School Climate & Safety Opinion

Dress Codes and Social Chaos

By John Northrop — January 16, 2002 5 min read
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How do we strike a balance that best serves both individual and group needs?

OK, I admit it: I haven’t actually seen the TV ad, but so many people have told me about it that I know it’s for real. It’s a clothing ad by a mainstream retailer. It depicts a mother tugging her teenage daughter’s jeans down to her hips so that the youngster’s midriff shows below her blouse. “Now that’s the way you do it!” coos the attentive mom. Hmmm. At the risk of sounding a lot like my own mother 20 years ago, that’s one media message that rubs me raw.

Secondary schools struggle each day to keep the lid on a tempest of adolescent hormones—for example, by forbidding bare midriffs and other skimpy dress choices. Ads like this make us wonder if there’s any use. How can anyone expect to keep children fully clothed in school when national advertisers celebrate parents’ peeling back the boundaries during prime time? Talk about holding up an umbrella against a tsunami!

Maybe educators worry too much. After all, schools arguably do less to define community values than to reflect and reinforce the values of the communities they serve. School dress codes are an issue only as community values become fragmented or in flux. Since the 1950s, when communities tended to be more isolated and homogeneous—sometimes in dreadful ways, to be sure—prevailing standards have become harder to define.

These days, at least two powerful forces are at work in the re- valuing of American society. First, Americans are more mobile than they used to be, with more “outsiders” moving into and out of localities, disturbing local conventions and infusing new ideas and expectations. Even more influential than this mobility is the explosive rise of new marketing and entertainment media, strategies, and techniques. Modern merchants of thought and sensation jump every geographical boundary and invade every corner of life.

Americans relish fad and fashion. Like dogs chasing their own tails, we race through feverish cycles of consumption, sparked by constant redefinitions of “need.” With pressure through all available channels, we find ourselves lured on by successive twists in taste and behavior, drawn toward something faster, more hip, more daring. The frontier of experimentation continues to expand, reaching even into younger age groups.

With children, we really ought to hold on to some conservative old certainties—for example, the notion that how you dress is ultimately less important than what and how you think.

Maybe it’s only human. People love their toys. But I think we cross a dangerous line when we seem to treat our children as toys themselves. No child should become a Barbie or Ken doll to dress or undress according to the style of the month. With children, we really ought to hold on to some conservative old certainties—for example, the notion that how you dress is ultimately far less important than what and how you think. That’s one message school systems send when they require student uniforms.

Of course, like birch bark, even superficial concerns can kindle fires—for example, a recent media blaze in Birmingham, Ala., over a boy’s desire to wear earrings to his elementary school, despite a school rule to the contrary. Regardless of how you view the fashion or the rule, what really interests me in the earring dispute is how it underscores a huge shift in school-parent relations: Not so long ago, it was rare indeed for a parent to contest a school’s authority to set and enforce rules of dress and behavior. These days, every rule seems open to challenge. Why is that?

A retired principal suggests that everything began to come unglued back in the late 1960s, when schools began letting boys into class wearing bluejeans instead of creased slacks. As dress and appearance fell prey to an increasingly permissive attitude in school, a general malaise began to spread. Call it the domino theory of social chaos: By donning denim, we eased down a slippery slope away from enforceable school expectations toward total cultural disintegration.

Even if doomsday for American civilization is just around the bend, it’s hard to see jeans alone as responsible—after all, many former “denimistas” like me now wear suits and ties most workdays. I think where we find ourselves today results from a host of cultural influences that began to chip away at certainty and conformity 25 years ago. Remember Watergate and the Pentagon Papers, which convinced a lot of people you can’t trust what government says? Remember the burger-ad mantra urging us to “Have it your way”? Remember the bumper sticker, “Question Authority”?

Public schools are reaping some of the consequences of our post-traumatic social rearrangements. Today in schools we often find ourselves answering what may be the single most subversive question it is possible to ask: Why? For example, at my school, the state’s school of fine arts, there’s this: Why will you not let my 15-year-old son or daughter wear a muscle shirt or tank top to class?

Public schools are reaping some of the consequences of our post-traumatic social rearrangments.

Old answers that parents used to give children—answers like “because I said so,” or “because that’s the way it is”don’t find much traction when grown-ups are posing the questions. More and more, people expect a clear and cogent rationale before they decide to put up with rules and decisions they may not like.

I don’t mind giving such answers. For example, it doesn’t bother me to say that we ban bare midriffs in our school not because we think they are vulgar or offensive; in fact, they have a place on the beach. We ban bare midriffs because we see them as unwelcome and unnecessary distractions that can divert too much student attention from the serious intellectual work we’re here to do together.

As tricky as it may be to limit individualism in an art school—art, after all, grows out of out of individual perception, judgment, experiment, and expression—the basic question here is the same as in any school: How do we strike and hold a workable balance that best serves individual and group needs within a specific community of learners?

From where I stand, that balancing act, like juggling eggs on a high wire, seems to be at least as much art as science.

John Northrop is the executive director of the Alabama School of Fine Arts, a state charter school located in Birmingham that serves students in grades 7-12. The essay is adapted from an article first published in the Birmingham News.

A version of this article appeared in the January 16, 2002 edition of Education Week as Dress Codes and Social Chaos

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