Every morning, the Sawhney brothers don the school uniforms of old and new India.
Six-year-old Arjun wears a colourful T-shirt—yellow or blue—and beige shorts with huge pockets and heads to Mumbai’s Billa Bong High International School.
Rohan, 14, attends the venerable Cathedral and John Connon School, which boasts the late J.R.D. Tata as an alumnus. The school’s uniform has changed little since those days, so Rohan leaves his house decked in all white.
“Even Rohan’s shoes have to be the Bata fleets that we used to wear when we were children,” the boys’ mother Chhaya laughs.
The Sawhney family’s spectrum of uniforms underscores a shift in commercialization of private schools across India. As more and more people choose private, elite institutions to educate their children, the schools now see uniforms as yet another way of branding themselves. Trendy, colourful uniforms help them and their students stand out, both within the crowd of newer, elite schools and the older, more established convent schools.
For many schools, uniforms have become the subtle yet in-your-face, walking, talking— and free—hoardings.
In the process, schools are shedding the starched look of crisp white shirts and navy blue trousers or pleated skirts, putting specialized tailors in business and asking parents to reach deeper into their pockets to handle the separate uniforms for sports, age groups and house colours. (Many schools divide students into houses which compete against each other.)
“Uniforms have now become a very challenging job to do,” said Deepak Malani, partner in Delhi’s Sona Garments, a firm supplying uniforms to 17 schools. “In the same school, there can be five sets of uniforms.”
But Malani welcomes the change and enjoys work more now as it allows him to be a specialist. His earlier orders for white shirts, solid skirts and trousers could be done by anyone, he said.
Most schools peg the cost of one set of uniform at Rs1,000, though, coupled with sports clothes, the cost can go up to Rs1,500.
Besides new colours—or even the introduction of colour, in some cases—different material and logos define the newer uniforms being designed. The Shri Ram School has denim, while Delhi Public School in R.K. Puram introduced a green stripe on the collar and the school logo on shirts in the current academic session, altering the all-white look it had since 1972.
Schools are also getting more democratic—asking students what they want to wear and trying to undertand how they define comfort and fashion. Unlike previous generations, children today are inundated with media images—from television to magazines to websites—of various versions of hip and are only too happy to respond to such surveys.
“Most schools want a look that kids today can associate with,” said Namrata Kapur, a graduate from the National Institute of Fashion Technology, who has designed school uniforms for over a decade. She ended up introducing track pants and fleece jackets for the uniforms at Vasant Valley School, another hard-to-get-into school here.
At other schools, it’s parents who are turning into fashion designers. Ian Bayly, director of the British School in Delhi, said the school only has had a general dress code and no uniform. Then parents were polled and they overwhelmingly voted for a uniform.
“They did not want to buy so many clothes. They also felt children look more organized and orderly in uniforms,” said Bayly, echoing what’s been a big reason why most parents actually like to see some sort of uniform at schools.
A committee made up of parents, students and a designer will now try to create a uniform. Their three-part challenge: the outfit should accommodate Delhi’s hot summer, it has to be easy-to-clean and, finally, generate a positive image for the school. Meanwhile, like with most unsolicited advertising, there is somewhat of a backlash brewing, especially among urban teens who have taken to western casual clothes in a big way.
Over at the all-girls Loreto Convent School, which insists on pink and white stripes on its uniforms, Mannat Makkar, 17, simply dashes into a dressing room in Khan Market after school, to change into jeans and a T-shirt. Her problem: the salwar kameez style. Plus, Makkar says, “it can be boring wearing the same uniform.”