T-shirts that had seen better days. Heavily patched cutoff jean shorts. Sneakers or clogs. And a bandana. That’s how I dressed during high school, at least when the weather was warm. Luckily, my school had a pretty lax dress code, so no one ever stopped me – except for the day I was walking around barefoot, unaware until that point in time that the health code forbade it. Lindsay O’Brien of Ms. magazine was not quite so lucky; on the day she wore jeans with holes in the knees to school, she was made to cover the holes with duct tape and received her first detention ever. In her recent article “Are my pants lowering your test scores?” she terms the rule “ridiculous” and continues to detail a recent dress code conflict at a school in Illinois. (O’Brien)
Administrators at Haven Middle School in Evanston banned leggings, primarily worn by girls. The reason? They were seen as too distracting for boys. As Ms. O’Brien put it, “Instead of teaching boys, at a critical age, to treat women’s bodies with respect, they chose to eliminate the so-called distraction and place the blame on girls.” Sophie Hasty, a 13-year-old student at the school, understood this well, saying, “The reason was basically: ‘boys.’ It’s a lot like saying that if guys do something to harass us, it’s our fault for that. We’re the ones being punished for what guys do.” (quoted in O’Brien) Students swarmed the school wearing the banned item of clothing, and over 500 of them signed an online petition. The ensuing brouhaha made national headlines, and inspired a sort of “Point–Counterpoint” debate in the Los Angeles Times. Eventually, as reported in the Daily Trojan, the principal sent a letter home to parents saying the school’s true goal was “an effort to maintain a respectful learning environment for all.” (quoted in Sayyah) Such situations, it may be added, play out far too often.
Ms. O’Brien praised the girls for their actions, concluding, “If Sophie Hasty and the girls at Haven Middle School are the future leaders of the feminist movement, we’ll be glad to share our torch.”
They might end up sharing that torch with my students, who recently had a discussion of their own as Student Council prepares to take a look at our current dress code. I asked them why a business or other organization might or might not want a dress code, and then narrowed the questions specifically to focus on schools. Their take on the issues was, as always, wise and insightful. They felt that dress codes relate to first impressions and a desire to be taken seriously by looking appropriate, classy, mature, and official. They felt that students in particular might show up feeling ready to learn in a school with a dress code. They also recognized, though, that culture and purpose play a role – that dress codes might and probably should be different if you are in fashion, sports, retail, construction, equestrian sports, dance, fast food, or fitness, if your organization just has a more casual culture, or even if you have a job where you don’t interact with people. Furthermore, they realized that trust is an important factor in instituting dress codes, pointing out that an organization might choose not to have one if they felt people know what’s respectable and appropriate, and explicitly saying a school might choose to have a dress code if they don’t trust students and not to have one if they felt kids know what they should wear and wanted to establish that trust. Finally, they felt that comfort, too, was a factor.
Morgan is the 7th grade representative to Student Council, and when they take up a discussion of our current dress code later this month, she will be able to carry this wealth of wisdom and insight to the meeting with her. I know, too, that some of the members of StuCo are strong feminists, and perhaps will have their own ideas on how our school might meet its mission by developing what might be called a feminist dress code. It will be interesting to see what the students come up with. In the end, though, discussions about our school’s mission and who we are as a community will be the most important part. Any dress code that reflects our common values will be a dress code that will work.