By: Miko Yoshida

Photo by Ethan Bodnar on Unsplash

I have spent a total of thirteen years in uniform both as a student and as a member of the military. I decided to examine the uniform, which I define here as visible and distinct clothing and/or accessories that identify the wearer as a part of a particular group. Uniforms are ubiquitous, and are largely associated with the military, law enforcement, medical services, public transportation, jails, and schools. Here, I will briefly discuss the history of school uniforms, the arguments for and against them, and how we might envision their treatment in a reparative future. 

School uniforms date back to the sixteenth century when impoverished children at Christ’s Hospital boarding school were given blue cassock coats and yellow stockings.[1] Since then, school uniforms have been used in private schools and often symbolized social class—presumably indicating the privilege of a private education. Though uniforms are related to privilege, this status also comes with expectation of the caliber of education and future employment, according to a socialized version of success. We can see that the idea of uniforms is in keeping with the various styles of standardized education we’ve accepted as the norm. However, school uniforms can also be seen through a more sinister lens. Take for example the cultural genocide of Native Americans, where students were forced to abandon their traditional clothing along with their native language at places like the Carlisle School.[2] The legacy of school uniforms and their historical context must be considered as we explore them in a contemporary context. Though most commonly used by private schools in the past, today, uniforms are required at nearly 20% of public schools, and the debate continues.[3] 

The arguments for school uniforms vary, and according to The Journalists Resource, school officials who make these decisions don’t necessarily examine or heed academic research.[4] Proponents generally argue for the idea of uniformity, discipline, and school spirit as well as tamping down on gang affiliation through clothes. One 2012 study of one middle school has shown that “females perceived or experienced more benefits than males [from wearing uniforms]”; those benefits included reduction in discipline, gang affiliation, and bullying.[5] Yet, in this case the adherence to the binary construct of gender indicates that the researchers failed to acknowledge how uniforms reinforce social conventions. The arguments for uniforms also assume that the uniforms themselves are neutral (that they are not divisive or polarizing and provide all students with equal footing) and can provide this effect. Uniforms are created with the normalized or ‘ideal’ body type in mind and do not necessarily fit students that deviate from it. This can lead to even more disparity rather than its reduction. Also, additional factors such as attendance, teacher retention, and performance have been cited as benefits of implementing a school uniform. 

Opponents of uniforms point to the suppression of individual freedoms, additional labor and financial burdens, and the potential for surveillance—uniforms are easier to enforce than behavior. While there may be a benefit for the larger community to be able to identify students outside of the classroom setting, this can also possibly make them targets for predators. Students who have a desire to express themselves by choosing their own clothes cannot do so. In fact, any deviation from the uniform can result in discipline. Uniforms can amplify also socio-economic disparities; and they can also enable bullying to devastating effects. Furthermore, parents or guardians must purchase specific clothing, which also have implications like increased time spent laundering clothes or frequent purchases to ensure proper fit for growing children. 

Ultimately, academic or scientific research on the benefits and negative effects of school uniforms has varied. There seems to be no consensus one way or the other. Court cases have plaintiffs citing freedom of speech, religious beliefs, and gender discrimination. Yet the courts’ rulings are nuanced on this issue. Though they acknowledge that clothing can be a non-verbal form of free speech, those who claim their rights are being violated must “show that their actions were intended to convey a ‘particularized message’ and that ‘that the message would be understood by those who perceive it.’”[6] 

Education in the United States has been very prescriptive in that students are expected to learn the same way in the same classes and take the same tests. This non-individualized approach to education appears to be shifting and students today have more access to resources to help them learn—special education programs, home schooling curriculums, and more explicit policies supporting individualized instruction. It follows that the concept of uniforms also needs to shift away from standardized norms and control. 

Students must also learn about the implications of clothing beyond the uniform and how they are more than just a way to express one’s individuality. Additionally, the underlying issues, such as socio-economic disparity should be delicately but firmly handled—namely that just by standardizing uniforms and ‘hiding’ socio-economic differences, we are not doing anything to improve it. Once there is a foundational understanding of clothing and uniforms and their implications, students can then use school resources to ideate on how they would want to, if at all, create a school uniform. They can also explore other ways to express collective identity, such as creating a pin or catch phrase etc. as an alternative. The objective would be to be student focused, less prescriptive, more intentional, and more creative—which I hope will be the shift that education as a whole takes as well.

 1. “History of School Uniforms,” ProCon.org, Britannica, May 3, 2021, https://school-uniforms.procon.org/history-of-school-uniforms/.

 2. Jenna Kunze, “The Remains of 10 Children at the Carlisle Indian Boarding School Are Returning Home,” Native News Online, June 17, 2021, https://nativenewsonline.net/currents/the-remains-of-10-children-at-the-carlisle-indian-boarding-school-are-returning-home.

3.  Denise Mann, “Do Kids Act Better When School Uniforms are the Norm? Maybe Not,” U.S. News, December 28, 2021, https://www.usnews.com/news/health-news/articles/2021-12-28/do-kids-act-better-when-school-uniforms-are-the-norm-maybe-not.

4.  Denise-Marie Ordway, “School uniforms: Do they really improve student achievement, behavior?” The Journalist’s Resource, April 20, 2018, https://journalistsresource.org/education/school-uniforms-research-achievement/.

5.  “College of Education researchers conduct study on impacts of school uniforms,” Nevada Today, April 23, 2013, https://www.unr.edu/nevada-today/news/2013/school-uniform-study.

6.  DeMitchell, Todd A., and Fossey, Richard. The Challenges of Mandating School Uniforms in the Public Schools: Free Speech, Research, and Policy. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2015. Accessed March 31, 2022. ProQuest Ebook Central.

(cover photo: Photo on Unsplash)