A tale of two cities in uniforms: the story behind green school ties, tartan skirts and blue cheongsams
From Chinese cheongsams to English pleated skirts, we look at how uniforms transcend time in Hong Kong
School uniforms are often caches of bittersweet memories for most former pupils in Hong Kong, where strict dress codes are still largely adopted. That said, uniforms can often reveal a school’s heritage.
Malvern College Hong Kong, set to open this September in Providence Bay, next to the Science Park, has a uniform that dates back to its British roots in 1865, when the mother school was founded in Malvern, an English town in Worcestershire. The school has now established outlets in Qingdao, Chengdu, Egypt and this year, Hong Kong.
Dr Robin Lister, the founding headmaster of Malvern College Hong Kong, says the choice of colour and pattern in the uniform was well thought of, to convey the school’s “Britishness”.
“Well, the British Racing Green is a very ‘English’ colour that used to dominate the motor racing circuits of the 1950s, 60s and beyond,” he says.
He recalls boys used to wear straw boater-like hats, while prefects would dress up with tailcoats, top hats and canes on Sundays, before the outfits were retired in 1965.
Boys now wear a blue blazer with a full-coloured crest, and for formal occasions such as the end of term assemblies and prize giving ceremonies, it is compulsory for boys from the lower school to wear the charcoal grey school suit, the school tie and polished black shoes. Older pupils can opt for black, dark grey or navy blue suits with a faint pinstripe.
The girls’ dress code is very similar to the boys’ – with the staple white shirt and school suit – except the tartan pinafore dress which is redolent with a Scottish heritage is often associated with “toughness, resilience and practicality”, Lister says. The girls’ uniform has not changed since the school turned co-educational in 1992.
“We believe that being smart and presentable is a natural ally of being polite and well-mannered. It gives a young person stability and confidence, knowing what is expected, particularly in terms of behaviour,” says Lister, who joined Malvern in 1989.
While most part of the school’s uniform resembles its British counterpart’s, Lister says it has been adapted to Hong Kong’s climate. For instance, short-sleeved shirts are allowed for boys in the summer and they need not wear always their jackets, like their peers in Britain. The sports kit is designed for Hong Kong’s humidity, so the fabric “breathes”, is lightweight, and doesn’t absorb moisture.
The college’s British origins are conspicuous in the school crest too, which features three circles with wavy patterns representing the flowing waters around the Malvern Hills, and five smaller circles that mirror the area’s freshwater wells. A gryphon sits on a warrior’s helmet to denote “strength, leadership and military courage”.
If green plaid skirts exude “Britishness”, then what would be the classic form of Hong Kong’s own home-grown school uniform?
The cheongsam is the most iconic, according to Paul Lam, who has been making schoolwear for pupils for more than half a century.
Since he founded Kam Lun (Paul Lam) Tailors in 1961, the 89-year-old tailor has witnessed an evolution in students’ attire under cultural influences – from the classic white dress to the then-coveted blue-and-white sailor outfit that he introduced from Japan.
It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to call the cheongsam the living fossil of Hong Kong’s uniform. About 15 schools in Hong Kong tell pupils to wear it to school at present, some of which are traditional institutions that have been established for over 100 years.
The long and close-fitting cut of the cheongsam limits the wearer’s strides and makes pupils behave more decently, Lam says, explaining why the dress often invokes a sense of modesty.
Specialised sifus make cheongsams, and need skilled workers to punch in the snap buttons to secure the front piece.
“While buttons are usually fixed by machines for shirts, each snap button on a cheongsam requires handcraft,” Lam says. “We have to truck all the dresses to public housing estates and have old hands there work on them.”
The cheongsam also has an historic meaning as it was the first school uniform to be introduced in Hong Kong.
Uniforms didn’t appear in Hong Kong schools until 1918, when St Paul’s Co-educational College, (then called St Paul’s Girls’ College when it was founded in 1915), introduced its two-piece cheongsam set featuring white plain tops with matching pants or skirts. The wide sleeves and loose-fitting bottoms were prominent in women’s clothing during the early years of the Republic of China.
Nearly a century later, girls in the now co-educational school go to school in a royal blue one-piece cheongsam, which inherits the simplicity of its predecessor, sans any embellishing detail except the metal school badge pinned under the navy blue collar.
School uniforms are often seen as a social equaliser that reduces the disparity between the disadvantaged and the privileged in a classroom. This was especially true in the history of St Stephen’s Girls’ College.
Founded in 1906, almost a decade earlier than St Paul’s, St Stephen’s Girls’ College did not introduce its uniform until 22 years later. During its early years, it was common to see girls from better backgrounds showing up to class in sedan chairs escorted by servants, and dressed in the fine silks that most pupils could not afford.
In 1928, one pupil stepped up to rectify the situation. In the belief that every girl should be spared differential treatment or peer comparison because of outward appearances, she proposed to the school board a standardised outfit for every girl. She even designed the cheongsam herself.
This pupil later became Hong Kong’s first female member of the Legislative Council, Dr Ellen Li Tso Sau-kwan.
The design of cheongsam uniforms hasn’t altered much since – apart from taking on a more waist-hugging style – but schools offer their own interpretation of this commonly blue uniform. Ying Wa Girls’ School, for instance, moved the 6mm-wide stitched rim 4mm away from the hem to distinguish itself from its peers.
Tong Yu Sheung-woon, the first principal of Maryknoll Fathers’ School went a step further by departing from the usual royal blue and designed a white-rimmed powder blue dress as the school’s summer uniform. Its winter equivalent is long-sleeved in navy, also with a white rim.
The materials went through a makeover in the late 1960s. In the 50s, nearly all cheongsams were made in pure cotton for comfort. However, cotton was prone to shrink and deform, and required starching and ironing to harden the material and create crisp lines. This could mean more work for parents, and a higher exhaust rate in the uniform. For this reason, the wrinkle-resistant and stronger Dacron later prevailed in the late 1960s as the common dress fabric.