As more and more schools adopt dress codes, back-to-school shopping is often a rather dull exercise. Polo shirts. Khaki paWhen Bruno Cruz, 12, starts the eighth grade on Sept. 7, he'll be sporting a white polo shirt and either beige or navy-blue pants. He won't be alone. That's the dress code of the private school he attends in Manhattan's Upper West Side.
As Cruz sees it, there's a good side and a bad side to wearing a school uniform.
The downside is that "kids usually like to be themselves and wear what they want to wear instead of being restricted to wearing the dress code," he says. "You don't get to express yourself entirely, because clothes also express who you are."
But it's not all bad, he says. "The good thing about it is that you don't need to worry about what you have to put on in the morning," he says. "It's completely organized."
Also, "I would say that people don't get bullied around for how they look as much because everybody is wearing the same thing."
Uniforms are increasingly becoming the fashion du jour in U.S. classrooms, with more school districts across the nation going the dress-code route.
According to The National Center for Education Statistics Indicators of Crime and Safety: 2010 report, 17.5% of public schools required students to wear uniforms in the 2007-08 school year, the most recent period tracked by the report. That percentage has grown from only 11.8% in the 1999-2000 school year.
With the tepid economic picture, uniforms can help parents cut down on the cost of their kids' year-round wardrobe.
In turn, retailers such as Kmart (SHLD), J.C. Penney (JCP), Old Navy (GPS) and Lands' End are capitalizing on the sales potential during the back-to-school season. They've spotlighted school-uniform clothing from brands such as French Toast, Dickies and Izod.
Saving with Uniformity
French Toast expects to see 5% to 7% growth in its school uniform sales this back-to-school season, Michael Arking, president of FrenchToast.com, tells DailyFinance. The apparel supplier bills itself as the Nike of school uniforms, with a 15% market share in the category. It also claims it's one of the few companies that tracks school-uniform trends.
French Toast --which has a staff solely devoted to marketing uniforms to schools -- sees the movement to adopt dress codes gaining momentum in school-board meetings across the country.
"Economically, parents are seeing the benefit of a school uniform," Arking says. "For $120, they can buy an entire French Toast wardrobe of about 11 clothing items," for example.
By contrast, average shoppers will spend an estimated $236.70 on clothing and accessories (excluding shoes) this back-to-school season, according the National Retail Federation and BIGresearch's Consumer Intentions and Actions survey.
School-uniform costs have come down significantly in recent years as the business -- once dominated by local uniform stores selling expensive options -- has expanded to big chains, which carry similar items at bargain prices.
While a skirt from an independent uniform store might set a parent back $50, a skirt at a mass retailer can go for about $12, Arking says.
Although public schools are the fastest-growing segment of the school-uniform market, more private schools also are adopting dress codes to offset steep tuition costs, he says.
What's more, "we've seen the explosion in toddler-sized uniforms across the country," as day care centers and preschools adopt dress codes, Arking says. That trend has French Toast churning out more mini jumpers and polo dresses.
Safer Schools, Better Grades
As for Cruz's observation that a school dress code helps deter bullying, he may be on to something.
Beyond the savings and the no-fuss appeal of school uniforms, parents also like the idea that dress codes eliminate "label competition," Arking says, noting the peer pressure that kids face to keep up with designer brands and fashion dictates.
That's one reason why, back in 1996, former president Bill Clinton called for the Federal Education Department to distribute manuals about uniform policies to school districts around the country. That helped steamroll the dress-code movement that has been building momentum ever since.
According to the manual, a school-uniform policy has the potential to reduce the violence that can break out when students covet designer clothing, expensive sneakers and other products. It can also prevent gang members from wearing gang clothing, reduce peer pressure, instill students with discipline and even help keep students focused on their work, the manual claims.
Are Dress Codes Hip?
For some kids, school uniforms have even become -- gasp -- cool, with TV shows like Gossip Girl and the Harry Potter movies popularizing the dress-code look in recent years, Arking says.
And these are not your mother's school uniforms. Indeed, fashion trends are increasingly influencing the designs. The result is more stylish items this season, such as ruched polo tops and pants with a skinny-leg fit for girls, and military looks for boys, including shirts with epaulets.
Retailers make it easy for shoppers to find precisely what schools across the country are requiring.
On landsend.com and jcpenney.com, for example, shoppers can look up dress-code requirements for their school district by keying in their state, city and school name at IZODed.com. Then, they can print out a list of colors and items required by their particular school.
School uniforms are becoming a bigger business at J.C. Penney, for one. The department store is partnering with French Toast for the first time this year, and also carries IZOD.
"Demand for school uniforms grows every year as more schools adopt them as a safe, affordable wardrobe option," Kate Coultas, corporate communications senior manager, tells DailyFinance. And "given the current economic environment, value will continue to be top-of-mind for the moderate customer."
To that end, most of J.C. Penney's school uniforms items are the least expensive part of its back-to-school clothing assortment, she says.
"This is becoming a key business for us."