Header image courtesy of Kin-ming Wong (via Hong Kong Museum of Education)
Walking the streets on a regular school day, one runs into students in a dizzying variety of uniforms. Universally, uniforms are a means to identify those from different schools, as well as to create a wholesome sense of belonging and equality. In a more negative light, it also feeds into a society’s deep-rooted obsession for conformity.
To students and graduates, school uniforms are an integral part of collective memory. For Hong Kong, these uniforms, from foreign-inspired to characteristically Chinese, are manifestations of the city’s multicultural background and its development across periods. Now, over more than a century later since uniforms were first set as a formal requirement in Hong Kong schools, they have tracked local history in their own unique way. Here’s our tribute to a few iconic styles that make up the school uniform tradition.
The storm of socio-political changes that swept through Hong Kong in the mid-1800s had a significant impact on the education sector. With the ceding of Hong Kong Island on one hand and unrest in the Qing empire on the other, there came an influx of immigrants who brought with them a new regard and need for schooling. Foreign missionaries and the British Hong Kong government introduced Western education to the new colony, while the growing Chinese community pushed for their own schools.
Though at that point there had yet to be a strict code on uniforms, already students from the two streams of schools dressed accordingly in Western- or Chinese-style attire, both of which grew to be more coordinated throughout the latter half of the century. As schools opened, it was apparent that differentiation might be necessary. This, added to the rising awareness for etiquette and student identity, paved the way towards the beginning of Hong Kong’s uniform tradition.
In 1918, St Paul’s Co-educational College—then St Paul’s Girls’ College—was the first school in Hong Kong to formally require students to wear uniforms. In today’s school uniforms, traces of the white round fronted blouse and skirt can still be found.
The qipao, or cheongsam as it is commonly known in the Canton regions, is one of the oldest styles of uniforms and has remained in use in sixteen schools in Hong Kong. The term qipao, essentially “Manchu robe,” hints at its origin as a form of Manchu attire during the Qing dynasty. Despite the fall of the empire, the attire had been integrated into everyday fashion and continued to evolve until it surged to popularity in Shanghai socialite circles in the 1920s to 1930s. It was this modern version of the qipao that spread to Hong Kong and was adapted into uniforms.
Less form-hugging than the qipao favoured in the last century, the uniform retains signature features that bespeak a demure elegance expected of women then: Mandarin collar buttoned at the throat, large round front closed under one arm, and slits on each side of the hem. On this design, Hong Kong schools made further variations using blue as the base colour, with different colour combinations, shades, cutting, and embellishments. The present-day St Paul’s Co-educational College uniform, for example, is a cerulean blue embellished in sapphire at the seams, as contrasted to the True Light schools’ baby blue with no piping.
The standouts in the qipao branch of Hong Kong uniforms are perhaps Pooi To Secondary School and Maryknoll Fathers’ School (Primary Section). Amidst the sea of blue, Pooi To’s uniform is a stark white, the only school to keep the colour in Hong Kong even after the dyeing technology had matured enough to provide options. Maryknoll Fathers’ School, meanwhile, distinguishes itself as the sole keeper of the maids’ suit uniform. Before students graduate to the Secondary Section’s blue qipao, in the Primary Section, they dress in a blouse and trousers modelled after maids’ wear in the early to mid-1900s, with the same collar, front and slits as the qipao. While the qipao style binds the older traditional Chinese schools in which it is worn, the schools tell their own stories in detailing and in character.
Often related to the gakuran, a uniform almost synonymous with Japanese middle schools, the Chinese tunic suit had its own heyday in Hong Kong in the 1930s to 1940s. The suit was first introduced in China in the 1920s by Dr Sun Yat-sen (also known as Sun Zhong Shan), who took inspiration from the Japanese military to create a practical style of Chinese men’s fashion. Thus alternatively named the Zhong Shan suit, the style swiftly secured its place in the trends and was incorporated into the early Hong Kong uniform repertoire.
The Chinese tunic suit’s design is not only distinctive but believed to be rich in political and cultural symbolism. Aside from the stand-up collar, the four large pockets on the torso are said to each be for a Chinese virtue, while the five buttons down the front stood for the Five-Power Constitution, a system of government proposed by Sun Yat-sen in 1906. The three buttons on the sleeves were republican ideals and Sun’s Three Principles of the People: nationalism, governance rights, and welfare rights. The fact that Hong Kong was under British rule did not hinder the style as a trend in school uniforms. The now-closed Hong Kong Memorial School and Chi Keung Secondary School (Primary Section) were among the many schools with Chinese tunic suit uniforms, using grey and green respectively.
In the post-war years, the traditional Chinese tunic suit was gradually replaced by the Western-style suit, shirt and trousers that currently dominate Hong Kong’s boys’ uniforms. With the shutting down of the last schools using the Chinese tunic suit, the uniform lives on only in photographs and memory.
At the dawn of Hong Kong’s uniform tradition, a significant portion of uniforms was white due to the limitations in dyeing and textiles technology. Up until the late 1930s, the available colours for uniforms were few, lasting dyes were rare, and practicality was a concern since uniforms are frequently worn and laundered. Using white became a practice that lasted into the post-war era when the Western-style was on the rise.
The white Western-style uniform for girls first emerged as a simple one-piece shirt dress in response to the Westernisation of minimalistic trends in Hong Kong fashion. The most common design sports the original turndown collar, short sleeves, and calf-length high-waist pleated skirt. Over the years though, it has blossomed to include a wide range of collar variations, school-specific ties, ribbons, and emblems emblazoned on the chest.
The shirt and trousers began to usurp the Chinese tunic suits around when dresses burst onto the scene. While sharing the use of school ties and emblems with their feminine counterpart, the plain design is largely unchanged and still is the standard for Hong Kong boys’ uniforms. Colours have been taken on in time, but the love for white Western-style uniforms and their image of upright student innocence has not abated, be it in traditional missionary schools like Queen’s College or in schools under the historical local charity Po Leung Kuk.
Hong Kong’s industrial boom in the 1960s to 1970s left its mark on student attire in the form of chequers. The rapid progress made in textiles and dyeing technologies enabled the manufacturing of durable cloths in diverse patterns fit for school uniforms. From the plain colours of the previous decades, the uniform tradition went forward to an age of diverse patterns including stripes and, more prominently, chequers.
The use of chequers in Hong Kong uniforms is many and varied, mainly in either the gingham pattern (also called “tablecloth” for its other famous usage) or the Scottish tartan. Differentiated by how the former presents regular squares whereas the latter has an alternating, overlapping design, both gingham and tartan have featured heavily in uniforms. In part, they reflect the influence of British fashion on Hong Kong uniforms in the colonial era—the patterns have each had a long history in England and Scotland and were experiencing a revival. Respectively, they give off a modern impression and an air of class to schools who choose to so represent themselves in dresses, skirts matched with blouses, ties, and bows.
To this day, chequered uniforms are tied to the periods in which they were first adopted. The memorable Queen Elizabeth School gingham dress is affectionately compared to the blue-and-white chequered packaging of Life Bread, a 1960s product from local Hong Kong bakery Garden, just as how the classic combination of the uniform at St Paul’s Convent School—a tartan school tie with a pleated skirt—is reminiscent of colonial times and British upper-class education.
Picture your dream school attire, and there is a fair chance the image summoned is that of the sailor uniform. The British naval uniform style unexpectedly became all the rage in nineteenth-century children’s fashion, initially in Europe, then all over the world. In Japan, in particular, it was modified and vastly popularised in school uniforms. Hong Kong as a former British colony may have embraced the style as early as the 1940s, yet it was not until the 1970s, when the Japanese Wave brought the trend to the Hong Kong audience anew, that it truly started to spread.
Identifiable by a unique flap collar that tapers into a V-neckline, the sailor uniform in Hong Kong schools either appears as a one-piece dress or a matching set of middy blouse and pleated skirt. For the most part, the style maintains its original naval references with a blue and white colour palette and a tie as a nod to the sailor’s neckerchief. Historically, it has been typical of the Japanese sailor fuku to feature an eye-catching combination of navy-blue middy blouse and white pleated skirt.
In the wake of the New Method College’s success with their sailor-style uniform in the 1970s, many new schools at the time followed suit. The subsequent decades abounded with innovation in design, including banded collars and patterned fabrics. Many still look to the New Method College uniform as the model for local sailor uniforms, despite the fact that the original design is now lost with the closure of the school. But of course, in the kaleidoscope of Hong Kong uniforms, there are still plenty of records of forgotten styles to draw upon for inspiration.
A hundred years is not so long for a tradition. It is just about enough for the first school uniform supplier in Hong Kong to come into the hands of its fourth-generation owners, just enough for local uniforms to have shown us the map it can be of local history and socio-cultural developments. The uniform evolution is not stopping here—already the formal shirts are giving way to polo shirts for convenience in some schools, Chinese cotton-padded jackets are swapped for the more practical, modern down jacket. There is no knowing where trends are heading and where uniforms will follow. But we do know the map will continue to grow.