School uniforms are designed to impose order and ideology – but they can also empower wearers with a sense of belonging and pride.
Uniforms first entered New Zealand schools in the 1800s, when the country was a British colony. They were influenced by British military dress, elements of which are still visible today in features like tailored jackets, lapels, neckties, metal buttons, and badges.
The uniforms helped instil British values and codes of conduct here. They were part of a ‘civilising mission’, which also involved setting up church-based schools for young Maori.
The original rationale behind school uniforms was to produce disciplined citizens. As a result, school uniforms emerged from religious and military dress. Ecclesiastical-inspired smocks from France spread throughout the Mediterranean world, whereas military-influenced uniforms from Britain were adopted by its colonies, including New Zealand.
School uniforms provide a simple solution for the problem of what to wear to school every day. They provide shelter and protection from judgment and inequality, acting as a form of social camouflage. Uniforms are particularly welcome to adolescents uncertain about individual identity during a period of life when ‘fitting in’ is important.
However, students only obey uniform codes up to a point and minor deviations are common. Enforcement and compliance are central issues to school uniforms. Where enforcement is onerous, students will find small ways to resist (for example, coloured socks).