School uniforms have existed for many decades, but in recent years there has been increased adoption among public schools.
The reported “benefits” of school uniforms are many, but most of these benefits are based on myths, flawed studies, and polls funded by clothing companies that profit from school uniforms.
In reality, school uniforms are often uncomfortable and expensive. And even though uniforms are supposed to “level the playing field” for low-income students, socioeconomic status differences are still painfully evident in schools that require uniforms.
If that isn’t enough, uniforms also place gender nonconforming students in difficult situations.
Here, we evaluate the reasons why schools should not require students to wear uniforms. And, in the interest of fairness, we also present counterpoints from the other side of the argument.
Why Students Should Not Wear Uniforms
They Don’t Hide SES (Socioeconomic Status) Disparities
A common argument in favor of school uniforms is that uniforms make SES differences less noticeable. Advocates say that, if poor students and wealthy students wear the same uniform, the wealth divide will be less visible.
The truth is not nearly so simple.
In schools with a required uniform, SES differences are still painfully obvious.
Because everyone wears the same uniform, it is quite evident when one student has a $200 pair of tennis shoes and another is wearing hand-me-downs. Likewise with designer purses and backpacks, and expensive jewelry.
Even beyond the differences in accessories, the condition of a student’s uniform often reveals clues about his/her SES.
While affluent families are able to order 5 or 10 uniforms, less-fortunate families may only be able to buy one or a couple. The students with fewer uniforms quickly end up with tattered, worn, and ripped clothing. On the other hand, children from affluent families are likely to have a properly cleaned, wrinkle-free uniform each day.
Lastly, school uniforms are disproportionately mandated in low-income schools and schools with a higher percentage of minority students. Thus, in some areas, the act of wearing a school uniform is an indicator of a student’s family situation.
This point is similar to the above discussion.
Simply put, mandatory uniforms impose financial stress on students from low-income families.
First, school uniforms run counter to the promise of free public education.
Some advocates of school uniforms will argue this point, saying that school uniforms are no more expensive than an average outfit. Even if this were true, having to purchase a uniform (even at a “reasonable” price) means that a student also has to purchase twice as many outfits.
Rather than a pair of jeans and a tee-shirt that can be worn to school and also worn on the weekends, now a student needs two outfits — a uniform and another outfit for street clothing.
Additionally, unlike blue jeans which can be worn year after year, school uniforms often need to be replaced due to redesigns and color changes that occur with grade levels.
Finally, if school uniforms truly aren’t any more expensive than a typical outfit, why are companies like J.C. Penney and Lands’ End spending so much money advocating for school uniform policies?
Perpetuate Power Dynamics of Administration vs. Students
School uniforms serve to perpetuate the power dynamics of “administration versus students.”
Simply put, most students are opposed to mandatory uniforms. By forcing uniforms on students, we create more animosity between students and decision makers. It creates an environment of “us vs. them,” rather than a collaborative environment.
And there are plenty of examples of children and teenagers rebelling against needless, forced conformity. While some students might appreciate the minimized distractions that result from school uniforms, others will feel compelled to act out in a rebellious manner.
There are plenty of areas in a school environment where administration must flex their muscles and make a stand. But a power struggle about school uniforms surely isn’t one of them. At best, this is an unproductive battle to fight.
Can Be Challenging for Gender Nonconforming Students
Yet another reason that school uniforms feel antiquated in 2022 — having to choose between a “men’s” uniform or a “women’s” uniform.
Clearly, gendered school uniforms are troubling in a number of ways. And “solutions” to this problem are problematic, as well.
Unless we have 100% of the students wear identical uniforms, there will always be unwanted attention drawn to gender nonconforming students.
There is No Educational Benefit
This point is harder to define, but important nonetheless. Why are we creating arbitrary school policies that provide zero educational benefit?
Most of the “benefits” of school uniforms are actually just myths. For every report citing decreased crime and bullying, or increased test scores and school pride, there is another report that has found these benefits to be exaggerated or simply non-existent.
Almost any poll of students will find that students oppose school uniforms. Combining this with the fact that the benefits are overstated or simply false, you might conclude that this is an unworthy battle for schools and administrators to fight.
If it provides no educational benefit, and students oppose it, why do we need the policy?
Uncomfortable & Restricts Choices
Choosing your clothing is an important skill involved in “growing up.” A uniform restricts freedom of expression for students that are at influential ages.
Not only that, but many students also complain of uncomfortable clothing. While I am certain that (expensive) Lands’ End uniforms will be plenty comfortable, uniform options are typically limited to a single brand.
And any time you force many people to wear one brand and one brand only, there are certain to be complaints about comfort.
Some brands will fit well on one student and poorly on another. This lack of options is bothersome to students, especially those that are most physically dissimilar to their classmates.
Finally, school uniforms often feature fabrics and styles that are much less comfortable than shorts and a tee shirt. For example, think of the itchy school sweater that is often featured in TV shows and movies.
If the outfit is uncomfortable and doesn’t benefit learning, why do we bother?
Counterpoints to the Above
In the interest of fairness, we should also address some counterpoints to the above argument.
School Uniforms Minimize Clothing Distractions
This is a valid argument. However, schools can avoid these distractions by: (A) having a written dress code, and (B) enforcing the dress code.
If any administrator believes that a school uniform will prevent 100% of inappropriate attire on a school campus, I have numerous stories to tell you…
School Uniforms “Level the SES Playing Field”
Intuitively, it seems that having everyone wear a matching uniform would reduce bullying and reduce the observability of SES disparities.
However, the evidence just doesn’t prove this.
Sure, you can find a study or two that concludes that uniforms reduced bullying at a particular school. But I could point you to other studies that conclude there is no difference in bullying in uniformed versus non-uniformed schools.
In regards to SES disparities, sadly it will take much more than a uniform policy to level this playing field. Children from higher-income families will — on average — have more outfits, cleaner outfits, and outfits with fewer signs of wear.
And the presence of matching uniforms further highlights the fact that some children come to school with expensive watches and brand name shoes, while other students wear hand-me-downs.
Saves Time Getting Ready for School
This argument is actually compelling. Having a school uniform results in easy outfit choices. This saves time each morning.
Prepares Students for Workplace Uniforms/Dress Codes
Ultimately, the strongest argument for a mandatory uniform in school is that it prepares students for dress codes in the workplace. Most jobs will require a “uniform” of some kind.
The counter to this argument is that schools aren’t simply institutes of workplace preparation. Although a uniform is good preparation for the “real world,” we have to be cautious not to make this the singular focus of school.
If we want to impose a serious financial burden on low-income families, school uniforms are an effective way to do so.
If we want to blindly trust Lands’ End marketing material that champions the benefits of school uniforms, there are a number of reported benefits that sound great.
And if we want to ask trans and gender nonconforming students whether they want a “men’s” uniform or a “women’s” uniform, we should continue to mandate school uniforms.
If all of that wasn’t snarky enough for you, I will just go ahead and make it more clear — school uniforms are not a good idea.