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Thursday, October 2

Uniforms and Dress Codes

I loved going to a college with a dress code and I love teaching at a school with a very strict dress code (a step below uniforms).  I think there is so much more to dress code and uniforms than people realize.

There has been a lot in the news lately about how educators are shaming young ladies for having bodies and basically dress coding them on everything that they wear.  Prom dresses, leggings, skinny jeans and so on.  Whether or not that "you affect the boys by the way you dress" argument is valid or not (personally I don't think it is valid) is an argument for another day.

I do believe that you show respect for your body by wearing clothes that cover it properly, unfortunately what "properly covered" means is culturally created and varies from location to location.  So in effect, each individual has to ask themselves, "what does modesty mean to me?" and "how will I dress to respect myself?".

So, if everybody has a different idea of what "respectful dress" looks like, how do we reconcile this in an educational setting?

Uniforms my friend.

I actually prefer uniforms over dress codes.  Think about all of the ways that uniforms set certain groups of people apart.  They provide distinction.  They show that the wearer is performing a certain task.  Doctors, police officers, supermarket cashiers, members of a particular sports team and many others.  Uniforms aren't bad, they help us know who people are and what they do.  In Argentina, the uniforms (smock) for all kindergartners is the same style but the colors vary for boys and girls (even the teachers wear it).  I think it's awesome.  I always knew who the kindergartners were.

(and the kiddos in their "lab coats" aka guardapolvos)

The rest of public schools in Argentina also have the kids wear smocks (guardapolvos).  I've seen them in solid white, blue, gray or green (mostly white) in a few different styles.  I just read an article that most of Argentina is moving towards all primary and secondary schools using a white guardapolvos as a symbol of purity, equality, hygiene and democracy (interesting article HERE for you spanish-speakers).  The private schools also had uniforms--slacks/skirts/polo shirts.  As we have researched schools around the world for my culture class elective, I can't think of a single country that didn't have a uniform...maybe Canada or England???  I feel like this issue that we are dealing with is unique to our country because we have so much freedom of dress in schools and that certain popular styles are disrespectful or too casual or too distracting.

Honestly, uniforms are easy.

Dress codes are a little more complicated but very much a part of our culture.  Besides the obvious, work, dictating how we dress as a matter of professionalism (would you ever walk in to an interview in workout gear?) there are other venues that require certain dress to show respect and honor like weddings, graduation ceremonies and televised awards ceremonies.  Certain events are labeled formal, semi-formal or black tie.  Why?  What does dressing differently or with limitations do for us and others?  And then there are situations where the way we dress is based on utility and function.  I probably wouldn't ever go to the gym wearing heels and a prom dress.  A kid wouldn't show up to play soccer at the park in a tux.  Not that we couldn't but it just doesn't make sense.

So now let's put everything I've mentioned about uniforms and dress codes into a school context:

-Uniforms provide distinction.  They show that the wearer is authorized to perform certain tasks, ie. learning and teaching; this can be very unifying.
-Uniforms help us know who people are and what they do.  At school this is helpful when we have had unwanted kids and adults on campus.  On field trips it is easy to identify our students.  It's also a good reminder for the students, "oh, right, I dress in these colors and these types of clothes because I am a student at ____ High School."
-Dress codes and uniforms show professionalism, respect and honor of self, teachers, peers and education in general.  Dressing in a distinct way for school shows that it is an important event.
-Dress codes and uniforms allow us to be functional at school and participate in a variety of activities without worrying about wardrobe malfunctions.

Part of the dress code at the school where I teach is that shorts and skirts (in a khaki, navy or black color) must not be more than 4 inches above the knee.  Is this hard for boys?  Not really with the current styles.  Is this hard for girls?  Ish.  Here in Utah they make lot's of knee length skirts and shorts.  However, occasionally I have a student who has most likely gone through a growth spurt and the legs get longer and so they have more than 4 inches above the knee showing.  These are always girls, not because I hate girls and want to dress code them to shame them but because girls clothes right now don't lend themselves to falling less than 4 inches above the knee.  When I dress code a student, I say, "hey, that doesn't look like it's 4 inches or less above the knee."  There's no shaming.  There's no embarrassing.  It's just a fact.  You're not in dress code.  The same way I would dress code a girl for wearing her orange jacket in my room (orange is not an approved color) or how I would dress code a boy for not wearing a polo shirt (all students must wear a collared polo shirt).

When our school streamlined and simplified our dress code some things got stricter (every student must wear a collared polo no matter what) and some things got laxer (wear whatever color socks and accessories you want).  What we did was pick our battles.  The teachers at our school HAVE to enforce the dress code, if it's too complicated, we either don't enforce it or enforce the wrong things.  Because it's strict we don't have to worry about the leggings issues (they must wear PANTS, skirts or shorts in limited colors) or the cleavage issues (they wear a polo).  And honestly, if a girl does have cleavage showing, big whoop, they are in dress code, some girls just have cleave and we can all learn to deal with it.  If 18 year old missionaries can handle naked women on billboards in foreign countries, then teenagers can handle whatever might be visible from a polo shirt.  Our dress code now feels more like a uniform than a dress code and I like it.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that I get frustrated when people say dress codes are attacking females.  Dress codes aren't attacking anyone really.  I don't feel like people are explaining the WHY of dress codes very well.  Ten years ago (okay, more like 15) when sagging was really in, an adult enforcing dress code may have said, "gross, I don't want to see your underwear, pull your pants up or I'll give you a dress code violation."  Not only is it rude and shames the kid, it doesn't explain the problem.  "Showing your underwear in public isn't very respectful.  It shows that you can't fully dress yourself and that you aren't ready to be in school and learn.  It restricts and limits some of your movements.  It takes some of your focus away from learning and puts it on trying to make sure your pants don't fall completely to the ground" is a much more effective way to explain the problem.

To sum it all up, my feelings are:

1.  Dress codes are not bad but some educators have been enforcing them badly.
2.  Many dress codes need to be streamlined, making them easier to enforce.  This often means getting rid of loopholes and getting stricter.
3.  We do not have dress codes to demean kids when they don't comply.
4.  Kids should know the WHY of dress codes.
5.  Having a uniform would make life even easier for all involved.