*** English school uniform garments -- ties

English School Uniform Garments: Ties

school ties
Figure 1.--The everday uniform at this prep school during the 1980s was a tie, grey shirt, and red sweater. For special occassions they wore white shirts. During the summer term they did not wear ties.

British schoolboys wore ties to school. Both state and private schools required them. The ties were usually stripped in the school colors. Often prefects or boys who "won their colors" received the honor of wearing distinctive colors. Many elementary schools in the 1980s began allowing boys to wear more casual clothes, including shirts without ties. Almost all secondary schools, however, still require ties. Sport and the military influences came together in the distinctive school tie, since regimental ties (though not actually part of uniform) and club ties developed together in the 1880s


The idea of uniform for English (and other British) schoolboys received its impetus in large part from the military, particularly - and significantly - in the years after World War I, when the elements of what has come to be regarded as 'traditional' school uniform came together. The particular form of the uniform, however, came predominantly from sportswear. Sport and the military came together in the distinctive tie, since regimental ties (though not actually part of uniform) and club ties developed together in the 1880s. [Laver, p. 30 and Mansfield and Cunnington, p. 274.] Moreover, ties were sometimes worn as part of sportswear, at least for certain activities: it is worth remembering that the meagre dress considered appropriate to most sporting activities these days has not always been regarded as essential: in the 1830s the boys of Tom Brown's Rugby School went on cross-country runs wearing long trousers, jackets, and hats. [Hughes, pp. 97 with note at 393, 103, 146-51.] Although boys had been required to wear a tie for school in earlier days, the distinctive regulation tie in school colours was added to the school cap as part of school uniform only slowly. One writer recalls starting grammar school c.1900 in 'school uniform, a black blazer with orange piping round the edges and a black cap with orange piping running down from the top button to the edges. Also a tie of the school colours, black and orange'. [Macqueen-Pope, p. 53.] But often the school tie was not introduced until later, in many cases not before the 1920s. Thereafter it became common. In most state secondary and many state primary schools, as well as in practically all independent schools, a school tie became a part of uniform, even if it was not always compulsory. It is still frequently seen as an element of English school uniform. (Like the blazer, the essentially male school tie was also taken up by many girls' schools as part of their uniform.)


Neckties appeared at British schools in the late 19th century and increasingly became standard in the early 20th century, especially as the Eton collar declined in popularity. We note both solid color and stripped ties. The striped ties were both horizontal and diagonal. The two types of striped ties were cut diagonlly. The diagonal striped ties were adopted from the ties worn by sports clubs. The horizontal stripes began to decline in popularity after World war II, especially after the 1950s. At modern British schools the children wear mostly the solid colored ties or the diagonal stripes. Most girls schools adopted the diagonal striped ties.


Some of the earliest school ties, of the narrow square-ended type, were knitted; others were made from woollen or cotton cloth. The tapering type were of woollen or cotton cloth. With the introduction of artificial fibres, these might be used, either in a wool and artificial fibre mix or on their own. At my own Luton Grammar School, for example, there were, when I started in 1957, two types available: a more expensive woollen cloth version, which had quite bright red and yellow colours, and a cheaper artificial silk version which had slightly brighter colours and a more shiny finish. In later years a tie of a different form of artificial fibres - Terylene, I believe - was introduced: this had a fairly shiny finish but the colours could only be produced, at that time, in a rather dull, unattractive form. Over the years, the quality of the colours in such artificial fibre materials has improved and they are now virtually the only ones used. One advantage over the woollen and artificial silk forms is that such ties are easier to sponge clean when dirty and are also machine-washable; nor do they require ironing - all great boons to the mothers of grubby schoolboys!


The lengths of school ties have varied, usually according to the ages of the pupils for whom they were intended, with those of state primary or independent preparatory schools being shorter than those of secondary schools. Sometimes, too, as once at Oxford High School, secondary school ties were available in two lengths, there being, of course, considerable differences between the statures of boys of eleven and those of boys of sixteen or seventeen. The widths of the tapering versions have also varied, again with those for younger boys tending to be smaller than those for older boys. There have also been changes over time, particularly with regard to secondary school ties - a rare instance of general fashion having at least some influence on schoolwear as the widths of the ties have increased or decreased.

House Ties

The pupils of independent boarding schools were (and are) typically housed in different buildings - 'houses'. These would play each other in competitive games and perhaps compete in other ways too. The system was applied to independent and state day schools for the purpose of sport and other competitions. It is not usual for boys' houses to be indicated in school uniform although it is sometimes done. One way is to have different house ties, usually of a standard basic colour but with stripes in different house colours - most commonly blue, green, red, and yellow. Thus, for example, Rugby School, a 'public' school (in the British sense: that is, an elite private school), has such ties, as do Riverston Independent School, Lee, south-east London, and St Mary's Preparatory School, Reigate, Surrey. Within the state system, Wilmington Grammar School, Kent, Highams Park School, Essex, and Debenham High School, Suffolk provide examples.


'Colours' is the name given, in British schools, to an award for contributions to school sport. A boy who has gained such distinction may be able to display the fact in his school uniform in various ways, but most common is the wearing of a distinctive 'colours' tie. Often the ties are awarded in front of the whole school, with boys who have won them going onto the stage to receive them from the Headmaster to applause from the rest of the school. The ties are typically of a dark colour with thin diagonal stripes in school colours, although other arrangements are possible: at Dartford Grammar School, for example, they are plain except for a single example of the full, and fairly elaborate, school badge - not the simpler version of the badge worn on the blazer and, formerly, on the school cap. Sometimes there are two slightly different versions, indicating the award of 'full colours' or - a slightly lesser distinction - 'half-colours'. For boys to whom these awards have been made, the wearing of the appropriate tie is, unsurprisingly, a matter of pride.

Distinctive Ties for Senior Boys

Senior boys, say in the Sixth Form of grammar, technical, or comprehensive schools, may be permitted to wear a tie different from that worn by their juniors. My own Luton Grammar School again provides an example. When I first started, in 1957, the Sixth Form had the privilege of wearing white shirts instead of the grey demanded for the rest of the school. A couple of years later the permission to wear white shirts was extended to the whole school, and so, to distinguish the Sixth Form from the rest, a special Sixth Form tie was introduced. This was of a dark blue fabric and had small versions of the red and yellow school badge printed on it in diagonal arrangements. (Two politically left wing boys in my own two years in the Sixth Form refused to wear it on the grounds that they did not wish to be thus distinguished from other members of the school!) There was also a special plain red tie worn by full prefects, but those lower in the hierarchy - sub-prefects and monitors - wore the standard Sixth Form tie, although they had distinctive markings on the blazer. The situation persists at many schools today, although it is now more usual for the badges to be embroidered rather than printed.

Wearing the School Tie

Schools, with their concern for a smart and uniform appearance, have usually required the tie to be worn 'properly' - that is, with a knot of moderate size drawn up fully and centrally into the shirt collar and with the end of the tie reaching to about the waistband of the trousers. At one time the tie was often tied, especially by younger boys, in a simple form, resulting in a slightly asymmetrical knot, although there was also a more involved form, known in Britain as a 'Windsor knot', defined by the Concise Oxford Dictionary as 'a loose triangular knot 'produced by making extra turns when tying'. I, for example, started tying my Luton Grammar School tie in the latter manner at the age of fifteen or sixteen. Boys, of course, have sometimes had their own ideas about the wearing of the tie. Younger boys may simply be careless about their personal appearance, having the tie not fully drawn up into the collar or having the knot twisted round the neck so that it is almost beneath one of the ears! With older boys, departure from the rules will usually be more deliberate, influenced by fashion and the peer group. Shirts may be worn with the top button undone and with the knot of the tie pulled down an inch or two - a mode of dress that many English schools (and parents) have regarded - justifiably or otherwise - as a sloppy American trend! In recent decades there has been a fashion for wearing the tie with a large knot and with the end very short - about 3 or 4 inches only. Many schools resist these moves and boys may be told to fasten their ties correctly. Where school ties persist in the future, schoolboys themselves will doubtless continue to wear them - when they can get away with it--in a manner dictated by fashion and by their peer group.


Schools vary consideravly as to the wearing of the school tie. Day schools generally rquire the tie be worn year round. Barding schools more commonly have seasonal uniforms. Many such schools, espcially in recent years do not require the children wear the school tie during the summer term when the weather is warmer. Such rules, however, vary widely from school to school.


The school tie is of course a male clothing item. As the school uniform was developing into its modern form in the late 19th century, many girls' schools were founded in England. Earlier parents had not considered the education of their daughters very important. In addition parents tended to be more protetive toward their daughters, making it even less lkely that they would send their daughters away to school. As these attitudes began to cahnge, many of the new girls' schools that were founded adopted many of the school uniform items that were worn at boys' schools--among these are blazers and ties.


Terence Paul Smith submitted the initial draft of this page.

Hughes, T. Tom Brown's Schooldays, ed. A. Sanders (London and New York, 1989).

Laver, J. The Book of Public School Old Boys, University, Navy, Army, Airforce and Club Ties (London, 1968).

Macqueen-Pope, Walter. Give Me Yesterday (London, 1957).

Mansfield, A. and P. Cunnington, Handbook of English Costume in the Twentieth Century, 1900-1950 (London, 1973).


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Created: October 30, 2002
Last updated: 6:23 AM 7/13/2005