A uniform approach to documenting Catholic school education

By Debbie Schaefer-Jacobs
Photo two nuns walk with a line of students. The girls, at the front of the line, wear white dresses and have headbands on. The boys, in the back of the line, wear blue suits. They're on a sidewalk outside a building.

Over the past few months, I have been cataloging a Catholic school uniform and related Catholic school material for the museum's education collection. With Easter fast approaching, this process had led me to reflect on the role parochial schools played in the history of American education.

Photo two nuns walk with a line of students. The girls, at the front of the line, wear white dresses and have headbands on. The boys, in the back of the line, wear blue suits. They're on a sidewalk outside a building.

The uniform in question is a navy blue jumper with matching bow tie, beanies, socks, and a white blouse. The donation also included a couple of schoolbooks used at St. Francis Xavier Catholic School in Washington, D.C., from 1962-1964 and a pencil box (depicted in a previous blog post). The jumper was manufactured by Bendinger Brothers, a Philadelphia firm established in 1953, when parochial schools were beginning to peak in popularity. Creating appropriate school attire had by then developed from a small cottage industry to a major business. This uniform is a typical example of early 1960s Catholic school student attire.

Photo of a navy and white school uniform with letters "SFX" on it

Catholic missionary schools, seminaries, and convent academies were among the earliest teaching institutions in the country. However, the American Catholic school system developed primarily as a response to violent anti-Catholic sentiments in the 1830s and a desire to reinforce Catholic teaching in a religiously diverse country. Nativist hostility was sparked by the rise of Irish immigration to New York, Philadelphia, and Boston. When disagreements erupted over the Protestant-based public school curriculum and prohibited use of the Douay-Rheims Bible, American Catholics turned to their church to establish an alternative education system. By the time large numbers of Southern and Eastern European Catholics arrived in the 1880s, parochial schools were flourishing. The years that followed saw continued anti-Catholic sentiment centering on funding the schools. A power struggle involving funding new schools also ensued within the American Catholic church around English-speaking, diocese-controlled regional schools versus community based, often multilingual, parish-run schools.

Uniforms provided a method of masking obvious class and racial diversity in dress while providing a sense of security, modesty, and freedom of movement, particularly for females. Uniforms were worn in 19th-century convent schools for young ladies and Catholic missionary schools to provide standards of Euro-American dress for children. Catholic asylum schools and industrial schools required children be dressed in sturdy, functional clothing. According to Sally Dwyer-McNulty, author of Common Threads: A Cultural History of Clothing in American Catholicism, by the late 19th and early 20th centuries, boys were often wearing military-style clothing, while girls were wearing simple dresses in a style named after former naval tailor Peter Thompson. These looked like sailor suit dresses for girls, much like this Girl Scout uniform from around 1918 in our collection.

Khaki Girl Scout uniform with four pockets, long sleeves, and lacing at neckline.

In both the late 19th and first half of the 20th centuries, navy or dark cloth skirts or jumpers were paired with a white blouse as well as a tie and collar. While every faith-based school did not require a store-bought uniform, Catholic schools proudly encouraged a unified, neat appearance. By the 1950s, additional choices were available to those who could afford them, such as matching or complementary blazers and cardigans for girls and boys, vests, outerwear, shoes such as Mary Janes, book bags, and belts.

But uniforms changed throughout the 20th century. In the 1940s and 1950s, A-line jumpers in navy were common. Jumpers were also manufactured in burgundy and dark green. As parochial schools became more common, demand for uniforms resulted in brown jumpers paired with yellow-, tan-, and mint-colored blouses by the late 1950s, but the simple navy and white uniform remained the standard style. In the mid-1960s, plaid skirts and blazers replaced jumpers in popularity as Catholic schools appeared in film and television. Material also changed over time, from wools, linens, and cottons to polyester and synthetic blends. Today uniforms are permanent press, wrinkle free, and stain resistant.

Much has been written about the pros and cons of dress codes in maintaining discipline, and the role uniforms play in discouraging vanity, theft of personal property, and distraction from academics. Whether successful or not in promoting positive behavior, uniforms still are the most identifiable feature of American parochial school academic dress and as such are important in documenting an aspect of our nation's educational heritage.

Unfortunately for museums, everyday student attire usually gets recycled, destroyed, or lost in favor of preserving objects associated with special occasion memories.

If you have a uniform or school attire worn by a family member prior to World War II, particularly one associated with an immigrant community parish school, or a plaid uniform worn in the 1960s or 1970s that you would like to share with us, please send a picture of the uniform and your school story to schaeferjacobsd@si.edu. Please do not send any artifacts unless directly instructed to, as we are extremely limited on space. We would love to hear about your school experiences.

Debbie Schaefer-Jacobs is curator of the education collection which includes the Dr. Richard Lodish American School Collection and the Harry T. Peters American on Stone Collection in the Division of Home and Community Life.