School uniforms and proper dress code have always been part of American and British schooling. In the 1800s, unique cultural trends began that shifted how school children dressed. Much of it came from a combination of cultural shifts -- such as the Victorian era, which characterized a modest period with social norms -- and sociological trends, such as more people going to school.
Probably no school had a bigger impact on how boys dressed for school than Eton College in England. Historically, schooling was not universal for English children; however, by the 1800s, school had finally opened to the masses. To help children from non-aristocratic backgrounds perform well in class, clothes were often donated to lower- and middle-class children so they could be more comfortable with aristocratically dressed children. Eton College, however, streamlined a new technique of crafting a school uniform. The uniform's Eton suit stated that you were an Eton College student no matter what your class. The uniform had a stiff white collar with short suit jackets for underclassmen and long suit jackets with tails for seniors. Embroidered vests and ties were mandatory.
U.S. and British Differences
Although England used school uniforms to universalize students beyond their economic class, students in the United States had to live by their gender roles and a child's dual need as worker and student. Both countries were advancing through industrialization, but the United States, unlike England, had more of the general population in school. Only until the late 1800s did England have universal public school for all children, while most American children did receive some level of education, regardless of social or economic class. For American students, however, the child needed a school uniform that conformed to work life. For example, girls, generally, had to wear clothing appropriate for both school and housework chores afterward. Since many boys worked on some level at the home or in industrial towns, uniforms also had a flexibility of being appropriate for school but ready for the mill or farm work.
Girls in the 1800s had to be modest in the public and at home. Typical girl clothing standards included long skirts or blouses to school, most of which were made of cotton. Head gear such as bonnets were often given to girls to protect their hair from the elements. Bonnets also played a practical role in holding hair within a protective headgear. The clothing helped girls switch back easily to their home roles, which include house-work chores taught by their mothers.
Boys had to wear cotton pants and shirts to school. However, class played an important role in how boys looked. Boys from typically working families, whether they were from mill towns or farms, often wore flannel shirts instead of cotton shirts. This was so that the boys could immediately help out with work afterward. Boys who came from more affluent backgrounds usually wore all-cotton clothing.