As soon as “Fresh Prince” Will Smith arrived at his buttoned-down private school, he began breaking the rules — starting by flipping his conservative uniform blazer inside out to reveal a funky-fab paisley liner that distinguished him in a sea of prep school blue.
Years later, crisp khakis and starched tartans have migrated from the exclusive uniform of private academies to fill public school hallways. And like Smith before them, students are looking for ways to stand out and punch up their school standard issues.
This fall, trendy wedge shoes, colorful tights and versatile scarves pair with a growing body of style-conscious uniform designs to let girls express themselves while sticking to school dress codes.
Boys, meanwhile, can play around with different belt designs and layering — slipping a short sleeved polo shirt over a button down, for instance — to add a unique twist to conservative duds.
Uniform-inspired style is a design favorite that frequently pops up on runways: Veronique Branquinho’s Fall 2008 line, for example, features V-neck, drop-waist nylon dresses paired with turtlenecks and faux leather leggings in an edgy ode to school girls.
About 14 percent of school principals surveyed by the National Center for Education Statistics reported that their students wore uniforms in the 2005-2006 school year. Those who push for the requirement are more interested in student performance than style, and argue students who aren’t busy comparing designer labels are more likely to get higher marks.
It’s not all bad news for the fashion-conscious student though, according to Larry Plitnick, executive vice president of sales at L.T. Apparel. Their French Toast brand is a go-to label for uniforms.
Gone are the one-dimensional uniforms of the past he says, replaced with a widening array of styles as companies respond to a growing market.
“Over the last five years we’ve started to see more and more creativity come into the uniform business,” Plitnick says. “We’ve been able to be more creative — the customer is definitely buying into it (and) the schools are accepting.”
It’s translated into flourishes like cell phone pant pockets for boys; the company is also taking a cue from the runways and making pant silhouettes slimmer.
“In jumpers, we’re able to put a little buckle treatment and belt treatment — nothing ostentatious but nice looking,” says Plitnick, who adds the subtle changes go a long way to making girls’ uniforms more feminine and attractive.
Perhaps the biggest change from years past, though, is the array of uniform pieces.
Where in the ’90s, options for girls were primarily skirts or jumpers, Plitnick says skorts have taken off as a more comfortable alternative. Now stores are benefiting as parents buy more pieces, and students have more to mix and match, he says.
J.C. Penney’s has responded this season with a skimmer uniform pant for girls, a length midway between Bermuda and cropped pants that punches things up, says Karolyn Wangstad, vice president of trend for the department store chain.
For students who want more than a subtle change in buckles or skirt styles though, insiders say the trick is transforming low-key accessories into unique style statements.
“One of the key accessory trends this season is scarves,” says Lece Lohr, Tween Brands’ co-president of Justice, a chain store that will also sell the Limited Too brand clothing next year.
“The girls are actually coming in and buying two or three,” she says. “She can double wrap them, she can knot them — she can really have a lot of fun.”
Shoes with wedge heels are replacing ballet flats this fall as a must-have.
“You have to have a new shape, and the wedge really is that shape,” Lohr says. “They work with a lot of different silhouettes, they look great with skirts.”
The leg is another style billboard. Lohr says playfully colored tights can make a student stand out; where color options may be restricted, textures like lace and herringbone also inject style.
For students for whom flashy colors and more fitted blouses aren’t an option, options like puffer vests and oversized blazers make a statement.
Boys may have to be more creative.
“One of the things that we see out and about are boys layering either a T shirt or a couple of polo shirts in different colors,” Wangstad says. “If the school permits it, wearing a long-sleeved T shirt under a short sleeve polo shirt.”
Wangstad says students should see uniforms as a unique chance to stretch their fashion know-how.
But forget about following the Fresh Prince’s example.
“Inside out probably isn’t going to play too well in schools,” she says.