Friday 24 May 2019

Too cool for school: the evolution of classroom fashion

Every generation updated uniforms in its own unique way. Meadhbh McGrath highlights the teenage trends that dominated each decade.

The cast of Derry Girls
The cast of Derry Girls

Meadhbh McGrath

Fashion month kicks off in New York tomorrow, but across Ireland, the corridors will be the catwalks this week for students looking to make an impression on the first day of school.

For today’s pupils, the JoJo bow is the must-have hair accessory, Kylie Jenner is the ultimate make-up muse and uniform policies are relaxing to allow girls to wear trousers and accommodate transgender pupils.

Whether or not you’ve got small people in your life, you’ll likely be recalling your own memories of back-to-school season. Here we look at how school style has evolved through the ages.


For many schools, strict uniforms weren’t introduced until the mid-70s, so in primary it was short trousers with braces for boys, and a pinafore with a blouse and Mary Janes for girls. Books were carried in a dusty satchel, and in winter, you added a woolly cardigan knitted by granny.

Look back on any class photo and you’ll find a sea of Alice bands, tucked into long, straight hair with the severe centre parting favoured by Ali McGraw.

Secondary schools maintained a rigid dress code, but then as now, girls tested the limits, rolling skirts up until you were caught by the nuns. Brogues were the footwear of choice, with patterned tights if you could get away with them, and to get around the uniform, you broadcast your favourite band or football team by covering your army-surplus backpack with stitch-on patches. Boys had to grapple with a shirt and tie — though most played it safe with elasticated versions, which also functioned as effective missiles.

The only time you could really let loose was on the school trip, when out came the Wranglers with a sweatshirt or cheesecloth shirt and desert boots. The fashion-forward opted for a corduroy trouser suit, a style that’s made its way back on to the catwalks this season.

Nail polish was rare and girls didn’t bother with make-up, so you relied on a flamboyant hairstyle to express your personality. The Bay City Rollers inspired no end of mid-length feather cuts for the boys, while others copied David Cassidy’s shag — and often received a dressing-down from the principal for it. Girls coveted Farrah Fawcett’s glamorous flicks, even going up to Dublin to get her famous layered cut. Those who couldn’t make the trip might have experimented with a perm (disastrous).


The 80s ushered in more restrictive uniforms, presenting a distinct fashion challenge for pupils, and one which was met head-on as classmates competed to achieve the most louche looks, widening cuffs, collars, ties —  not to mention hair.

It was all or nothing: you were either a skinhead or you really went for it, from Andre Agassi’s mullet to the bleached Flock of Seagulls cut to Robert Smith’s bird’s nest. In primary school, you were more likely to see bowl cuts, short back and sides or, god forbid, the rat’s tail.

For girls, hair was big, but accessories were bigger: headbands, bows and, the crowning glory, the scrunchie. Not only were they useful for keeping your side pony in check, they doubled as wrist bands for extra style points.

Swatch watches with interchangeable straps were in high demand, ideally more than one on each arm. For better or for worse, the 80s gave us blue eyeshadow, and when it came to brows, Cara Delevingne doesn’t have a thing on Brooke Shield’s unplucked ‘virgin brows’.

In secondary school, there were two tribes: those who wanted to be Princess Diana, and those who were all about Madonna. The Diana girls could be identified by their Alice bands, school jumpers tied around the shoulders, oversized glasses and penny loafers, while Madonna wannabes stacked their arms full of bangles, teased the life out of their perms and tied it all up with a strip of lace.


You returned to school proudly sporting the fluoro beaded braid and tattoo choker from your holiday in Spain, only to discover so was every other girl in class. Boys admired the results of their Sun-In highlighted tips, while their classmates with curtains and a step looked on enviously.

The novelty pencil case was a statement in itself, whether it was covered in the Pepsi logo or the faces of BoyZone, and inside you’d stash your Troll pencil toppers, stamp markers and gel pens (or better yet, smell pens). These were tucked away in a backpack covered in Tipp-Ex signatures from your pals.

Mood rings provided a temporary obsession, while all friendships were earnestly marked with a woven bracelet. Nail polish may have been banned, but that didn’t stop you colouring your nails with a black pen to show your rock ’n’ roll spirit, male or female.

When accessorising, top of the wishlist was a Discman (and later, an MP3 player), closely followed by the Casio Baby-G watch. Butterfly clips reigned supreme, and secondary school girls either hazarded the ‘Rachel’ or terrorised their hair with all manner of streaky highlights, chunky lowlights and the BaByliss crimper. The T-bars and white socks of primary days were replaced with Kickers or, ideally, Pods, the block-heeled ‘cool girl’ shoe, worn with skirt rolled up and a short, fat tie. Benetton’s wool scarves were another essential, with the neck and tails double knotted and generously spritzed with the Body Shop’s White Musk.


Every morning before school, you doused yourself in Lynx or So? body spray, and layered up your silicone charity wristbands. The MP3 player was replaced with a gleaming iPod, while mobile phones began popping up everywhere. You eagerly hunted down the best case for your 3310 (Buffy The Vampire Slayer, or maybe Man United), but the Motorola Razr was the most sought-after.

Boys got to grips with wet-look gel, with mixed results, or embraced the emo look with a jet-black fringe. For girls, hair was in crispy sausage curls or pin-straight, thanks to your trusty GHD. The fake tan phenomenon was well underway, and the default make-up look was rings of black eyeliner, shimmery lip gloss and perilously orange foundation.

JanSport did a roaring trade in backpacks, offering tropical, tie-dye and butterfly prints that helped to disguise the exquisite pain of carrying your own body weight in books.

Girls knew to bring lunch in a trophy carrier bag from Abercrombie & Fitch, Brown Thomas or, for a touch of flirty intrigue, lingerie store La Senza.

The Celtic Tiger was roaring, along with the D4 look: Dubarry’s (or Dubes) were the status footwear of the time, and for PE, it was navy Cantos and a popped-collar polo. Boys strived for the perfect bleached surfer look, and girls furiously backcombed their hair, only to throw it into a messy bun.

When the financial crash hit, you were stuck with hard-wearing non-scuff footwear from your mam’s favourite shop. They were deeply unfashionable, but you rode the recession dressed full of angst — that most unchanging teenage accessory.

Irish Independent

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