From tame tunics to tank tops: there's no uniformity
As school bells ring out across the city every afternoon, a concoction of school uniforms spills on to the streets. Boys in knee-high white socks, ties and blazers jostle for space on the city's trains beside students in low-slung jeans, T-shirts and trendy sneakers.
Girls can be seen window shopping, dressed in everything from the traditional cheongsam or white, belted tunic to tartan skirts and midriff-baring tops.
Whether it's the sailor-style or British-influenced outfits favoured by some elite schools or the modern, casual wear permitted in a handful of more liberal schools, it's clear that what Hong Kong students wear in the classroom is becoming increasingly diverse.
At Logos Academy, a school run by the Hong Kong Chinese Christian Churches, there's not a tie or a pair of long socks in sight. In what many may consider more weekend wear than classroom attire, students wear a polo shirt of any colour, teamed with navy or khaki pants, shorts or skirts.
Principal Paul Yau Yat-heem said the options gave students the chance to express their individuality.
'When you grow older and join the workforce, you have to decide what to wear every morning,' he said. 'We're trying to develop this habit in students so they make the right choice every day. I don't think I should unify them by asking them to wear the same thing.'
Most parents were supportive of the school's flexible dress code, according to parent association chairman Wilfred Leung. Mr Leung said he believed it was cheaper than buying a formal uniform as the children's school clothes could double as casual wear.
'This is much more convenient, it's much easier, and I think the kids like it,' he said.
Clothes design does not usually feature in a principal's job description but Peter Kenny, principal of Renaissance College, played a crucial part in creating the new school's uniform.
He helped design a range of charcoal and tan polo shirts, cargo shorts and skirts that students can mix and match. Students in Years 12 and 13 are not required to wear the uniform.
Mr Kennedy believes students have greater respect for their uniform when it offers a more modern look.
'All the kids love wearing it because it seems to be so contemporary and un-uniform like,' he said, adding that students would help design additional uniform pieces such as a winter jacket and sun hats.
'I hope they come up with a whole range of clothes that can be worn in any sort of combination. It should be practical and they should be happy to wear it,' he said.
Mr Kennedy believes there is often tension between encouraging children to be independent individuals while forcing them to conform to strict uniform rules.
But he also recognises the practical advantages a uniform can provide, such as easing the task of dressing children on busy school mornings.
While Renaissance College students enjoy considerable choice, some international schools give students almost complete control over their school wardrobe.
French International School and Hong Kong International School (HKIS) let students decide their attire.
The principal of French International, Francois Genu, said there was no discussion over whether the school should have a uniform as students in France had not worn uniforms since the 1950s. He said learning that different occasions called for different outfits helped students develop their social skills.
'It's part of the creation of the personality when you understand that when you go to the beach you don't wear the same thing as you wear to school,' he said. The school tried to ensure students were represented by good behaviour, rather than a uniform, when on school trips.
A liberal uniform policy may be in the interests of individuality but not everyone agrees that students should be given such free rein.
Heung To Middle School principal Wong Chung-leung believes uniform is an important part of a school's culture.
Prefects and teachers are in charge of making sure students comply with the uniform rules - boys are not allowed to have long hair; girls must wear long hair tied back; hair dye and gel are not allowed.
Mr Wong acknowledged that the uniform was 'very traditional' but he said it presented a 'good look'.
'When we have morning assembly or lunch activities, the uniform will show an identity and the feeling is that we're the same under the school culture,' he said.
The uniform for Marymount Secondary School students may differ considerably from that of Heung To, but similar reasoning is behind both schools' choice of uniform.
Marymount principal Veronica Ma Kit-ching said the aim of the senior uniform - white short-sleeved shirts, blue and white skirts and black court shoes - was to make students look like young professionals. Junior students can choose between a turquoise or yellow dress, worn with socks and shoes.
Ms Ma is a firm believer that a uniform can promote pride and unity, as well as saving her students time when dressing for school.
'I think our uniform makes our students stand out because it's very different from other schools,' she said. 'I think what's special about our uniform is that we do give them a choice.'
Form six student Stephanie Teng Sze-ting, 17, said she liked the senior uniform because it was comfortable and represented the senior students' role in the school.
'It makes you feel older and more mature. It's like taking on a new responsibility because we're the student leaders of the school this year,' she said. 'I think it's a nice transition period, moving onto another stage in your life.'
While there are no detailed rules regarding hair dye, nail polish and jewellery, Ms Ma said the girls knew they were not encouraged. 'We just advise our girls that they should know what's proper,' she said.
At West Island School, it's not unusual to see students sporting brightly painted finger nails and arms jangling with bangles.
Students are allowed to dye their hair - as long as it's not an 'unnatural colour', according to principal Jane Foxcroft.
Ms Foxcroft said the uniform, which features checked shirts worn over shorts or 'skorts' (a combination of a skirt and shorts for girls), was designed for a warm climate. 'We've tried to strike a balance between what's going to be cool for them but what is also going to provide an element of conformity,' she said.
Students in years 12 and 13 are not required to wear the uniform but offensive clothing, such as T-shirts with inappropriate slogans, is not allowed.
While dangly earrings are not permitted due to safety concerns, other jewellery is allowed.
'I think we have to recognise that all students want to experiment ... the school needs to provide structures in which they can do that up to a point but they have to recognise they're representing the school,' Ms Foxcroft said.
The international nature of the school's population meant parents often had different ideas about school uniform.
'We will get some more traditional Hong Kong parents who might wish us to have a stricter dress code in the upper school and other parents, maybe from Australia or the UK, who are very keen for it to remain liberal,' she said. 'We try to be aware of the cultural feelings of both the students and the parents.'