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private schools: dress code

An archival picture from Miss Edgar’s and Miss Cramp’s School (ECS) for girls in Montreal.

Grade 12 student Laura Jabbour likes everything about her uniform. The 16-year-old enjoys the number of options that Appleby College, a co-ed school in Oakville, Ont., offers – blue or white shirt, kilt or pants, socks or tights – including footwear by TOMS, an American company known for its policy of donating one pair of shoes to a child in need for each pair purchased.

After students and teachers backed the idea, Appleby changed its uniform policy to allow the girls to wear the shoes.

"I personally like that trend," says Ms. Jabbour, who owns a pair. "Our teachers are very open to new ideas and suggestions. A lot of us are keen about speaking up if we want a change to be made. I'm all for that."

While Fraser Grant, Appleby's interim head of school, says the purpose of a uniform is to allow students to focus primarily on learning – "it's not a fashion show" – he says the school listens to what students want in their school wardrobe. Sometimes students will approach a school administrator with an idea, even bringing in samples, or the school may notice popular trends, such as the girls wearing Ugg boots with their kilts in winter, and sanction them.

Appleby also considered the environmental mandate of its uniform supplier, Toronto-based InSchoolwear, which manufactures more than 80 per cent of its clothing in Canada, as part of its criteria.

When it comes to sourcing private school uniforms, social consciousness and environmental concerns are increasingly coming into play. Katherine Nikidis, head of school at Miss Edgar's and Miss Cramp's School (ECS) for girls in Montreal, sees that as a rising trend for many schools.

"A lot of people are looking at things like TOMS and how can they merge corporate social responsibility into the uniform," says Ms. Nikidis, whose school also considered adding the shoes. "Any opportunity we have to talk about social responsibility in how we can help the local community, as well as the wider community, is important to us. If there's a way of doing that through the identity of the school and the brands of the uniform, we're always interested in exploring that."

Ultimately, the TOMS were rejected because ECS wasn't convinced they had enough built-in support for students to wear them all day long. However since the school is open to discussion about uniform additions – pants were a recent debate – that could change if TOMS comes out with a more structured style. Comfort is a critical part of deciding what goes into the uniform, Ms. Nikidis says, as well as practicality. At ECS, there's a full dress uniform that includes a tie and blazer for more formal occasions such as weekly assembly, but for other days, there is a "B" dress – a polo shirt, sweater or the most recent addition of a vest. The girls vetoed pants in favour of keeping just their kilts and tunics.

While most schools have become increasingly flexible about adding more comfortable pieces, private school uniforms still continue to revolve around the fundamental dress code of a traditional blazer, shirt, grey flannels, and kilt or tunic. But uniform fit has also changed significantly, thanks to today's crop of private school girls who insist on a higher fashion standard.

"Students are demanding more comfortable clothing that fits better, lasts longer and is more attractive for them, so we've introduced things like fitted shirts for the girls so they don't have the big tails that you have to tuck into your kilt," Mr. Grant says. "It's a nicer, cleaner cut."

Kirstin Broatch, owner of InSchoolwear, which supplies uniforms to about 200 independent schools across Canada, has seen those changes evolve over the 16 years since she founded the company. When she entered the market, the clothing used to be more generic, but now everything is gender specific.

"I introduced the girls' pants to some of my just-girls' schools," says Ms. Broatch. "People would also buy much bigger for girls years ago but now the girls want it to fit. You try to encourage to allow for a little bit of growth, but the girls simply won't have it."

Ms. Broatch makes a strong defence for the high pricing of uniform items – a kilt in the Appleby tartan retails for more than $95 and is made by a top British textile manufacturer – citing durability and value-for-money. Since it's thrown into the washing machine each week and worn nearly every day, it has to be good quality to hold up.

"I probably do between 5,000 to 10,000 polos annually and not one comes back," says Ms. Broatch, who is both a manufacturer and retailer. "Parents tell us how well the stuff holds up. Canadians make really good products."

Resale and recycling of used items is another popular trend at private schools; it's as much about sustainability as getting a bargain. The Encore Shop at ECS is connected to its clothing shop, and all the funds from the students' donated uniforms go to scholarships and bursaries. Ms. Nikidis says the shop has made a lot of money over the past five years.

"People are environmentally conscious in not wanting to be wasteful," Ms. Nikidis explains. "They'll say, 'Here's a perfectly great blazer; why shouldn't we use it just because it's been worn for a year by a student?'"

While uniform items may seem expensive, Mr. Fraser points out that the cost covers the children's clothes for an entire school year. Uniforms are significantly cheaper than having kids shop at the mall or choose designer clothes. That opinion is seconded by Laura Jabbour's mother, Jacqueline Jabbour, who feels privileged that she has very little shopping to do. She adds that her daughter isn't under any kind of social pressure to buy certain fashion clothing.

"It really has a levelling effect in the classroom," Ms. Jabbour says. "There's an opportunity to individualize the uniform through shoes, short- or long- sleeved shirts, ties or colour options, but there isn't going to be spaghetti straps or short shorts. As well, your blazer lapel can be the home for all of the small pins you earn for various accomplishments at Appleby, so it's also a form of recognition."

Mr. Fraser observes that there's an overall growing trend toward schools adopting uniforms in general, not just in private schools, but by public and Catholic boards as well. Interestingly, when he was a student at Appleby himself, from 1978 to 1987, the senior school students were permitted to wear any jacket and tie of their choice as long as it met certain requirements. That changed when the school became co-ed in 1991.

"It seemed like a natural shift at that time," Mr. Fraser says. "No specific reason was given other than it coincided with the change from an all-boys school to co-ed. It just makes students' lives so much easier."