A change of clothes

Dec 17, 2009

When I was a teenager, most schools had dress codes.

Boys wore clean pants and shirts with collars. Unless snow was flying, girls wore dresses. Until about 1965, discussion of hemlines among my peers was limited to jokes about church-run schools, where girls had to kneel to demonstrate that their skirts were long enough.

No one was selling us, or the parents who bought our clothes, anything that went beyond showing the knee, never mind the swell of an adolescent thigh.

Girls didn't wear trousers unless temperatures were below freezing and there was snow on the ground. Even then, jeans, ski pants and leggings were prohibited

Few boys wore T-shirts, which rarely advertised anything about the wearer. Khaki pants and jeans were allowed; holes were a sign of poverty. This was the dawning of the age of writing on, tearing and patching clothing.

The summer before sophomore year, three friends and I decided to change a policy that unfairly kept girls' legs exposed while boys wore trousers. We wanted the right to choose when we could wear pants.

On the first day of school we wore our shortest skirts. This was 1968, and fashion had recently decreed that hemlines could rise to the place where a relaxed hand hangs as it swings by a young woman's side.

Anika, Becky, Edith and I arrived at school that day ready to challenge the rules and feeling secure in the knowledge that, sooner or later, someone in authority would challenge us. My opportunity came in the person of Miss Edwards, one of the school's four disciplinary administrators.

"You can't wear that!" she said. "It's not decent. You'll have to go home and change." She told me to call my mother and get a ride, and not to return until I was properly dressed.

"But Miss Edwards," I said. "Mom's at work, and I don't want to miss school. The first day sets the tone for the whole year."

"You can't stay, dressed like that," she said.

"I do have a pair of pants with me," I said, pointing to the jeans that hung over my shoulder. "For after school."

"Put them on!" she said. "Right away."

The next day more girls wore pants, and by the time student council was in place that year, a group of us had held a non-elected citizens' summit with the superintendent and negotiated a new dress code.

Today you can buy an infant boy a onesie that tells the world he's a "boob man" while his female counterpart advertises "I'm too sexy for my diaper." Mothers buy prepubescent daughters lace and cleavage while boys' clothes just get looser. Young men don't usually wear form-fitting or revealing apparel except to show their baggy underwear or their posterior cleavage, unfortunate fashions not restricted by gender.

Before they are physically mature, girls are being taught to dress for seduction and boys are being taught to expect the world to look like a showroom of sexual possibility.

Most teenage boys aren't jumping at a chance to spray on a deeply cut blouse or slip into skin-tight jeans, which might indicate that men know something about women's slavery to fashion that we females are ignoring. But the distracting eye-candy we provide in the classroom does developing men few favors.

It's not surprising to hear that the administration of the Camden-Rockport Middle School is considering a new dress code.

A good education will train students to learn from everything around them, to synthesize information and experience, and to develop skills that will allow them to express the conclusions drawn from their learning in ways that are understandable and compelling.

There is a place to show individuality in a structured and healthy academic community. Students must be encouraged to express and defend challenging opinions and ideas and to push their creative limits in the protected environment that schools can provide. But we all understand why members of a basketball squad wear uniforms and why individual displays aren't always called for in team efforts.

Outside of school, at work or at home, other figures of greater or lesser authority must make the call on how children use and are used by fashion as they grow into young adulthood.

In the new Camden-Rockport Middle School code, the "administration reserves the right to deem clothing inappropriate for the school environment that does not exactly fit with the guidelines, but is consistent with the spirit of the dress code." School administrations should always have the right to determine appropriate behavior, and to meet with parents or other guardians to clarify any ambiguity in the rules.

Because the definition of fashion is change, dress codes are destined for ambiguity. While getting rid of distracting young cleavage might free active minds for more constructive activities, asking that necklines be no more than one inch from the collarbone limits students to T-shirts (without provocative slogans, a world of ambiguity in itself), polo tops, and what we used to call dress shirts. The proposed Camden-Rockport Middle School policy also calls for midriffs and underwear to be covered, but midriffs stop at the waist and the policy doesn't prohibit low-riding trousers.

Getting rid of disrespectful and unnecessary hats and caps leads to the worrisome inclusion of headscarves as prohibited items in the proposed policy.

What this means is that, in an effort to "refocus attention on learning," as Principal Maria Libby wrote in her Dec. 1 blog, a woman such as Dr. Hayat Sindi might be made unwelcome as a student or teacher at the middle school. Sindi, a recent PopTech presenter, is a Muslim who manages to express her individuality in fashion and in science without giving up her religious traditions.

The fashions we find offensive today may, in a generation's time, seem as tame as patched jeans appear to most modern eyes. But contrary to the wishes of clothing merchandisers, school isn't the place for a fashion throw-down. If parents don't begin to control their children's distracting habits of dress, it will be up to administrators and school boards to define what's appropriate.


Comments (1)
Posted by: caphinka fogelstrum | Dec 18, 2009 10:48

I agree that modifications in the dress code are definitely in order. Don't discourge freedom of expression for those obeying this school rule of conduct, however.  My daughter does not go to the middle school in Camden but observes the same problems in Rockland. She thinks there is obviously clone dressing going on and notes that there are a number of girls going to class with "thier flabby stomachs hanging out and boobs half-way exposed" on a daily basis, which she thinks makes them look sleazy.  She claims it is especially the girls who do whatever it takes to get attention, no matter how awful they look like doing it.  She further states that teachers walk right on by, while this bodily display happens.  Lastly, she thinks uniforms would be kind of cool as basic apparel but would still be able to be her individual self.

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