wedged itself into the Dior Fall 2020 in the form of tailored blazers, pleated shorts, V-neck sweaters, and collared shirts with ties, all of it with an added tinge of grunge (the collection was a reflection of Creative Director Grazia Chiuri’s “teenage diary”).

The Preen by Thorton Bregazzi Fall/Winter 2020 collection also tapped into ties and button-ups (albeit with square cut collars) in traditional brown and grey plaids while Balenciaga mixed the streets with the classroom with exaggerated cinched blazers and oversize, pinstriped shirts for Fall/Winter 2016. The Moschino Fall/Winter 2013 collection sent tartan focused skirt suits inspired by Japanese school uniforms down the runway while the Versace Fall/Winter 2018 show featured a number of Cher Horowitz-inspired plaid uniforms percolated ’90s fashion.

It’s a movement that trickled down into commercialized fast fashion, especially fashion’s gravitation towards plaid and tartan pleated skirts. In the heyday of the Tumblr grunge subculture particular to 2014 (which has now been resuscitated on TikTok by users reminiscing the good ‘ol days of reblogging) the clothing item was the sartorial bread and butter to the aesthetic and popularized the infamous American Apparel tennis skirt. Fast-forward a couple of years later and the same item, alongside its other uniform counterparts are making a fashionable revival, worn and re-imagined by celebrities including BlackPink’s Rosie, Dua Lipa, Olivia Rodrigo, and Willow Smith in CR’s 2016 issue.

It’s evident that school uniforms aren’t going anywhere – not in education, not in fashion. If you look behind its intangible disputation or its ordinary exterior, it’s actually quite clever – that is looking at it from a sartorial lens. Whether it melds with Browne’s philosophy of individualism, worn to relay the preppiness of prosperity, or is satirically worn to make a statement against conformity, fashion has and will always taking notes from education’s ensemble.

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