Uniforms, in most kids' minds, rank right up there with shepherd's pie and pop quizzes on Chaucer. But today, four years after they were first introduced in public schools in trendy southern California, they are as much a fixture in urban education as hiphuggers were in the more-vibrant '70s.
Well - almost.
After public-school dress codes were tossed out in the late 1960s, observers would have been hard pressed to find anything beyond raggy jeans and lots of polyester. Uniforms can't yet claim the same market penetration. But last year, safety- and discipline-conscious school policies in places like Birmingham, Ala., Dayton, Ohio, and San Antonio helped uniforms reach $900 million in retail sales, according to a new survey by the NPD Group, a marketing-information company in Port Washington, N.Y.
That's 7 percent of all dollars spent on children's apparel last year. With New York City requiring elementary-school children to wear uniforms as of next fall, the amount seems poised to grow.
Plaid, it seems, dies hard.
Not that all uniforms still have kids arriving at schools looking like little Scots. In this more relaxed period, khaki pants and polo shirts abound. But regardless of sartorial preference, the idea is to improve order and pride by emphasizing appearance - and there's evidence that it helps.
Uniforms first breezed into public-school halls in 1994 in Long Beach, Calif., where officials saw them as a tool to combat gang colors and potential violence. After an initial flocking to the idea, participation in uniform programs - hampered by court rulings that rejected mandatory policies -has declined in some areas. But in the first year after uniforms were introduced, overall school crime dropped by 36 percent, and sex offenses by 74 percent. Fights declined by half, according to the American School Health Association.
Whether uniforms can be credited for all this progress is unclear. Crime in general has declined dramatically in the United States, and many schools are knee-deep in larger efforts to improve academic standards and discipline.
But can it hurt? Opponents of school uniforms don't credit them with much of anything except trouncing self-expression and discriminating against lower-income families.
Perhaps they just don't like khakis.
After all, the halls of K-12 learning are not exactly crowded with rugged individualists. One thing doesn't change from school-age generation to generation, and that's the desire to look exactly like everyone else. If this means a long-term loaner of your favorite CD to your best friend in return for his just-ever-so baggy jeans, so be it. If it means renouncing your favorite jacket because its style was declared dead yesterday, well, freezing at the bus stop isn't such a high price to pay.
Parents, of course, pony up with a lot of emergency trips to the mall (or at least 1 in every 5 requested) to buy the latest kid-decreed uniform.
Why not save a lot of money and just buy the look the school suggests? Low-, middle-, and even high-income families can't help but be impressed with the $100 fee for the whole package for a year - a price that's competitive with one pair of high-fashion sneakers, or maybe 2-1/2 T-shirts from Abercrombie & Fitch. And they may just start to enjoy mornings freed from panic sessions with a teen who'd rather miss the bus than wear the wrong thing.
*Amelia Newcomb is the Learning editor. Send e-mail comments to firstname.lastname@example.org