*** school uniform: knee socks school socks long socks,

School Uniform: Knee Socks

boys school knee socks
Figure 1.--The boys at this Scottish prep school wore purple knee socks to match their blazers. Grey knee socks were also permitted.

Knee socks were probably most commonly worn in Britain by both boys and girls as part of a school uniform. YThere were vsrious colors, slthough grey was the primary color for boys and white for the girls. Girls might wear grey knee socks as well, but the boys very rarely wore white knee socks. Often color in the uniform was reserved for the cap, blazer, and tie. British schools requiring shorts usually also required the boys to wear knee socks as part of the uniform, although some schools had a summer uniform. There is some variety here. A few schools ha the boys wearing ankle socks, especially during the summer--often with T strap school sandals. Proper knee socks (a term not used for boys in Britspeak) were 'turn-over-top socks' or 'stockings'. Also often 'school socks' or 'long sock'. Schools chose several different styles of knee socks. This meant both elarticised knee socks without a cuff or turn over-top knee socks which formed a cuff. The elastic or a garter worn undwr the cuff solved the perenial school boy problem of the socks falling down. The girls less commonly had this problem. Knee socks were also commonly worn to school in France, Italy, and Germany, but not as part of a uniform. American boys also wore them, but generally with knickers. Bright colored patterns became popular with knickers.


HBC has first noted knee socks worn with school uniform in the late 19th century. They were worn by English boys with knickers. They appeared to have been mostly grey without any colored trim at the cuff. At the turn of the 20th century, British Scouts began wearing shirt pants and knee socks, however, HBC hs little information on school uniform trends at gthis time. English boys were commonly wearing trousers and knee socks by the 1920s. We are not sure, however, just when the colored trim appeare. English boys in state schools often wore the knee socks with the patterened tops during the the 1920s and 30s. American boys wore this style as well as comoletely patterened knee socks, but with kinickers rather than short pants. After Worl War II when many English private schools began adopting uniforms, less expensive socks appeared that did not have turn over tops to form a cuff.


The common term for these socks in America was knee socks. Other terms were used, but lnee socks was firly stndard. This term was much less common in Britain, slthough ikt was simetimes used gor the knee lrnhth elasticisd top siocks without the turn-over-top. The British commonly refer to lnee socks them as "turn-over-top" socks. When cheaper socks appeare that were not long enough to be worn with a turn-over-top cuff, they began to be called long stockings.) This should not be confused with the long stockings described in HBC. We use this term to refer to stockings that were made to be worn over the knee.) The British also used the term 'school socks'. HBC does not know what the term for these socks was in other countries, but will add the terms here as we find them. Readers are incouraged to let us know.


There are a variety of notable characteristics associate with knee socks. Perhaps the most important was the length of the socks. Some were made quite long so that a turn-over-top cuff could be formed. HBC is not sure why this became so common. But when knee socks first became common in the early 20th century they were worn with turn over tops. This is the only type we see before World War II, at least for boys. This changed after World War II when cheaper knee socks were made to come just to below the knee without the extra length needed for a turn-over-top cuff. These were also commonly made in with less bulky material. This style became very common in the 1970s. Another common characteristic was ribbing. Almost all kneresocks were made with ribbing, although the number an width of the ribbing varied widely. An English reader reports, "I can't imagine there were many non-ribbed knee socks around in the 1950s." The less expensive, non-ribbed knee socks (generally without the turn-over-tops) appeare in the 1960s.

boys grey school knee socks
Figure 2.--These prep school boys wear plain grey knee socks without turn-over-tops or the school colors.


Little British boys were sometimes dressed in white knee socks, but by the time they began school they wanted grey ones--considering that white knee socks were essentiaslly reserved for girls. Some schools, however, had the boys wear white knee socks for sports. This was not true in all countries. French boys, primarily at private secondary schools, wore white knee socks with blue shorts--in some cases cord shorts. The French schools often had the choir boys wear white knee socks. Some schools in Italy and France where the boys wore smocks required white knee socks. At least one Australian highschool required white knee socks with blue shorts. Many small state or Church of England primary school have the children wear plain grey knee socks, often the less expensive style without the turn-over tops. Even at the schools with regulation school stocks with colored stripes or bars, some boys wear the plain grey knee socks. They are less expensive than the regulation ones, so are sometimes chosen by thrifty mums. Since the mid-1980s the English chain stores like Marks & Spencers introduced knee-length socks without turn-over tops. These were worn mainly by children at state primary schools, though where preparatory schools did not strictly require socks with the school colors these were worn because they were much less expensive. Prior to the 1980s knee socks of this style were mostly worn by girls. Almost all boys' schools required turn over-top socks. As many prep schools in the 1980s were making the transition from boys to coed schools and the primary schools were already coed, the knee socks without turn over tops became more prevelent. (The schools did not require different grey socks for the boys and girls.) Almost all English schools used grey knee socks worn with grey short pants. A few Scottish schools chose colored socks, including bright red and blue, as well as purple, green, and black. These colored Scottish socks did not have colored stripes. In England only grey knee socks had the colored trim. Colored socks, usually dark blue or black, are also worn in New Zealand, although not as common as the grey knee socks with colored tops. Some schools have colored stripes on the dark blue/black knee socks. A few New Zealand schools have light blue knee socks--in some cases an option for older boys.

Up and Down

Active boys during the day found their socks would often fall down. Some schools thought that this presented a sloppy appearance. Many a British boy can be remember being gruffly told by a school master to "Pull those socks up, boy." This problem was for ever captured by the famous William series where the young anti-hero is always picture with his kneessocks falling down. One sollution was to insist that the boys wear garters at the top to keep them up. This was a special problem at the schools allowing grey knee socks without turn-over-tops. Boys wearing the inexpensive knee socks without the turn-over-tops could not use garters to keep their socks up. Without the turn-over-tops the garters showed which was considered rather unsightly.

school turn-over-top socks
Figure 3.--This prep school has knee socks that have turn-over-tops with a whole colored cuff. Note the distinctive-colored rust cord shorts.

Major Styles

There were quite a few different styles of school knee socks. Many boys at state schools simply wore plain grey knee socks. Most private schools and some state schools had socks done with the tops in the school colors. After World War II, elasticized top knee socks appeared. They were done without the turn-over top worn with gsarters that were failrly standard before the War. Elasticised gbrics sere developed (1930sd), but we don't see school children widly ersring them until after the War. This somewht solvded the problen of the knee socks falling dowm, exacerbted by the fact that boys are so active. It was, however, not a perfective sollution as the elastic tended to wear out. Mothrs tended to prefer them as thery were cheaper than turn-over top socks or school socks with the colored tops. So they became fairly standard at state schools and even private schools with uniforms, thrifty mothers purchased them. Thay also became fairly standard for girls' white knee socks. The most common style of school knee socks were grey with colored bands in the school colors incorporated at the top of the sock. The colors might be repeated with the cap, blazer, and tie. The colors ranged from two single colored bands to three different colors. Single colored bands were not common. There was quite a large number of different combinations both in the width, number of colors and especially the color combinations. English schools almost always used a basic grey sock for the boys and somertines for the girls. Australian and New Zealand schools also mostly used a basic grey sock, however, occasionally used a dark blue or black knee sock--only occasionally with colored bands. Many South African schools used khaki knee socks, never with colored bands. Some British schools had turn-over top socks with a full solid color cuff instead of muti-colored bands. Some Australian and New Zealand schools also used this style. Allmost all of the socks with a colored bar at the top were basic grey socks, but ghere were a few exceptions. This style was much less common than the top multi-colored band, but there wwere a number of schools that took this approach. Like the top colored bands, the color coul be coordinred with caps ties, and blazers. Sometime this included the sweater (jersey). Most sweaters were grey, but many schools had then done with the school colors around the neckline or sometimes the wrist and waist. Some schools had colored sweters, this was less common, but in recent years has increased in popularity. A small number of schools had grey knee socks with patterned tops. As far as I know, only grey knee socks came with the patterned tops. The types of patterns varied. This style was commom in England during the 1930s. This style was commonly worn by American boys wearing knicker pants suring the 1920s and 30s, but not as part of an official school uniform. It was more commonly worn by English boys going to a non-uniform school than adopted as part of a school uniform.

Different Socks

HBC has noted that boys at some schools wear a school uniform, but in some cases different types of socks. Some schools are quite strict that the oroper kneesicks be worn. Other schools are less strict. Probably more flexibility is permitted with the knee socks than any other uniform garment. Some schools will not strictly insist on socks with the proper colored bands so some boys have the bands and some have plain grey knee socks. Some boys may have differebt colored bands, often a sign that they have changed schools. In a few cases boys wear different colored knee socks. This could mean that the bouys are wearing game socks or in a few cases the school is changing the type of socks. In this case for a year or two some boys wear the old styled socks and other the new style.

Country Trends

Knee socks have been worn as part of school uniforms in many different countries. HBC has noted knee sock trends in different countries. Knee socks were most widely worn in England and English school uniform fashions influence styles in many other coutries--primrily British Empire countries. Many of these countries had schools that did not require school uniforms. In these countries the schoolwear trends are similar to the overall clothing trends. The general trend has been from the era before World War II when almost all boys wore knee socks to after the war when knee socks became less and less common, at least for boys. They remin popular with the girls, perhaps because fahion is more imprtant fior girls or because many girls wear skirts and knee socks can help to keep legs warm. This overall trend, however, has varied widely from country to country. One important factor affecting the individual trend in each country has been climate. This is especilly true of knee socks as they are actually a seasonal cold weather garment. They can be worn year round in countries with temperate climates, but are not suitable for countries with tropical or subtopical climates.


A British reader tells us, "My brother and I during the 1940s used to pull up our school socks over our knees when it was very cold. We only did it when walking to school (about half a mile). We quickly truned them down as soon as we passed the school gate."


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Created: June 5, 1999
Last updated: 2:56 PM 8/6/2022