Recently unisex uniforms have taken centre stage in the annual school uniform debate in Australia. Our research has led us through just about every argument you could have over school uniforms, but venture out into any suburb or town and you can see that the debate over whether we should have them or not in Australia has been well and truly decided.
We believe one media outlet in particular played a pivotal role in Australia’s acceptance of uniforms in schools. Our research uncovered how the Australian Women’s Weekly took on the role of ‘selling’ school uniforms to Australians, particularly mothers.
In her 1979 article ‘Change Without Innovation’, Elaine Thompson claimed, ‘The Australian Women’s Weekly generates a picture of the world, of women, of society, which is projected week after week to a huge part of the Australian population’. This magazine is not just a useful historical source of illustrative content—one of any number of publications that we could have chosen to study—but has its own substantial historical significance as a social and cultural agent. The Australian Women’s Weekly, for many decades during the twentieth century the bestselling periodical in the country, served as a formidable authority, trading particularly in the routine and the domestic.
From its beginnings in the early 1930s, the Weekly featured content on school wear. An interest in what children and young people wore to school can be seen as part of the magazine’s ongoing engagement with its putative readership: married women who were mothers, and who bore the main responsibility for the smooth running of their households.
There were back-to-school advertisements for ‘regulation’ garments and sewing patterns for the ‘correct styles’ for students. Even though the majority of schoolchildren in Australia at this time were not required to wear a prescribed outfit to school, the magazine’s message was that proper school dress was a matter of conformity—of uniformity.
Opinions on school uniforms began to appear in the readers’ letters section within a few years of the magazine’s debut. The Weekly would come to frame opinions on school dress in debate terms of ‘for and against’. When a Queensland mother, for example, posed a question to the magazine in 1963 about whether or not she was right to send her daughter to school in a ‘spotted muumuu’ despite the teacher’s objections, many readers responded, some expressing solidarity with the mother, and others voicing their disapproval of her.
The Weekly created a space for debate on uniforms, but alongside it a space for the selling of uniforms, not only directly in advertisements, but also indirectly in articles that consolidated the message that proper school dress was tantamount to a school uniform. In 1944, for example, the magazine highlighted the ‘Sloppy Sue’ craze in the US (involving high school girls wearing jeans, men’s clothing, and other oversized garments). The piece had a subsection entitled ‘Neatness is Preferred Here’ in which a headmistress noted that at her school ‘the wearing of uniforms had precluded any development of such a cult as the ‘Sloppy Sue’”. A 1958 piece on the famous Sara Quads starting a new school after their move to Sydney showed them dressed in their new matching collared shirts, blazers and hats (never mind the fact that their new public school in Punchbowl did not require these items). ‘Keeping the Uniforms in Order’, a 1969 back-to-school article, was written by a mother offering advice ‘to those who are facing the problems of school wardrobes for the first time’. Nowhere did it acknowledge that school wardrobes might consist of something other than regulation attire.
By the 1970s, full-colour photographs of happy, uniformed children became a staple of the magazine’s coverage of schooling. In a series of back-to-school covers that began in 1974, not only did each child wear a uniform, each one wore predominantly blue regulation-style outfits. These covers presented images of children dressed correspondingly, all of a piece, both within each cover and across the series from year to year.
It was the 1977 cover in this back-to-school series that was arguably the apotheosis of the Weekly’s representations of the child dressed for school. Editor-in-chief Ita Buttrose wrote in the issue’s editorial, “I hope you’ll forgive a mother’s pride but that’s my son, Ben, on the cover this week, and I think he looks absolutely fantastic. He’s with his cousin, Rebecca—my niece—so the aunt in me feels pretty good too.”
We do not have systematic data about how the magazine’s readers interpreted, acted on, objected to, or even scoffed at the Weekly’s images and stories about school dress. However we believe the magazine manufactured, moderated, and in the end resolved a national ‘debate’ on the subject of school uniforms in their gendered forms, positioning mothers as having to provide and care for them.
The Weekly made uniformed schooling desirable, connected it to the sartorial history of exclusive or selective schooling, and sold it as obtainable and maintainable. As Ita Buttrose’s expression of motherly pride suggested, dressing one’s child in a ‘regulation’ outfit was a way of enacting the values of the Australian Women’s Weekly, and thereby entering its collective world.
LISTEN to Heather Weaver and Helen Proctor discuss their research with Wendy Harmer on ABC radio:
Heather Weaver is a Research Associate and Helen Proctor is an ARC Future Fellow in the Sydney School of Education and Social Work, University of Sydney. Their research on uniforms will be published in 2018 in History of Education Quarterly under the title, “The Question of the Spotted Muumuu: How the Australian Women’s Weekly Manufactured a Vision of the Normative School Mother and Child”.
The authors would like to thank the people responsible for the excellent “Trove” database at the Australian National Library for their assistance with this project.