Trooping the (School) Colour

Australian School Cadet Uniforms and Masculine Identities during the Second World War



How to Cite

Barnsdale, L. (2023). Trooping the (School) Colour: Australian School Cadet Uniforms and Masculine Identities during the Second World War. M/C Journal, 26(1).
Vol. 26 No. 1 (2023): uniform
Published 2023-03-14


Throughout the early and mid-twentieth century, cadet training was a feature of many secondary schools and educational establishments across Australia, with countless young men between the ages of 14 and 18 years of age undergoing military training, ostensibly in preparation for service in Australia’s armed forces upon their coming of age. Unlike earlier in the century, when cadet training was mandatory for all males within the relevant age range, during the Second World War cadet detachments could only be formed and maintained by secondary schools for pupils attending those schools. Additionally, the Australian Army provided so little financial support to school cadet detachments during the conflict that schools had to rely on the parents of their pupils to purchase their sons’ not inexpensive cadet uniforms, with a result that only a limited number of schools could afford to maintain a cadet detachment, and almost every schools that could do so made enrolment in their detachments voluntary for their pupils. Counterbalancing these material obstacles, however, was the threat of the ongoing conflict and the demands for trained soldiers both overseas and within Australia, which resulted in school cadet training becoming increasingly popular between 1939 and 1945, with many schools across Australia either establishing new cadet detachments or expanding their existing cadet detachments in order to contribute to their nation’s war effort.

Not only did the Second World War increase the number of cadet detachments among educational establishments, but cadet training became more diverse and varied both within and between schools. Owing to their preoccupation with maintaining both the Australian Imperial Force and a defence force against a potential invasion of Australia, the Australian Army’s supervision of and contribution to cadet training became more sporadic than it had been in peacetime. As a result, school headmasters became increasingly powerful in their discretion to direct the cadet training that went on at their schools, with the Australian Army providing little to no input to or supervision of the day-to-day training at the myriad of cadet detachments across the nation. This state of affairs allowed schools, and the educators who ran them, an unprecedented amount of freedom to enact their own idealised version of military training through their cadet detachments, resulting in a diverse range of training syllabi, organisational practices, and uniforms. Unlike in other nations such as New Zealand, Australian schools’ cadet uniforms were not issued by the Australian Army, but instead were designed and purchased by the individual cadet detachments, with the Australian Army only providing official recognition and partial funding for the designs. Under this system, Australian schools designed a diverse range of uniforms for their cadet detachments, tailoring them to suit their individual conceptions of what cadet training should contain and how a cadet detachment should appear. This resulted in cadet detachments clad in uniforms that reflected the ideals of the schools to which they were attached, with the training practices and identities of a school reflected in the design of its cadet uniform. This article will examine two prevalent influences behind the design of Australian school cadet uniforms during the Second World War – the competing prioritisation of smartness and practicality, and the range of identities and loyalties which schools attempted to inculcate in their pupils. In the process, it will be argued that these variations in cadet uniform designs reflect the diversity of practices and ideology within male secondary education in Australia during the 1940s.

Uniforms for Purpose

Despite the limitations imposed by wartime shortages, a school’s priorities for their cadet training could still be expressed through their design of uniforms. For many, the range of priorities can be summarised as a split between smartness and toughness. Some establishments designed their cadet uniforms on traditional ideals of rigid sartorial orderliness, tailoring them to be pleasing to the eye when paraded in public. Others disregarded smartness in favour of hard-wearing uniforms more suited to rigorous physical training under a variety of climactic conditions, emphasising comfort and durability above appearance.

Schools did not openly state that their choice of uniform was motivated by a desire to have their cadets appear impressive on the parade ground. However, many voiced their praise for their cadet detachments’ appearances in public parades. One example of this can be found in the June 1940 edition of Terrace, the magazine of Christian Brothers’ College Gregory Terrace, in which the cadet training column finished by proudly declaring that “the appearance of the cadets and their military bearing called forth expressions of praise from all who saw them marching in the Corpus Christi procession at NC” (“G.T. Corps Jottings” 5). Similar evidence of a school’s prioritisation of smartness and presentability in their cadet training can also be found in numerous contemporary descriptions of cadet training by the cadets themselves. One anonymous pupil at Sydney Church of England Grammar School described the hardships that the school’s cadets faced in maintaining their uniforms – a khaki combination of woollen slouch hat, tunic with brass buttons, brown leather ‘Sam Browne’ belt and trousers with a blue stripe down each leg. In a lengthy poem describing many aspects of school life, the pupil’s ‘Song of Shore’ described how “of each cadet the heart is set on being clean and smart; A fleck of dust, a speck of rust, will break his sergeant's heart” (‘A Song of Shore’ 131). These demands for cleanliness and smartness weighed heavily on a cadet, with the author lamenting how “he cleans his boots, he cleans his belt, he cleans his bits of brass: his Brasso goes to chapel and his Kiwi into class; but still they say, ‘Put it away! To Friday drill you go!’ And button-sticks in period six are dangerous things to show” (‘A Song of Shore’ 131). Given that this context of uniform maintenance is the only description of cadet training in this poem, the emphasis placed on sartorial orderliness at schools such as Sydney Church of England Grammar School was clearly strong enough to eclipse all other aspects of training in the eyes of those subjected to it.

Uniforms designed to visually impress, however, often wore out quite quickly under the harsh conditions of cadet training. One cadet at Geelong College noted how after an afternoon of instruction on the school oval in “a comfortable spot in the rain and wind … my well-tailored uniform is sopping with either sweat or rain according to the consistent weather of these parts. My chin-strap has lost all its flavour and generally I feel most inefficient” (“Chank” 31). The short life of stylistically-prioritised uniforms was often exacerbated by the difficulty of obtaining replacement items of clothing under wartime conditions. In 1941, the cadet uniforms of Hale School, Western Australia – presented in fig. 1 and consisting of slouch hat, woollen khaki tunic, Khaki drill breeches and tall leather gaiters – had been reduced in number and quality to such an extent that one boy described the process of selecting uniforms at the beginning of each year as “scramble day”, when, “after trying on various clothing you begin to wonder how many deformed people were in the corps before you” (“Lance-Corporal” 96). The cadet elaborated by lamented how “pick[ing] out the right hat is like winning the Charities, and all you can do is to hope for the best next year” (“Lance-Corporal” 96), and “on being issued with your hat badge you will say confidently, ‘Well, at least this must fit.’ But don't be optimistic; it is sure to have the clip missing” (“Lance-Corporal” 97). The shortage of serviceable uniforms became so acute that by 1943 the annual ‘Cadet Notes’ article in the school’s magazine The Cygnet announced that “it would be greatly appreciated if Old Boys who have any part of a uniform, would make it available” (“Cadets” Cygnet 20). This sentiment was echoed the following year by an anonymous cadet’s cartoon (fig. 2), highlighting the deplorable state of the school’s cadet uniforms after so many years of use, with frayed hems, baggy seams, and, most significantly, a severe shortage of sizes which fitted the average cadet (“Uniforms for ‘B’ Company” 74). This, when compared with the formal photographs of cadets published by the school in an earlier edition of the Cygnet, seen in fig. 1, gives a clear indication of the disparity between the image that schools intended to project and the and that which cadets perceived.

Fig. 1: Hale School cadet uniforms as presented by the school in 1939 (“Officers and N.C.Os.” 55)

Fig. 2: Hale School cadet uniforms as perceived by a cadet in 1944 (“Uniforms for ‘B’ Company” 74)

For many schools, however, the ideal cadet uniform was simple, easily-maintained and durable, often drawing inspiration from contemporary, rather than traditional, military uniforms. When designing a uniform for their newly-established cadet detachment in 1939, Brisbane Boys’ College stated categorically that “the first consideration was smartness” and that “the preservation of that smartness will be the duty of every cadet” (“Cadet Corps” 41). However, while other schools chose stiff and heavy woollen cadet uniforms, the committee appointed by the College to decide on a uniform opted for a light combination of felt hat, khaki drill jacket, and shorts, “similar in design to that of the Darwin Mobile Force”, a new Australian Army formation created the previous year intended to defend Australia’s northern coastline from invasion, “which looked so smart when that force marched through the city early in the year” (“Cadet Corps” 41-42). When further explaining their choice, the College argued that “shorts, we consider, are more serviceable for the Queensland climate” (“Cadet Corps” 42). Brisbane Boys’ College was not the only establishment to be impressed by new military formations and their heralding of a new form of warfare. Newcastle Boys’ High School’s cadet uniform deviated from those of other schools’ cadet detachments by including a navy blue beret in place of the ubiquitous felt ‘slouch hat’. This choice of headwear, coupled with the School’s unusual decision to replace the normal khaki items of clothing with a field grey battledress-style jacket and slacks, was so similar to that worn by the armoured divisions both in Australia and Britain that when the Newcastle Sun published a picture of four Newcastle cadets wearing their new uniforms, they jocularly warned their readers that “these are not members of the Tank Corps” (“High School Cadet Corps” 7). Evidently, while some schools opted for a more traditionally smart design for their cadet uniforms, others chose to emulate more modern military uniform designs, even to the point where their uniforms lost all similarity to those traditionally worn by cadet detachments in Australia.

It was not through the emulation of contemporary Australian Army uniforms that schools implemented practical uniform components in place of stylish ones. When several independent Roman Catholic schools in New South Wales applied to form cadet units and intended to adopt cadet uniforms in a variety of colours with brimless, forage cap headdress, Australia’s Military Board directed Captain McConnel, the Staff Officer Commanding Senior Cadets for New South Wales, “to invite schools again to reconsider the uniforms they have submitted with a view to their adoption of the Australian Hat and Khaki materials” (McConnel 1). McConnel acknowledged that “particular uniforms are not stipulated”, but claimed “khaki to be most suitable and economical for field training while the Australian Hat gives greater protection from the sun”, which was a factor of “considerable importance” as “work in the open is one of the main objects of cadet training” (McConnel 1). However, despite McConnel’s emphatic pleas to the institutions to reconsider their uniforms, only two of the eleven schools chose to alter their uniforms to suit the Military Board’s recommendations. The remainder either compromised by retaining their forage caps but adopting McConnel’s recommendation of using khaki material for their uniforms, or, as was the case with Marist Brothers’ High School, Darlinghurst, wrote in response to McConnel’s letter stating that they found “no reason for altering the design initially submitted”, and persisted with their application (Frederic 1). This case demonstrates that while dispassionate logic could motivate schools to design practical uniforms resistant to the wear and tear produced by strenuous outdoor cadet training in the Australian climate, these considerations were often outweighed by the subjective ideological motivations behind educators’ desires to adopt attractively smart cadet uniforms that were expensive and ill-suited to physical training. Evidently, educators’ personal desires to make their cadets, and as a result their schools, appear impressively smart and orderly were a powerful motivation behind not only their choice of uniform but also their support for cadet training in its entirety. These motivations could and frequently did outweigh practical considerations, to the point where the appearance of a cadet detachment, and thereby that of the cadet detachment’s school, was considered more important than the training it provided.

Uniforms as Identity

The division between concepts of cadet training held by the Australian Army and the highly diverse forms of training practiced by individual schools extended beyond differences of opinion over the relative merits of smartness and practicality expressed by cadet uniforms. A cadet uniform not only reflected educators’ intentions regarding the contents of their training, but also reflected the values of the group identity they wished to immerse their boys in, and the overarching group to which this identity owed its loyalty. The best example of uniforms reflecting a cadet detachment’s loyalty can be seen in the widespread adoption of uniforms that emulated Australian Army uniforms almost exactly. Although Australian cadet detachments were not issued with official Service Dress uniforms until 1945, many detachments’ uniforms emulated the Service Dress’s design and material down to the ubiquitous wide-brimmed ‘slouch hat’ or ‘Australian hat’ worn by the Australian Army in both the First and Second World Wars. Brother RJ McCartney, “the nominal C.O.” of the cadet detachment at Christian Brothers’ College Ipswich, specifically described his detachment’s uniform to the Queensland Times in 1944 as “similar to that issued to Army personnel” after declaring that “the training [cadets] receive will be most useful to them should they join one of the fighting forces later” (“95 Boys” 2). The popularity of this design cannot be attributed solely to the arguments made by the Military Board for its practicality, and the symbolic power of these uniforms raised the cadet detachments from insular, extra-curricular organisations to a unified whole, connected to the Commonwealth’s war effort through their uniforms and the martial identities they espoused.

Fig. 3: A contemporary drawing of Brisbane Boys’ College cadet badge from 1939 (“Cadet Corps” 42)

Not all Australian educational establishments, however, chose to emulate the Australian Army uniform in their cadet detachments’ uniforms, with many adopting uniforms that emphasised school or local identities above national identity. Most schools expressed their local identity through the implementation of school colours in their hat bands or ‘puggaree’ or designed insignia for their cadet uniforms based on school insignia. The cadet detachment at Brisbane Boys College adopted a badge that was nearly identical to the College badge, seen in fig. 3, albeit with a crown in place of the book (“Cadet Corps” 42). This alteration brought the design into alignment with common practice in military insignia, but it could also be viewed as symbolic representation of the difference between the College and the cadet detachment – whereas the College’s primary objective was to educate, the cadet detachment’s objective was to instil a sense of patriotism and duty.

The most prominent examples of schools deviating in this manner can be found among Presbyterian schools, many of which chose to emphasise their Scottish ancestry instead of their Australian nationality. One such school was Scotch College in Claremont, Western Australia, where in August 1939, after “several unsuccessful attempts to secure a uniform dress for the cadets”, “the corps fitted out with uniforms which made the boys look like trained soldiers … which consisted of a Cameron kilt, with a kangaroo-skin sporran, a khaki tunic and glengarrie [sic]” (“Cadets” Scotch 16), which gave the detachment the appearance of a highland regiment of the British Army. After being issued with their new uniforms and instructed on their wearing, an event that was satirically recalled later that year by a cadet asking the headmaster what was worn beneath the kilt, the cadets were addressed by the school’s headmaster Mr Anderson, who “mention[ed] the fine example set by our predecessors, which example, he knew, we would endeavour to live up to” (“Cadets” Scotch 16).

A similar uniform was worn by The Scots College, Sydney, prior to and during the Second World War. The College’s cadet uniform, shown in fig. 4, was just as rife with Scottish motifs as the uniform of Scotch College, including a kilt which one anonymous cadet described as “eleven yards of pleats, folds, buckles, buttons and straps all mixed up” (“C.S.R., IVa” 91). The Scots College’s uniform incorporated more colonial aspects than their West Australian contemporary’s uniform, however, with the glengarry and khaki tunic replaced by a Blancoed-white pith helmet and dark green standing-collared jacket with hooks and eyes that, according to the anonymous cadet, “were typically scotch”, in that “they would not give in” (“C.S.R., IVa” 91). Despite the free issue of Service Dress by the Australian Army in 1945, the College maintained its distinctly Scottish cadet uniform, albeit with the pith helmet replaced by a glengarry cap. So strong was the College’s prioritisation of its colonial ancestral identity above any contemporary Australian national identity that the Sun newspaper described them as “Black Watch juniors” when publishing a photograph of them parading “in support of the War Loan Campaign” in October 1941, seen in fig. 4 (“Black Watch Juniors” 3). Although these schools formed the minority in espousing divergent local identities above a centralised national identity, is these exceptions to the broad consensus which reflect the diverse nature of not only cadet training but secondary education within Australia in the first half of the twentieth century. Furthermore, this diversity was only revealed due to the refusal of the Australian Army to issue free uniforms to cadet detachments, with the resulting absence of a centralised identity leading to a vacuum in which schools decided upon an identity with which to imbue their pupils through the medium of cadet uniforms.

Fig. 4: The Scots College cadets parading through Sydney, as presented by the Sun (“Black Watch Juniors” 3).


The Australian Army’s refusal to issue a free, standardised cadet uniform to secondary school cadet detachments prevented many educational establishments from establishing their own cadet detachment. However, this policy allowed those schools that did establish a detachment to clothe their members in a manner that they believed would align with the school’s unique conceptions of both what cadet training should consist of and how a cadet detachment should be presented to the world. As a result of this freedom, Australian secondary school cadet uniforms were influenced by a wide range of practical and ideological factors, with a diverse range of uniform designs reflecting an equally diverse range of thinking around cadet training. Some schools preferred a cadet uniform to be tough and suited to strenuous outdoor use under harsh climatic conditions, with Brisbane Boys’ College modelling their uniform after the recently-formed Darwin Mobile Force and incorporating shorts and a wide-brimmed Australian hat of the type recommended by the Australian Army for its value in shielding its wearer from the sun. Other cadet uniforms, such as those adopted by many Roman Catholic schools in Sydney, emphasised sartorial orderliness and visual splendour, incorporating unusual colours and forage caps to showcase their cadets and their school while emphasising their institutions’ individuality, against the Australian Army’s recommendations for durability and practicality. Similarly, a school’s cadet uniform could reflect its ideological objectives, revealing the identity it aimed to immerse its pupils in. The wide range of schools’ cadet uniform headdress alone, from ‘slouch hats’ to glengarry and forage caps to pith helmets, reveals the many split loyalties and ideals held by Australian schools during the Second World War between imperial, national, local, and religious identities and ethos. However, despite Australian Schools’ diverse and meticulously curated choices in cadet uniforms, cadets’ contemporary descriptions of their uniforms reveal that the intentions behind the uniforms’ designs were often entirely lost on those who wore them. Many cadets overlooked the lofty educational and ideological intentions behind their educators’ choices and instead only took note of their ridiculous, impractical, and uncomfortable aspects. This difference in perception, with educators praising and pupils decrying their cadet uniforms, reveals the performative nature of the entire uniform design process, with schools designing their cadet detachments’ uniforms not for those wearing them but for any third party who might view them. As such, schools’ overtures regarding the practicality, smartness and identity of their uniforms were not the result of the schools’ established practices, but the values with which the schools wished to be associated, with cadet uniforms acting as the medium through which these values would be communicated to the wider world.


“Black Watch Juniors in City Parade.” The Sun 10 Oct. 1941: 3.

“Officers and N.C.Os. of the Cadet Corps, 1939.” The Cygnet: Hale School Magazine 19.3 (June 1939): 55.

“Uniforms for ‘B’ Company. Only Two Sizes 2 Large OR 2 Small.” The Cygnet: Hale School Magazine 14.4 (June 1944): 74.


“A Song of Shore” The Torch-Bearer: The Magazine of the Sydney Church of England Grammar School 43.2 (1 Sep. 1939): 130-131.

“Cadets.” The Cygnet: Hale School Magazine 13.3 (June 1943): 19-20.

“Cadets.” The Scotch College Reporter 32 (Dec. 1939): 16-17.

“Cadet Corps.” The Portal: The Magazine of the Brisbane Boys’ College Dec. 1939: 41-43.

“Chank”; “A Day in the Ranks.” The Pegasus: The Journal of The Geelong College 37.1 (June 1946): 30-31.

“C.S.R., IVa”; “A Bonny Wee Scotsman.” The Scotsman: A Record of The Scots College, Bellevue Hill, Sydney 32.3 (May 1946): 91.

“G.T. Corps Jottings.” Terrace: Quarterly Review, Published by Christian Brothers’ College Gregory Terrace, Brisbane, Queensland 3.2 (24 June 1940): 5.

“High School Cadet Corps.” The Newcastle Sun 4 June 1940: 7.

“Lance-Corporal”; “Scramble Day.” The Cygnet: Hale School Magazine 13 (5 June 1941): 96-97.

“95 Boys Receive Training in School Cadet Corps.” The Queensland Times 21 Aug. 1944: 2.


Brother Frederic to Captain McConnel. “Cadets – Educational establishments – Approval to form senior cadet detachments – Roman Catholic schools.” 7 April 1941. Australian War Memorial, Ref. AWM61 426/2/176.

Captain McConnel to Director CBC Waverley, CBC Lewisham, CBC Darlinghurst, MBC Darlinghurst, MBC Randwick, MBC Kogarah, MBC Parramatta, MBC Church Hill, DLSC Ashfield, DLSC Marrickville, HCC Ryde, SJC Hunter's Hill. “Cadets – Educational establishments – Approval to form senior cadet detachments – Roman Catholic schools.” 13 March 1941. Australian War Memorial, Ref. AWM61 426/2/176.

Author Biography

Liam Barnsdale, The University of Queensland

Liam Barnsdale is a PhD candidate at The University of Queensland, having commenced his study there in April 2020. His thesis examines perspectives on and motivations behind school cadet training in Australia and New Zealand during the Second World War, examining the diverse views on cadet training across socio-economic, racial, religious and regional divides between and within the two countries. Prior to this Liam completed his Master of Arts at Victoria University of Wellington, and his MA thesis, ‘“The sort of man”: Politics, Clothing and Characteristics in British Propaganda Depictions of Royal Air Force Aviators, 1939-1945’, examines the depictions of aviators in British Second World War propaganda.