Dennis Uniform images
A brochure from the 1960s shows a modern motif in school uniforms.
Dennis Uniform images
A brochure from the 1960s shows a modern motif in school uniforms.
Since the early days of universities, scholars have worn uniform clothing. But unlike school uniforms today – the khaki pants, blazers and plaid jumpers — the first youngsters to wear uniforms were orphans who attended charity schools in England, where attire was plain and dark, a mark of humility. The pleated plaids seen in many students’ uniforms today originate from the tartan kilts of the Scottish, eventually associated with British aristocracy and military.

It wasn’t until the 1960s that uniforms became the norm in American Catholic schools, which some educators believe equalize social classes and foster a studious environment. These days, uniforms programs are common in private and parochial schools, and even in a portion of independent and public schools.

Despite sometimes-outrageous fashion trends in this country, school uniform styles have remained mostly untouched – something that is purposeful, according to Thomas Shipley, president of Dennis Uniforms in Portland. That way, students can wear the uniforms year after year, and even pass them down to younger siblings.  

“For kids, the idea is comfort and freedom and decency,” said Shipley, whose grandfather bought the business in the 1920s. “We’re not a fashion house.”

Pleats are also less likely to show wrinkles and stains, an important factor for kids’ clothes, he added.

Dennis Uniform converted to a school uniform manufacturer after World War II, and since then students at elite schools all over the country have been walking into their classrooms wearing clothes made in Portland.

Despite the focus on consistency, designers at Dennis do make small modifications to patterns so they stay fresh and modern.

To stay competitive, the uniform company does listen to and respond to customers’ requests. But unlike most clothing companies, they have to please multiple customers with different agendas: parents, students and the school administrators who create uniform policies.

Currently, Dennis is dropping waistlines so pants and skirts sit on the natural waist. They’ve also designed a modern pant for boys, and soon girls, without pleats.

Trends are also different regionally. For instance, in the Southeastern states, schools want crisper fabrics than those in other parts of the country. 

Once, uniforms were made of wool. That has changed. Over the years, the clothes have been constructed from a variety of acrylic fibers, like Orlon, but now everything is polyester. Unlike their grandparents’ polyesters, students’ fabric today is soft to the touch.

A rebirth in demand for products made in the U.S. by small independent companies has been a boon for Dennis, which has manufactured its products in a factory under the Hawthorne Bridge in Portland for more than 60 years.