Every year, as children make their way back to school after the long summer holiday, school uniforms seem to be debated in the media. This is because uniforms are captivating and loaded with subliminal ideological messages about the wearer's power and status.
We hear experts and parents talk about the advantages of school uniforms, such as safety, sense of community and less peer pressure. Equally strong are the voices of opponents of school uniforms and again, experts are found to support their position, arguing school uniforms are a source of discontent and rebellious behaviour, that demotivate students and impose financial hardship on poor families.
However, the school uniform advocates are also very aware of the branding advantage school uniforms bring.
While uniform advocates argue that they erase divisions between students, uniforms can also be used as branding. While not usually viewed as luxury fashion items, the humble school uniform can become a proxy for the reputation of quality that a school may wish to convey.
Australian parents place strong emphasis on education, and although public schools can be associated with quality education, private schools are associated with exclusivity, hence, private schools may use the school uniform as a luxury brand identifier.
In today's age of heightened brand awareness and industry growth in luxury retailing, exclusive private schools are likely using their uniforms as marketing, although this may not be their primary purpose. In effect, school uniforms can support the building of self-identity in students who may link their "luxury brand" uniforms to economic status and possibly pride. Luxury branding can also be used as an asset for any organisation when used to achieve a variety of positive outcomes.
School uniforms have been worn in Australia since the late 19th century, when the nation's colonial administrators sought to emulate the British school system. It's clear from the longstanding debates that positions on school uniforms are firmly held and both sides are unlikely to change their minds.
Nevertheless, parents and children are pressuring some schools to interrogate their uniform policies, and changes are happening. One example of this is the number of schools implementing gender neutral uniforms.
Western Australia is the first state to update its policy to mandate, effective this year, that public school dress code requirements are "similar for all students and include gender neutral options".
Other states will likely follow suit. But given the brand power of school uniforms, it is questionable whether we will see rapid change in private schools' uniforms.