On the World’s Most Notorious School Uniform

Painting by Joshua Cristall of a boy at Christ's Hospital school
Welcome Collection / CC BY 4.0

Not being from the same world as the teens in the American shows and movies I watched growing up, I marvelled at what they were allowed to wear to school. Howcome Marty McFly, for instance, got to go in Nikes and a ‘life preserver’? (The closest I managed at the time was his calculator watch, a Casio CA-53W, which I still have.)

I grew up in South Africa where most schools are simulacra of the British institutions that spawned them a century or so prior. This meant wearing black derby shoes, grey flannel trousers, regimental ties, and patch-pocket blazers (though with none of the preppy glam that might conjure). Badges and colours differed from one place to the next, but it was all some variation on the same theme. Think Max Fischer without the beret or that Britney Spears video sans sex appeal. 

South African schoolboys cheering in navy school uniforms
Image credit: Patrick Case on Pexels
Jason Schwartzman as Max Fischer in Wes Anderson's Rushmore
Image credit: Prefeitura de Belo Horizonte / Public domain

In my teens, I left home to attend a far-off, single-sex boarding school where uniforms were serious business. The standard fare cited above was just the start. There were comprehensive, school-branded ‘civvies’ to be worn by all borders in their downtime. Pleated shorts with knee-length socks were mandatory in summer, even for seniors. And each student was issued what was undoubtedly the most dreaded item in the whole get-up: a straw boater, complete with a hatband in the school colours (although in the shibboleth-ridden way of these things, it was only ever called a ‘basher’). Can you hear the collective gulp of generations of adolescents?

Straw boater hat with a black band
Image credit: Sarah-Rose / CC BY-SA 2.0

Things could have been far worse clothing-wise though. There are proper British public (which is to say private) schools where pupils still wear tailcoats and detachable collars, and where more affluent attendees get their uniforms tailored. 

No school, however, can lay claim to the title of most outlandish uniform more so than Christ’s Hospital. 

The school, today situated in Horsham in West Sussex, was established in London in 1552. While its location may have changed (the original building was lost to the Great Fire of London), its uniform somehow has not, making it perhaps the oldest of its kind in the world. Remarkably, it has been largely unaltered for nearly 500 years. 

The ensemble consists of a long blue Tudor coat, matching knee breeches for boys and pleated skirts for girls, knee-length canary yellow socks, a white neck band, and a snazzy belt to tie it all together (literally: the belt is worn over the coat, Friar Tuck-style). Close-up you’ll notice the only modern additions in the form of coat buttons depicting the School’s founder, King Edward VI, which were introduced in the nineteenth century, and — a charmingly incongruous touch for many students since 1987 — Doc Martens work shoes.

Top half of Christ's Hospital school uniform
Image credit: Lee-Anne Inglis / CC BY-SA 2.0
Bottom half of Christ's hospital school uniform
Image credit: Aurelien Guichard / CC BY-SA 2.0

The uniform is given to all students free of charge (true to the school’s origins as a place intended to house and educate London’s poor and homeless children, and to its sizable present-day variable fee and bursary scheme). The outfit in all its glory can be admired in greater detail on the school’s website

And, for any prospective Christ’s Hospital students seeking consolation for their school garb: at least you don’t have to wear a silly hat.

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