Story: Clothes

Page 4. Uniforms

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School uniforms

The purpose of a uniform is to convey its wearer’s identity. State schools in New Zealand have followed British precedent by wearing uniforms at secondary level, although not usually at primary level, where students have largely worn everyday clothing.

Compulsory primary education was introduced in 1877. Young girls often wore white cotton pinafores to keep their clothes clean, while young boys wore shirts, jackets and short trousers, with sailor suits a popular choice. Older pupils tended to wear cut-down versions of adult clothing. Uniforms were introduced in the 20th century.


Truancy from school owing to a lack of suitable clothing was a matter for public concern in the 19th century. In 1895 the Timaru Herald reported: ‘It is miserable enough for people to be poor without having the fact announced publicly in the papers, or their children being subjected to tormenting in school and out of it by more fortunate scholars for torn or patched garments, for broken boots or for none at all.’1


From the First World War gym frocks were worn as girls’ sports and school uniforms. They were either made at home from navy serge or purchased ready-made in a range of sizes. Worn over shirts, with a tie and bloomers, by the late 1920s they had replaced the earlier straw boater, short tie, long-sleeved blouse and ankle-length skirt.

Gym frocks were superseded in the 1960s, when a greater diversity in girls’ school uniforms became evident. Summer uniforms had been introduced in the 1940s. The kilt became a common choice, as did simple zip-fastened tunics.


Boys’ school uniforms have not changed as much as girls’ uniforms. They have typically consisted of a pale, often grey, collared shirt with a breast pocket, worn with or without a tie, and short trousers, knee socks and shoes or boots, all in dark colours.


Conflict between self-expression and discipline has been a long-standing issue with school uniforms. For instance, in the 1970s and 1980s hair length for boys, which became a full-blown legal battle in 1974, and skirt lengths for girls provoked considerable debate. Schools in the 2000s had a legal right to reasonable governing of appearance.

Contemporary school attire

In the 2000s brighter colours were a feature of both boys’ and girls’ uniforms, and they had become more unisex, with the introduction of trousers for girls and matching knit tops. Some secondary schools had adopted a policy of no uniform, while a small number of primary schools had introduced uniforms.

Occupational uniforms

Occupational uniforms have proliferated since the late 19th century. Nurses’ uniforms have been the most visible and prevalent uniforms worn by women. During wartime military uniforms were the most common and visible uniform for men. Both types of uniform have varied considerably in style.


Crisp white cotton fabric has long been associated with hygiene in hospital settings. In the early 20th century ‘washing dresses’, white aprons and removable sleeves represented cleanliness and neatness.

White starched veils or caps, neatly fitted dresses, stockings and leather shoes with low heels were standard fare for mid-20th century public-hospital nurses. Rank was indicated in a variety of ways that were derived from military dress. In the 2000s white polycotton tunic tops were widely worn with regulation skirts, trousers, three-quarter-length pants or knee-length shorts. Nurses no longer wore caps on their ward rounds.

Armed forces

Red serge jackets were the distinguishing feature of 19th-century imperial troops, and were worn with long trousers in a contrasting colour, such as blue, black or white. Following British precedent, khaki service dress was instituted in 1912.

‘Lemon-squeezer’ hats and fern-leaf badges distinguished New Zealand servicemen during the First World War. Battle dress, adopted in 1937, was designed to accommodate new forms of weaponry and ammunition.

Innovations were made to suit combat conditions. Camouflage gear was improvised in the Pacific during the Second World War and officially introduced in 1977. During the Vietnam War servicemen wore ‘denims’: shorts and socks over boots, with a soft jungle hat with a brim, and no shirts or underpants.

In the 2000s field, combat and fatigue dress was still made from camouflage-pattern material. For ceremonial occasions, the lemon-squeezer and red-and-black mokowaewae (shoulder sash) were worn.

  1. Timaru Herald, 30 May 1895, p. 3. Back
How to cite this page:

Fiona McKergow, 'Clothes - Uniforms', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 25 July 2024)

Story by Fiona McKergow, published 5 Sep 2013