Remember when three words – back to school – could cast a cloud over an otherwise perfect sunny September morning? Yes, it’s that time of year again but this time it’s adults, not children, who should kit themselves out in cherry red, royal blue, navy, bottle green, charcoal and purple – the fashionable palette for this autumn/winter.
These colours are synonymous with school uniforms but it’s using them in familiar, sometimes jarring combinations that is the key to this season’s look. On the Balenciaga catwalk it was grey mixed with a bolt of royal blue, burgundy and navy gymslip dresses at Victoria Beckham’s Victoria line, along with an oversized tailoring trend that made outerwear at Céline and Pringle look like something your mother promised you would “grow into” every September.
Fashion insiders give a multitude of reasons for the emergence of school uniform colours in the month we are suffering from back-to-school blues.
“Back-to-school colours that appear at first glance to be quite sombre – such as claret, navy and grey – are understated, chic and above all useful,” says Amanda MacMillan, in-house stylist at British clothing group Boden. “Classic tailored shapes and ‘honest’ fabrics offer nostalgic reassurance during a time when so many institutions we’ve taken for granted are in a state of flux.”
One of Boden’s current bestsellers is a bouclé pencil skirt, known as Notre Dame (£79). While being very convent school in its sobriety, it can be sexed up with high heels in the style of a saucy St Trinian’s sixth former. “As adults, school uniform staples have a playful appeal,” MacMillan says. “We’ve tweaked our blazer in a way that would definitely get you a detention.”
Ruth Chapman, chief executive and co-founder of online retailer Matches, says: “I think school uniform colours work right now because they’re comforting and evoke memories of more carefree times.” The uniform trend always has undercurrents. Take the pleated skirts at JW Anderson and Thom Dolan.”
Angela Gilbey, design director of Coppernob, a British high street supplier to more than 20 commercial chains including Debenhams and Wallis, says: “After a summer of fizzy prints and bland pastels, these colours come as a relief.”
“There’s currently a strictness to fashion, and shades such as aubergine can take embellishment without looking crazy,” she adds. “When you mix Lurex into royal blue, you get classic with a twist. It’s very Kate Middleton. We’re so used to seeing photos of her in her bottle-green British prep school uniform that we feel she’s very much the inspiration behind this trend.”
But before starting a moodboard of old school photos, remember that the look owes more to regulation colours and the way they are deliberately clashed than to singling out pastiche pieces, such as a pinstripe blazer.
Severe shapes also provide a foil to more decorative pieces. A grey V-neck cashmere jumper or white shirt will offset a brocade skirt or trousers with an optical print, while an aubergine pleat skirt would smarten up a quirky knit jumper.
The poster girl for how sixth-form-inspired pieces can anchor a wardrobe is TV presenter and former model Alexa Chung. She knows that combining gymslip-style dresses, boyish jumpers and loafers with more statement pieces means she’ll never look overdressed. Another way to look modern is with traditional items such as brogues or satchel bags in unexpected colours rather than textbook brown.
Paul Baptiste, operations director for The Shop at Bluebird, on London’s Kings Road, thinks that unexpected finishes bring the look up to date. He says: “The contrasts in colour and fabric, such as pony skin and felty wool used on the same blazer at Céline, with that club stripe colour inspired by a school tie, mixed with the practicality of the hard-wearing grey marl school pant, is very now.”
Baptiste sees the look as “a continuation of the new minimalism, which began with Céline and Balenciaga”.
David Sanderson, managing director of Scottish knitwear brand Hawick Cashmere, says provenance is crucial. “A designer came to us recently wanting womenswear versions of traditional menswear shapes. ‘Not too fluffy’ were words he used. We replicated modern classics for him from traditional vintage styles.”
Burgundy, maroon, tartan green and navy continue to be the label’s bestsellers along with a boyfriend V-neck sweater with elbow patches made from Swarovski crystal.” As Sanderson puts it, “it’s simple, cool and luxurious. This is the new fashion uniform.”
Swot up on collegiate clothing with Ivy Style, a new exhibition dedicated to the preppy look at the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) in New York, writes Lucy Garside. Curator Patricia Mears says the show will explore “the look’s history and illustrate the connections to the contemporary Ivy Style we see today”.
The look actually began in Britain when Savile Row tailoring and dandyish Oxbridge students inspired American brands such as J Press and Brooks Brothers to make the English aesthetic their own; less structure, more comfort. These looks were then interpreted by students at Harvard, Yale and Princeton.
“After the second world war, Ivy style began to incorporate elements of dress from a new demographic of college students, mainly working-class GIs, and its appeal spread beyond the campus to a diverse population including jazz musicians,” says Mears. “Nearly all male collegians wore the same basics.” Think button-down shirts, khakis, crew-neck sweaters, penny loafers, duffel coats, sports jackets, blazers and seersucker.
Between the 1960s and 1980s, Ivy style was deemed stuffy, but now it’s the defining aesthetic of US fashion brands Ralph Lauren and Tommy Hilfiger, and has been modernised by Thom Browne and Band of Outsiders. As Mears puts it: “It has thrived for decades because it is so brilliantly distilled and perfected that its elements can be tweaked and even upended without losing its distinctive, spirited essence.”