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Children, school and dress code: towards post-pandemic reflections on children’s clothing behaviour

By 9th October 2020 No Comments

Aude Le Guennec FRSA

Assistant Professor in Design Anthropology
Heriot-Watt University

TL;DR: The move toward home learning during the COVID-19 lockdown sparked a new interest in how the use of school uniforms affects our children’s identity and education. It is important to continue discussing this, and to involve children in these conversations. This will empower them to participate in the development of their material culture.

We, as parents and carers, have never been so close to our children than during the lockdown due to the pandemic of COVID 19. We have shared their efforts, their resilience, their dreams and their boredom. We accompanied their games, supported their learning journey, and were the firsts to witness the impact of home schooling on their new social life, which could no longer be built on in person interactions with their peers.

The effort to capture this moment focused the attention of the researchers and the media, who investigated the impact of this unprecedented context on children’s learning and well-being. The experience of family isolation during the pandemic has brought the attention of adults, parents, educators, researchers, journalists, on the importance to convey children’s views and to include the young generation in the reflection on the society, outside the school’s boundaries.  This in a way is a celebration of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which, thirty years ago, influenced governments around the globe to recognise the importance of children as citizens and actors on the planet.

“To have a child is to be thrown suddenly […] into the world of stuff.” (Lange 2018: 5). This is certainly what has driven the V&A Museum of Childhood to focus on the adaptation of children’s play activities and to collect the tangible impact of this lockdown on their material culture. Research is currently being scoped into the nature of ‘pandemic play’ by University College London, in partnership with the V&A Museum of Childhood, the British Library and Great Ormond Street Hospital. Reflecting on the museum’s collections of exercise books and imaginary friends, the research aims to highlight the impact of free play and imagination as a safeguard of children’s wellbeing during the pandemic. Surprisingly, this willingness to understand and analyse children’s environment through objects focuses on rather traditional items. However, this seems to ignore a major point of the daily socialisation, educated routine and creative behaviour of these young individuals: clothing!

On 15th May 2020, the UK celebrated School Uniform Day. This very peculiar event, emphasising a school dress code shared only with a few countries across the globe, drew my attention to this particular aspect of pupils’ experience. Fostering an original reflection on the meaning and legitimacy of school uniforms in an extraordinary context and beyond, this national day was the occasion for the BBC to survey a range of children aged 8-12 on the importance of their school clothes when self-isolating. Most of the answers demonstrated the maturity of the pupils emphasising the social functionality of school uniforms. Their comments underlined the relevance of conscious considerations for an outfit that contributes to shaping their sense of belonging to a school community. A minority of pupils mentioned that wearing the school uniform while at home and far from the group of peers, was a way to concentrate on their learning and to feel connected with their friends. However, for most, questions were asked on the relevance of an expensive outfit which doesn’t always rubs out social inequalities. These respondents genuinely revealed the lack of functionality of these uniforms sometimes not so well adapted to their daily activities. Therefore, the need to wear a formal school outfit, didn’t seem like a priority to support their extraordinary learning journey from home. For the majority of interviewees, comfy tracksuits, all-day pyjamas and fancy dresses were the new norm of their home-schooling time. Fuel for thoughts towards the role of the fashion industry in the lucrative market of school uniforms, this short but insightful snapshot reveals more unexpectedly the constant interactions between children and their clothes and their ability to decipher, tell and bond with their outfits as the markers and makers of their social persona.

Towards a more in-depth and significant exploration of children’s clothing behaviour in this unprecedent situation the need to undertake a broader ecological experiment led to the design of the original survey “Dressed for Home Schooling”, developed in partnership with Heriot-Watt University and the French National Museum of Education, with a contribution of the University of Surrey (Sociology Department). This questionnaire aimed at providing an insight into the ability for children aged 6 to 12 to adopt a dress code adapted to their new lockdown routine and freed up from adults’, school’s and peers’ considerations. This research run between April and June 2020, encouraged children to provide open answers and to post a picture of their favourite “lockdown outfit”. This survey gathered more than 200 responses across genders from the UK and France. Furthermore, these results highlighted the importance that children give to the narrative and functionality of their daily clothes. It revealed their frustration as well as their aspiration for a more inclusive and sustainable clothing culture. The full results of this survey will be delivered in the conference “Designing for Play in New Nordic Childhood”, Lego Foundation, Design School Kolding, Billund University, 5-10 March 2021.

Original artwork by Cormac Tanner (age 8). James Gillespies Primary School, Edinburgh. July 2020.

Outside the only considerations on their preferred outfits, this research evidences more importantly the pressing need to hear out children’s voices not only in the context of outstanding demonstrations, but in a more subtle manner by gathering children’s interpretation of the material culture created for them. This asks for the conception of tools to capture the perceptions of these vulnerable individuals, whatever their age and abilities to communicate. In a world designed and led by adults, empowering and captioning children’s voices on such apparent anecdotal matters as clothing seems key to reconcile the institutional structures and decision makers, the market holders, and the freedom and respect aspired by the UN Convention of the Right of the Child and by children themselves.

In February 2006, the pedagogue Ken Robinson questioned: “Do schools kill creativity?”. Since then, Scotland has echoed Scandinavian education policies fostering children’s agency and followed the necessity formulated by the Lego Foundation to imagine an education aiming to “create the creators” of tomorrow. However, the conception of children’s material culture, driven by marketing constraints, doesn’t seem to reflect this educational change. In a society advocating for the inclusion of all, the absence of children in the design of their material world is an important point to raise.

Governments and policy makers can help support an inclusive and educational design respectful of children’s identity and agency; this can happen through the implementation of policies which encourage the inclusion of fashion and clothing as educational and learning materials within the primary and secondary curricula. There could also be greater incentives and support for research on new models of school uniforms, and new interdisciplinary university and college programmes that bring together expertise on children’s material culture from across the social sciences, humanities, and creative arts. Lastly, support and encouragement could be given to inclusive design initiatives and circular economy projects within the children’s fashion and toys industries, to promote alternative and sustainable designs and to give a voice to children as both users and creators of their material culture.

These recommendations, expressed recently at the invitation of the British Academy Childhood Policy Programme contribute to a world that we, critical thinkers, creative practitioners and educators, need to promote: a world that tomorrow’s adults imagine. A world where school clothes are not the killers of creativity.

Dr Aude Le Guennec is a Design anthropologist specialising in children’s material culture at Heriot-Watt University, School of Textiles and Design. She is also a member of YAS.

The analysis of the results the survey “Dressed for Homeschooling” has been made possible thanks to the support of:

  • Mr Thiago Bogossian, University of Surrey, Department of Sociology
  • Dr Emilie Combet, University of Glasgow, School of Medicine, YAS

This project is a chapter of the research programme “Dressed for School” in partnership with the French National Education Museum (Munae), and Heriot-Watt University and communicated in an exhibition and publications in 2022.