On school clothes (part one of two)

school_kidsYou may have noticed– and hopefully you clicked through and read the whole thing– my reblog of a piece Gretchen Kelly did for Feminist Friday about school dress codes.  All in all, it’s a really good piece, and I popped up a couple of times in the comments to address stuff that I thought was worth discussing, all the while going I will not blog about dress codes in my head.

Well, fail, I guess, because here we go.   A couple of words of warning: first, I currently expect this to be a bit on the long side, and second, I think I’m probably just going to stream-of-consciousness the whole thing rather than try and organize it in a way that makes sense, because it’s Sunday night and this is a complicated subject and I still don’t feel like thinking as hard as it probably deserves.  So if you catch me contradicting myself or something doesn’t seem quite consistent, that’s why.  Like I said: complicated subject.  Feel free to point out what I got wrong in comments; I suspect that this might generate a bit of lively discussion, as Gretchen’s piece has attracted nearly sixty comments so far.  You should read her piece before you read mine, but I don’t necessarily plan on addressing her directly.

You guys know that I teach, or at least until this year I was a teacher.  What you may not be aware of is that every school I’ve ever taught at has at least nominally had a uniform.  I started off at a Catholic school, of the jumpers-and-skirts variety, moved to a Chicago Public Schools school that had a loose one, and then to my current district, where we’ve always had uniforms of some sort but of a looser definition than the Catholic schools do.

I have been to many, many faculty meetings about dress code in one way or another.  I have made an ass of myself at many, many faculty meetings by trying to address some of the questions that I’m going to raise here.  No one but me is ever interested in discussing them.  Which is stupid, because you shouldn’t have a dress code if you don’t have some idea of why you have a dress code.

Here, for example, are several reasons to have a dress code:

  1. Control.  You want to be in charge of the decisions of your students, and to let them know that you, as the administration and the teachers, are in charge.  One of the ways you let them know that you run their lives is by controlling what they are allowed to wear.
  2. Modesty/”Distraction”.  Note that this one is generally girls-only, and is closely related to #1.  Girls’ bodies are inherently dangerous, particularly to boys, and the best way to make sure that the boys’ days aren’t ruined by the girls’ bodies is to cover up the girls’ bodies as much as humanly possible.  It is critical to make certain that at no time is it possible for a girl bit to make a boy bit any more rigid than it ordinarily is.  Note that “distraction” is not always sexual in nature; things like pink hair or piercings can be deemed “distracting.”
  3. Professionalism.  Going to school is a kid’s job.  Adults are expected to dress in certain ways for their jobs; kids may as well get used to this idea right now.  Also something about promoting habits of mind to go with the orderly atmosphere you are creating by requiring everyone to dress similarly.
  4. Social leveling.  If the kids are all wearing the same thing, it makes it more difficult for the rich kids to show off their money or for the poor kids to look like they don’t have as much.  Also, conformity issues: it’s harder to single out kids for not joining the crowd and wearing the New Cool Brand (which they may or may not be able to afford) if everyone has to wear the same shirt.
  5. Gang affiliations.  This only applies to certain schools, obviously, but if you have a gang presence in your neighborhood frequently you want to do your best to make certain that kids can’t outwardly display gang affiliation.  This is hideously tricky; keep reading.

You may have already figured out from my phrasing that the two I have the most comfort with are #3 and #4; #1 is wildly unnecessary and #2 doesn’t always have to be problematic but very frequently is, particularly when you add religion into the mix.  #5 is essential if you’re in a school with a gang problem but requires an ever-evolving list of things to ban as the symbols and signs evolve.  Most of the school uniform drama-outbursts that make their way into the media is from people trying to shove the first two in where they don’t belong; for example, a chaperone father being turned on by a prom dress and trying to slut-shame the girl wearing it.

In fact, lemme make this crystal clear right now: women are not, under any circumstances, responsible for the reactions of men or boys to their clothing.  Period.  Point-blank.  If at any point in this piece I say anything that appears to contradict that statement, I should be called on it and I am wrong.

See, nearly 800 words already and I’ve barely gotten started.

Anyway: your reasoning for why you’re controlling your students’ attire should inform the level of control that you’re exerting over that attire.  If you are interested in controlling your students, and control itself is the virtue, then you’re going to be worried about things like belt buckles and shoelaces and hairstyles and all sorts of nonsense.  You’re also setting yourself up for an immense number of fights.   If you just want your kids to look professional, then maybe the fact that Brittany has pink shoelaces on one shoe and green on the other isn’t a problem.

So let’s talk about how you control clothing.  There are two ways.  A proscriptive dress code is a thou shalt not dress code.  Don’t wear this, don’t wear that; you can wear this in this way but not in that way.  These dress codes tell you what not to do or, frequently, what not to show, and are often actually referred to as “dress codes.”  A descriptive dress code specifically tells the kids what to wear, and is less concerned with “nots.”  The most extreme version of this is the classic Catholic school uniform, where every boy and every girl in the building are going to be basically wearing the exact same thing, often bought from the same vendor.   These are often not called dress codes; they’re called school uniforms.

These things can bleed into each other, obviously, but the more alike the kids look when you walk into a building the more likely it is that you’re dealing with a descriptive dress code rather than a proscriptive one.

I don’t like proscriptive dress codes.  The reason: the more rules you have for what can and can’t be done, the more fights you’re going to have with your students, and every second of arguing about dress code is a second I’m not spending instructing.  Just for example: yoga pants.  I’m a grown-ass man, right?  And I don’t have a daughter, and my wife prefers to wear jeans.

I don’t know what the fuck a “yoga pant” is, I have no intention of learning, and I’m not about to waste my time arguing with a  twelve-year-old about whether she’s wearing them or not.  Kids become lawyers awful goddamn fast when they think their pants are capris and you think they’re yoga pants.  (Is that combination possible?  Hell, I have no idea, but one school I worked at officially laid down a rule that if the pants had rivets anywhere on them then they were jeans, regardless of color, fabric, fit, or any other consideration.  Rivets=jeans=against dress code, period.)

Any and every rule can be made obnoxious in this way.  For example: say you don’t want your kids dying their hair.  So you make a rule saying you can’t dye your hair.  Then Brittany, who was a blonde last year, starts the year as a brunette.  Do you make her go change her hair back to her normal color?  No, that’s ridiculous, and you’d have to ask her what her natural hair color is.  Maybe she was breaking the rules all last year!

Okay, so you modify the rule: you can’t dye your hair unnatural colors, because kids with blue hair are distracting.  You just made it against the rules for every black and Hispanic kid in your building to go blonde.  Did you mean to do that?  Or do you ban specific colors, and then get into bullshit about whether someone’s hair is mauve or turquoise or blue, and this specific shade of blue isn’t actually prohibited on your list of “unnatural” colors.

(The solution is to not give a fuck about hair color.  Yes, Damien’s blue hair will be distracting– for an hour.  So will his next haircut.   So will your next haircut.  I shaved my beard off once and was fending off questions about it for a week.)

I find that the best way to handle a dress code is to set general rules that are clear and easy to follow and to expect the kids to stick by them– if you make a rule, it is critical that you stick by that rule.  If not, get the hell rid of it.

For example, I see no reason at all to ever care about any of the following things:  hair, ears, noses, lips, feet, shoes, shoelaces, belts, accessories of any kind, including necklaces, rings, bracelets, or other forms of jewelry.  We once mandated that all students wear belts. It was pointed out that some kinds of girls’ pants don’t have belt loops.  Okay; we modified the rule that if your pants had belt loops then you had to wear a belt.

Can you guess what happened?  The kids started cutting off their belt loops.

This is fucking ridiculous.

And, see, again: I’m coming at dress codes from #3 and #4.  I want the kids to look reasonably clean and neat, because they’re at work, and I would like there to be some social leveling going on.  #4 never really works, but it does help a bit.  The kids just find other things to signify status with.  This is a particular problem with gang affiliations; you’ll discover midyear that all the kids who are 2-6ers have been wearing a rubber band on their left ankle or something like that.  Ban that, and they start wearing their collars a certain way.  You can never really get rid of it.

Here, to my mind, is how to do a dress code: either go whole-hog, like the Catholic schools, and specify a certain shirt, pants, belt, skirt, jumper, and type of shoe for every kid in your building, and then provide a specific local vendor who provides those items at a reasonable cost and vouchers for your families who can’t afford the uniforms, or go descriptive but simple, and don’t stress out about the things you don’t cover in your dress code.

For example, if I wrote my school’s dress code, it would look like this:

  1. Polo or button-up shirt with a collar (boys and girls).  Long or short sleeve, colors to be determined by the school.  Most in my area have settled on blue, with some allowing other colors.
  2. Dress pants.  Dress pants do not have rivets, are not made from denim, and are not form-fitting.  (Note: never ban a specific style of clothing. You will fight for years about what cut a pair of pants are or whether pants are “yoga pants” or “stretch pants” or “leggings” or “jeggings,” which I think might actually be a thing, and whether that matters.)
  3. In colder weather, a plain one-color sweater (define colors as necessary) may be worn.  The sweater must be one piece and not have a zipper.
  4. Skirts of XXX color may be worn by either gender.  Skirts above the knee should be paired with leggings of XX color.  (Skirt length rules are hideous and horrible.  I’d honestly just insist on everyone wearing pants all the time just to avoid debates about skirts.  This is the best I can do; I’ll get more into it tomorrow.)
  5. Shoes must have a back to them; IE, no flip-flops.  (I know I said earlier that I don’t care about shoes.  This rule could be rephrased as “Shoes should actually be shoes.”)
  6. Shirts shall be tucked in at all times, and pants shall be worn at the waist.  Shoes with laces should be tied.  Y’know, screw that last rule.  I mean, it’s true, but it doesn’t need to be part of a dress code.
  7. And that’s it.  I give no shits about anything else. Everything else is up to the kid.  Glory in yo’ spunk, as BB King might say.

That’s already 2000+ words, and I haven’t gotten into talking about sexism yet.  So I guess I’ll continue this later this week.  Maybe tomorrow, but no promises.

Published by

Luther M. Siler

The author of SKYLIGHTS, THE BENEVOLENCE ARCHIVES and several other books.

12 thoughts on “On school clothes (part one of two)

  1. Our district has a uniform that they unfortunately treat like a dress code. In other words it is supposed to be Blue Polo Shirt and Black Pants/skirt…but they accept any sort of blue fabricy thing on the top and black on the bottom sometimes khaki (cause that kind of looks like black, right?) The pants are supposed to be pants but they often are leggings. Here is my issue, if you are going to have a uniform, have a uniform. If you are not, then you have selective enforcement, ie student A – good student, who teacher or principal likes and/or feels sorry for, could wear black leggings and pasties and no one says boo – while student B who is a PITA wears too tight leggings and gets written up. (hyperbole obviously)

    This concerns me as a teacher because sometimes I send a student to the office/nurse to get some kind of clothing to cover their body (or their t-shirt with a slogan on it that says “with an ass like this I don’t need big tits”- true story- or to take off their blue bandanna and nothing happens. Then another day an administrator sticks their nose in my room and says…why is student b sitting there in a red t-shirt with a slogan on it? You need to call the house/write that up/send them to the nurse for clothing….Yeah, okay, why because today is a day with a Y in it? My issue with uniforms/dress code is INCONSISTENCY.

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  2. On Twitter you said I’d should set an hour aside. 😉 That took about 10 mins to read and my first reaction is as follows A WORLD OF YES! (also, that Brittany seems to be getting in trouble a lot…).

    I have never gone to schools with uniforms (I grew up in France but we do have schools there with uniform policies) and so far my kids haven’t either (they go to the school their dad, my ex-husband, teaches at and it’s one of the few schools in our town that do not have a uniform). But next year it’s going to change. Next year my daughter (Éloïse) will be turning 11 and going to intermediate school. Where all the kids wear white dress shirts and boys wear dress pants and girls wear tartan skirts and tights and they all have to pick from 3 styles of chunky black shoes. Oh I have yet to break it to her that she’ll probably have to brush her hair. She hates brushing her hair.

    Personally I hate wearing skirts. Éloïse likes wearing jeans and shorts, with the odd skirt thrown in the mix. She was fine with the idea of having to wear a skirt every day for school but when I mentioned tights, she did a face. It’s going to be some cultural shock to her I think… But we’ll learn to adapt, cos that’s what we do, right?

    I was also thinking about that uniform crap the other day as I was driving to get the 4yo from preschool and it was 4pm and there were teens and pre-teens in uniforms all over the sidewalk (there’s 3 schools within a mile of preschool) and it got me wondering. It’s 2014. Why aren’t girls allowed to wear freaking PANTS at school? Why always skirts or stupid sack-of-potato-shaped pinafore dresses? You’re right, they should make them ALL wear pants, then there’d be no argument about the length of skirts and stuff like that.

    I’ll stop now and wait for part 2.


  3. Looking forward to Pt 2. Interesting to hear about this from the angle of an educator (one who isn’t already in the media’s headlights for some dress code related craziness).


  4. um. Dude. You have another one of these in you? Nailed, I say. Not only did you address the topic and make me laugh, you made some very good points and did a better model dress code than I could ever think of doing. And reminded me what kids are like. The kids in my life are all under 7 or legal adults at the moment. Long time since I dealt with Tweens.

    Thanks for this, seriously.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Everything Gene’O just said. Yep. I got a kick out of the leggings/yoga pants/jeggings confusion. I wish those co-workers at your staff meetings would listen to you rant, because this makes sense. Just common sense. I’m anxious to read Part 2 and I’m so glad to have the perspective of someone who’s in the trenches every day.


  6. You kinda left out the part about economic equality….. kids are so friggin cruel.( if you don’t have $150 shoes you are a worthless piece of crap that doesn’t deserve to walk on the sidewalk!) I actually went to a very elite school in high school. The only reason I was accepted was because my mother had gone there. We were not economically elite. I was soooooooooooooooooooooooo glad we had uniforms!!!!!!!!! The school also would not allow jewelry or even watches THANK GOD! (we could not afford Tiffany $5,000 necklaces or Rolex watches.) I got an exceptional education, made some life long friends, and was able to get through high school with out any bullying. Thank you dress codes!

    Besides that, as a parent who has had my daughter in both kinds of schools. I was again sooooooo thankful for uniforms and dress codes. With dress codes there were no early AM battles about what to wear! No color complications no trying to wear shorts up to her crotch in high school, no …I don’t have anything to wearrrrrrrr screams, and no having to keep up the the lastest fashion crap! It was heaven.

    Sorry but I love dress codes and uniforms……. my daughter can be as independant, rebellious, and dress anyway she wants from 4PM til 7AM Monday through Friday and she can go naked if she wants from Friday at 4PM til Monday at 7AM….. but during school I have peace in the house in the area of dress on school days!


  7. I went to a fairly conservative Anglican girls’ school, but don’t panic, I got most of it out of my system in my first year at university. I once saw a girl hauled up in the corridor by our ferocious Scottish Latin teacher because the small silver studs in her ears were triangles, not circles, so I guess that was a descriptive dress code. Things were definitely more stressful on mufti days when we got to pay a gold coin for the privilege of coming to school in ordinary clothes, but even with a draconian dress code, there were still ways for girls to make you feel inadequate and uncool.


  8. Excellent breakdown not only of the what, but of the why. (I can do nothing but headdesk at how the people making the dress codes not wanting to discuss this stuff…)


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