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School uniforms are on the rise — even for toddlers — and it’s changing back-to-school shopping

Walmart, Target and Amazon are selling their own lines of polo shirts, pleated skirts and khakis, while Old Navy has ‘uniform hubs’ in all 1,100 U.S. stores.

Students arrive at KIPP DC charter school in Washington on Jan. 9. (Astrid Riecken for The Washington Post)

It’s back-to-school season, and for Aryana Duplessis, that means stocking up on school uniforms — for her 1-year-old.

Her daughter, Dallas, has been wearing the mandated red shirt and blue bottoms to her New Orleans day care since she was 2 months old. On weekends, the toddler likes to wear colorful rompers and dresses. But during the week, it’s all business.

“I think it’s awesome,” said Duplessis, 38, an insurance agent. “She walks into day care and has an immediate sense of community. She belongs."

Public schools, charters and child-care centers across the country are increasingly requiring uniforms, remaking back-to-school shopping traditions that have long emphasized individuality and self expression. More than 40 percent of public schools and preschools in U.S. cities now use uniforms, government data shows, prompting mainstream retailers to rethink how they stock and market school gear.

Walmart, Target and Amazon are selling their own brands of polo shirts, pleated skirts and khakis for children as young as 2, while Old Navy has created “uniform hubs” in all 1,100 U.S. stores. Carter’s, Kohl’s and H&M also are trying to break into a $1 billion-a-year market long dominated by a handful of specialty brands.

"Every retailer is adapting to the growth of uniforms,” said Matthew Buesing, vice president of customer and digital marketing at French Toast, which sells directly to thousands of schools, as well as to stores such as Target, Costco and Macy’s. “We’ve reached a middle ground where all types of schools — private, public, preschools — are using uniforms.”

School administrators say uniforms are as much about safety and convenience as they are about inclusion. Students feel like they’re part of a team, parents save money, and teachers don’t have to worry about losing sight of them at the playground or on a field trip.

“It helps them learn because they just don’t care about what anybody is wearing — they’re all in red and blue,” said Renatta Thomas, a teacher at Open Minds Open Hearts Daycare in New Orleans, where students ages 2 months to 5 years wear uniforms. The outfits also come in handy, she said, when it’s time to teach children about primary colors.

“At a time when we’re debating who belongs here and who doesn’t, uniforms say, ‘We are all here for the same reason,’ ” said Robyn Silverman, a child and teen development specialist. “There is a very good argument for why we need uniforms in today’s world."

But critics say uniforms stifle creativity and individualism. Requiring toddlers to wear khakis and collared shirts, they say, is part of a broader fast-forwarding of childhood.

“It reflects our culture’s obsession on turning school, even preschool, into work,” said Michael Solomon, a fashion psychologist and marketing professor at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia. “When you put kids in a uniform, you’re saying: ‘Follow the rules. Don’t color outside the lines.’ ”

But for retailers, uniforms represent a growing source of revenue. The lead-up to the school year is a crucial time for the country’s largest chains: It is the second-largest shopping event of the year, behind the holiday season, and sets the stage for the all-important fourth quarter, when many companies make the bulk of their sales.

“We’ve started to see an uptick in uniform searches as early as June,” said Andres Dorronsoro, Old Navy’s senior vice president of merchandising. “It’s a super important time of year, and demand is rising.”

Old Navy this year is selling uniforms in more than 200 sizes, from 2T for toddlers to adult XL. Its newest styles include moisture-wicking polos and stain-resistant pants with reinforced knees. Also increasingly important: accessories such as hairbands, novelty socks and backpacks that help express “the energy of youth,” Dorronsoro said.

In all, Americans are projected to spend $26.2 billion this back-to-school season, down about 5 percent from last year’s $27.5 billion, according to the National Retail Federation. Families with school-age children are expected to spend $697, with the largest chunk — $240 — going toward clothing and accessories.

“There’s been a broader trend toward consumers looking for fewer choices and more simplicity, and school uniforms fit right into that,” said Greg Portell, a partner in the consumer and retail practice of consulting firm A.T. Kearney. As a result, he said, “mainstream retailers are changing their merchandise to meet customer demand. Shoppers aren’t stuck with the same old dowdy uniform anymore."

This year’s varieties include stretchier fabrics, slimmer cuts and built-in sun protection. Lands’ End’s newest “rapid-dry” polo shifts are made with antimicrobial fabric, while Amazon’s line of “soft but tough” children’s uniforms comes with elastic waistbands and reinforced knees. (Jeff Bezos, the founder and chief executive of Amazon, owns The Washington Post.)

At French Toast, Buesing says, the mantra is “uniform but not uniformity.” The company has expanded its options for toddlers in recent years, with polos in bright colors such as pink, teal and orange.

Buesing said the company has had double-digit sales growth the past several years, though he declined to provide specific figures. About 60 percent of its sales take place in July and August, though there is also a spike in January. A year’s worth of uniforms, he said, costs about $125.

“I wouldn’t say our uniforms are becoming ‘fashion forward,’" he said. “But they are more fashionable, if you will.”

Parents say they’re changing how they shop for the school year, too. There are fewer late-summer buying sprees for everyday clothes. Instead they’re buying mandated polos and pants in bulk and splurging on accessories such as sneakers and backpacks.

“It used to be we’d go to the mall and buy 10 outfits for school,” said Sarah Blevins, whose 8- and 10-year-olds will wear uniforms for the first time this year to their public school in Dothan, Ala. “Now the focus is on finding the perfect backpack and tennis shoes.”

Order and unity

In the Cilenti household, this year’s shopping list is as predictable as ever: White polo shirts, navy pants, black shoes.

Geanine Cilenti makes those purchases online before school starts. When she does take her children, ages 8 and 12, to the store, it’s only for backpacks. Back-to-school shopping, she says, is no longer about impulse buys. It’s about the practical.

“We buy other clothes throughout the year, but those things are like, okay, whatever,” said Cilenti, an events producer who lives in the Bronx. “The uniform is what’s most important for us.”

Uniforms made their way into big-city public schools in the late 1980s with the promise that they would curb gang violence and crime. They were also seen as way to mask socioeconomic disparities. “If it means that teenagers will stop killing each other over designer jackets, then our public schools should be able to require their students to wear school uniforms,” President Bill Clinton said in his State of the Union address in 1996.

By 2015, 75 percent of the District’s public schools required uniforms, particularly in areas with high poverty rates.

In the years since, their popularity has trickled down to preschools and day cares, tapping into a growing desire for order and unity among school administrators. Uniforms, teachers say, have become a no-nonsense way to stave off distractions. In all, 26 percent of U.S. students wore uniforms last year, up from 18 percent a decade earlier, according to Prosper Insights & Analytics.

At ABC Montessori in McDonough, Ga., students from 18 months old to 18 years old are required to wear a navy or white shirt, and navy or khaki bottoms. School administrators say uniforms promote equality and cut costs because parents can buy one set of clothes for the year without having to worry about coordinating outfits or designer labels.

“Uniforms are a powerful tool,” said Chase Hardin, the school’s director of operations. “They make students feel included and allow them to focus on what they’re here to do: learn.”

But not all parents are on board. Monique Pichardo says she was taken aback by the sight of toddlers in matching khakis and polos during a recent day-care search for her 1-year-old daughter, Mila.

“That just seemed really strict for little kids,” said Pichardo, 32, an accountant in San Antonio. “She’s a baby."

Pichardo said she prefers to dress her daughter in bright colors and big hair bows. Plus, Mila has her favorites, too.

“She likes a lot of flashy stuff — fuzzy clothes, stuff with animals on it,” Pichardo said. “She definitely has an opinion, and I don’t want to take that away.”