School uniforms were not something I spent a lot of thought on until my daughter was poised to start school and we found ourselves spending many hours evaluating and assessing potential schools. It has been 20 years since I finished high school, yet school uniforms do not appear to have changed significantly in all that time.

In most schools, female students are still required to wear dresses or skirts all year round. A couple of schools we looked at offered a skorts option but only for sport. Other schools recommended their female students wear bike shorts under their school uniforms in an attempt at modesty and to make the uniform more usable for students to play in.

Why skirts don’t work as school uniforms

As I researched schools and school uniforms further, long-forgotten memories returned:

  • Struggling to win a running race due to long uniform skirts
  • My dress getting caught on the jungle gym
  • Being told to change how I sit so no-one could see my underwear
  • Learning that climbing a tree or going up stairs comes with additional risks
  • My school backpack catching the back of my skirt causing it to ride up, exposing my underwear
  • Giving up on running games entirely during recess and lunch
  • Holding my books a certain way on windy days to prevent my skirt from being blown up
  • Gratefully changing into shorts or pants at the end of the school day
  • How at my high school, it was a treat for the Year 12 female students to wear pants in winter
  • How some female students wore pants every winter day
  • How pants were so much warmer and comfortable than those dreaded potentially holey and crotch-sagging stockings

There were so many long-forgotten and not particularly nice memories about female school uniforms. Still, we selected a school and enrolled. The experience has been overwhelmingly positive on the whole but their school uniform policy has been a sticking point.

I did buy the skorts uniform option for my daughter but was very disappointed. If it fit her correctly around the waist, the shorts material easily rode up when participating in physical activity and her underwear could be seen. If I bought her a larger size so it was longer, it was too big around her waist and would fall down. Bike shorts under dresses were also not as practical as she would get hot quicker due to the extra layers.

Choices outside school

I began to pay attention to what my daughter and her other female friends choose to wear when they were not at school: Lots of shorts and pants. Yes, I did see girls wearing dresses and skirts, but it was not as many as shorts and pants. Shorts or pants were often the preferred option for both genders outside school hours.

However, I decided I needed more than my own personal experience and subjective data. I started researching school uniforms to see if I was the only one who had concerns regarding the female uniform options. Through my research, I discovered a wonderful organisation called Girls Uniform Agenda (GUA).

GUA proved to be a treasure trove of resources including multiple peer-reviewed academic papers showing objective research on how female students are more physically active when they are wearing shorts and pants, compared to when they are wearing skirts or dresses. They also have numerous case studies highlighting how limiting female students’ uniform choices to skirts and dresses is outdated and creates other issues.

The problem with skirts and dresses

There are two main categories of issues female students face due to the compulsory wearing of skirt and dress uniforms:

  1. Limitation on physical activity such as spontaneous sport and acrobatic activities, or riding a bike to school.
  2. Modesty implications while walking up stairs, sitting on the floor or navigating a windy day.

Other issues include, but are not limited to, hemline regulation and potential embarrassing situations:

  • Dresses and skirts often have a length requirement that necessities teachers monitoring this, adding another item on a teacher’s neverending to-do list.
  • By nature, dresses and skirts can easily lift up. This can occur when a girl is attempting to be physically active, thus causing embarrassment. On occasion, other students can be tempted to lift dresses and skirts as a way to embarrass the girl too.

Fortunately, there is a straightforward solution: The freedom to choose between a dress, pants or shorts. Allowing female students to wear shorts and pants is an easy and practical solution to the potentially distracting problems female students face every day.

Changing uniform policy

Since February 2017, GUA has been helping girls and their families seek uniform changes that include pants and shorts at their schools. By 2019, GUA had advocated and successfully changed state education policy. It is now Department of Education policy across all public schools in all Australian states and territories that female students be offered a uniform option of pants and shorts for every school day. Some schools have been quick to adopt the policy while others have waited until the change is requested by the parent body. Unfortunately private schools, such as the one my daughter attends, are not compelled to implement the same policy.

To adhere to the new policy, some schools have stated that female students can wear the male students’ uniform, thus allowing them to wear shorts. Research has shown that this is not an adequate option. The male student uniform is not designed for the female student body, particularly students who have entered puberty. The extra material in the groin area and the gaping buttons in the shirt make this an inappropriate option. This option also opens students to bullying and being socially penalised, all because they want to be comfortable when learning.

One evening, my level-headed husband listened as I once again bemoaned the impractically of the female school uniform. He listened as I fretted about how our daughter would be subject to the same outdated and impractical uniforms as I had. I told him again that the simple and obvious solution to this problem was clear: A shorts and pants uniform option. Finally he said, “If it is that important, let’s raise the issue with the school.”

Harder than first thought

It was the beginning of a long campaign. There were more stakeholders than I could have ever imagined: Students, parents, teachers, uniform shop managers, suppliers, committees and school boards. I am fortunate to be working with a principal who is supportive of this change, but I am also learning that there are multiple responses and opinions with any change.

Each of the stakeholders deserves to have their thoughts heard. They all need to have a say in the uniform change. There are so many questions that need answers:

  • What shirt will the female students wear with the shorts in summer?
  • What colour should it be?
  • What pants and shorts would best suit the primary school students?
  • What pants and shorts would best suit the high school students?
  • What type of pockets should there be?
  • How can we streamline the uniform across the school while still providing the female students with an option that allows them to move more freely?

One of the main responses I have received during this process is if girls can wear a “boy’s uniform”, what will happen if a boy wants to wear a girl’s uniform. This question misses the point as I am not advocating for the dress option to be removed. Shorts and pants provide female students an alternative option for those who want to wear it.

The main issues for this uniform change are physical activity and modesty. There is therefore no need to provide male students with the option to wear a dress. Gender identity is a completely different issue.

Hope for school uniforms of the future 

The main reason why I am writing this article anonymously is because the campaign to update the female students’ uniform at my daughter’s school is ongoing. Some parents want their children to wear the same uniform they wore when they attended that school. Some students worry they will be the only girl who wears the new shorts and will be seen as different. Other parents, like me, worry that a new uniform may not fully deliver on comfort and practicality. And if girls end up in culottes, will they really be more active?

I am aware that change in the face of tradition is hard for many people, but equality has also come a long way. Many professions over the years have updated their uniforms. Female nurses no longer wear white dresses. Female police officers are no longer required to wear heels and a skirt. Recent female fashion includes progressive change like corporate slacks and practical pockets.

This gives me hope and renewed energy to keep advocating for my daughter. I know one day she will be able to attend school and fully focus on her schoolwork instead of worrying about her hemline or if her underpants are showing.

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