'HOW could he do this to a child?' tutted the tabloids this week, in tones of moral outrage normally reserved for stories about battered children. But this was a tale of sartorial abuse among poor little rich boys Prince Harry and Prince William, dressed like miniature versions of their father in jackets and ties. In contrast to the uncomfortable stuffed-shirt look the princes wear whenever they accompany the Prince of Wales, the newspapers had dug out photographs of them with their mother, who usually does her best to pass them off as 'normal' children in baseball hats and sweatshirts.

Poor old Harry, gloated the press, how miserable he looks at Silverstone struggling to look interested in the engine of a racing car from within the confines of his buttoned up grey jacket. And how different from the Harry seen splashing about in the Caribbean - the implication being that even there His Royal Dadness would have incarcerated him in a Norfolk jacket and deerstalker.

There is, it is true, something immensely sad about boys dressed as 'little men'. But equally there is something rather distasteful about criticising a chap for his dress sense - particularly when there is a hereditary weakness involved. After all, Barbour jackets and tweed caps are now genetically programmed into the upper classes - they can't help it. But Harry's friends would laugh at him, wailed the journalists. In fact, of course they wouldn't - because they probably wear exactly the same clothes when they go out with their own fathers.

The working class may have long since abandoned its badge of status - the flat cap - but the upper class still adheres to a strict uniform from cradle to grave. Sartorially speaking, their sons have an extended babyhood: romper suits, velvet-collared coats and sailor suits until the age of six, when they jump straight into the tweed sports jackets and grey suits of manhood. Photographs of their fathers at the same ages will show them wearing almost identical clothes, while their sisters, in little smocked dresses or kilts with T-bar shoes, are replicas of their mothers as children.

Celestria Noel, social editor of Harpers & Queen, and mother of a three-year-old daughter, sees nothing odd in this. 'It's perfectly reasonable to dress children in traditional clothes. If you are taking them to a smart tea- party you would dress little girls in smocked dresses and little boys in something traditional. It's a combination of courtesy and common sense - the essence of manners is to be suitable. When my daughter was a baby I took her to a party wearing a dress that has been in my family for 50 years: I wouldn't have taken her in a dirty old babygro, it would have been rude.'

Among those that are at ease with this strange code of behaviour and dress, the words 'suitability' and 'special occasion' crop up frequently. The upper-class young seem to spend an inordinate amount of time at tea. And when one is going to 'an aunt's tea- party' - according to Barbara Barnes, ex-nanny to the Wales children and now owner of Young England, childrenswear shop for the rich and nostalgic - one needs something more formal than Gap can offer. Then of course there are charity events, smart lunches and weddings. For a summer wedding, she estimates, you could kit out a boy for about pounds 80 - but that would be just the short-sleeved shirt and knee-length shorts; new socks and Start-rite shoes (the nobs don't wear Clarks apparently) would bring it up to about pounds 110.

Paul Keers, author of The Gentleman's Wardrobe and a stickler himself for 'appropriate' clothes, believes that if you dress in the uniform of a gentleman you have to earn the right to wear it - a concept of meritocracy that only someone not born into the upper class could come up with. 'Children are too young to make those meritorial decisions that mark you out as a gentleman. But in the case of the princes, because they are in a strait-jacket from the start, with no freedom to choose which path to take in life, they might as well dress the part from the word go.'

In fact most people, whatever their social standing, have a clannish instinct to dress their offspring in such a way that they are recognisably theirs (and Prince Charles probably needs these pointers more than most). At Silverstone, however, he committed a serious violation of upper-class dress code in trussing his son up in jacket and tie (although, as Celestria Noel points out scornfully: 'Of course Charles didn't dress him. I expect Nanny told him to brush his hair and put on a jacket.')

To the ignorant masses, Barbour jackets, tweed caps, junior sports jackets and check shirts all blend together into a homogeneous concept of upper- class prattishness, but these individual items speak volumes to those on the same wavelength. Colin Woodhead, always elegantly turned out himself as would be expected of a PR for several menswear designers, saw Prince Harry at Silverstone. 'Utterly inappropriate,' he expostulates. 'What he was wearing would have been fine for somewhere vaguely horse manurey like a county fair, but not at Silverstone where the whole atmosphere reeks of Castrol GTX.' The right compromise between casualness and princely apparel would apparently have been reached with a 'single-breasted navy blazer, open- necked button-down shirt, smart jeans, Docksiders - and a pair of Ray-Bans.' Woodhead himself has two sons aged 14 and 16 and therefore - perhaps fortunately, looking at that last sentence - outside his sphere of influence ('the older one wears his Caterpillar Climbers to go to balls'), but the favourite photograph he carries in his wallet is of them at the ages of eight and 10 'looking just like the princes, in jackets and ties'. They are now into grunge like normal, healthy boys. There could be hope for Harry and William yet.

(Photograph omitted)