On Dress Codes

I often join in on the discussions about school dress codes with the same arguments everyone else does: They’re enforced subjectively, curvier girls are punished more than less-developed girls, it reinforces this idea that girls should adjust their behavior because boys can’t control themselves, girls are most often forced to dress in warmer clothes in hot weather, etc. I hate dress codes and often say, “If they can wear it to Target, they should be able to wear it to school.”

But there is a more philosophical clothing discussion that we often miss out on because if we did, we would have to really eliminate dress code all together. How clothing plays such a big part in a girl’s confidence and attitude during the teen years.

I wore uniforms for 12 years thanks to my Catholic education. (SIDENOTE: I support uniforms and think that if you’re going to try to control clothing at all, you should just make kids wear uniforms. But that’s another entry for another day.) Uniforms could easily be ordered from the uniform company but – other than the skirts – most people did not do that. Everyone instead used the guidelines to buy “cooler” pants and shirts and they all were WAY more flattering. Lots of the kids wore Duckhead branded pants (one of the “cool” brands that made pants that actually fit the rules) and there were a lot of button up shirts you could get at department stores that fit the guidelines. Many had the polo horse on them.

So…even with a uniform there were ways to make clothing more flattering and everyone tried their best to do this in whatever way possible.

My Dad was NOT going to fork out extra money for “cooler” uniform options. However, there was a girl in my grade who was kinda my size and I don’t remember why (because we weren’t really close friends) she often gave me hand-me downs. She was the only reason I had Nike basketball shoes in Junior High and she’s the only reason I had two “cool” options for uniform shirt/pants in high school.

There was one problem…those options DID NOT FIT IN THE UNIFORM DRESS CODE. The blue shirt was a blue button up but it was WAY too big (that was how we liked it in the 90s) and it was a little bit of a jazzy blue, almost denim, AND it had some funky stitching around the pocket. But for the teachers who didn’t care? It passed as a “uniform” shirt and I felt AMAZING in it. On the days I wore that shirt I had NOTICEABLE more confidence than any other day.

She also gave me a pair of khaki pants that were only uniform pants in the since that they were kind brown. They were peg-legged, they had double stitching in SEVERAL places, and they were not traditional fabric. BUT AGAIN…I felt AMAZING in them and they were the only pair of pants I had that I liked wearing over the entire 4 years of high school.

So…I had two articles of clothing that I wore as uniform pieces but DEFINITELY broke the rules in several areas. So, if a teacher was feeling up for it, they would give me a demerit which came in the form of a post-it note pinned to my shirt that said, “Kim Moore Is Out Of Uniform Today.” And that was my sign to other teachers that I had already been punished and so not to punish me any more.

Now…here’s the thing…I was a GREAT student. I never/rarely got in trouble for anything. So the periodic demerit was not going to have any real effect on my life. So I wore those clothes anyway and risked the demerit just because they made me feel good.

I am 43 years old and I still vividly remember that shirt and those pants and how much I loved them and how there were even some out-of-uniform days that I would wear the uniform and just wear those pieces and trust no one would give me a demerit on those days.

See…my Dad did not really get the point of clothes. I was fortunate to have hand-me-downs but we rarely bought clothes for anything that wasn’t required. So I actually dreaded having to dress out of uniform because I only ever had a few options and when you only dress out of uniform a few times a semester, people notice if you wear the same thing. So for me, any confidence associated with clothing was RARE.

My point is, I deliberately dressed in the uniform items that broke the rules, just to feel good about myself. And once, I actually did get a Saturday detention for getting too many uniform violations in a month. And I knew it was going to happen, but I made the decision anyway just because my confidence was so low and my self-image was so terrible that I would rather get detention than wear the clothes that made me feel ugly and hate my body.

Because of these extreme memories I am still very in tune to the emotional power of clothes as a teen girl. Whenever my daughter frets over what to wear to school I am flashed back to the hatred I felt about myself and the shitty confidence that drowned out every other action on the days I had to wear the clothes that I hated. I just never wore pants because I never could find uniform pants that fit the rules that my Dad would buy me AND that made me feel good about myself. I basically froze every winter just to avoid dressing in something that I hated.

My point to all of this is: Clothing is very powerful during your teen years. No matter what your financial status, you end up with some things you like in your closet more than others. Period. There are things you like to wear and – especially for girls – those things often don’t fit in the dress code. So, yes, we could go out and buy shorts that are long enough but my daughter has tried them on and she HATES the way they make her feel about her body. So, she wears jeans during 100 degree days because she would rather be hot and sweaty and at least feel a little confident than wear shorts that make her feel self conscious about the shape/length of her legs.

I mean, we really can’t introduce this type of phenomena during school dress code debates because it would mean we’d have to take away all rules and – at least in our district – no one would consider that. But I do think it’s something we all need to remember…that being a teenager is hard as hell and if your kid can feel a little more confident wearing clothes that might break dress code…what is the harm?

Okay. So they might all be wearing belly-baring crop tops because that’s the style and being in style gives you confidence, and maybe their jeans would have holes ABOVE THE KNEES! But you know what? Who cares? I mean, I honestly don’t give two flying shits about how scandalous the dress is at my kid’s school. If the girls can wear the tight and short spandex shorts and sports bras at cross country practice, then why can’t they wear spaghetti strap tanks to school?

UGGG. I just hate every year, this first month of school, where my daughter and all of her friends send each other pictures of outfits trying to decide how to feel cute, not too hot, but also it in dress code. Current fashion for teen girls is jeans with holes and crop tops and NEITHER of those (if the holes are over the knees) fit dress code so they send a lot of pictures with kinda cropped shirts and jeans with holes over the knees (but with those threads! See! It covers the skin!) and asking everyone’s opinion of if they’ll get called to the office or not.

I MEAN. Give these girls some freedom to walk into Target, buy anything off the rack and walk out and wear it to school. Then they can worry about other things for hours before bed like whether or not Emma Chamberlain and Ethan Dolan are dating.

(Don’t ask.)

2 Comments

  • Colleen

    Our dress code this year has gotten extremely vague “collared shirts or similarly appropriate tops” and “dress pants or shorts of like style or similarly appropriate skirts and dresses”. I’m guessing jeans with holes aren’t allowed because jeans must be “in good repair”. This bugs me because it is so vague and subject to the interpretation of the teacher. I think this is much worse than specific guidelines like “shorts and skirts must be no shorter than 3 inches above the knee.” like it said last year. We are trying to figure out – are cargo shorts appropriate? Wesley didn’t get in trouble for them yesterday. Would they be “appropriate” for Sydney? I remember a dumb dress code rule from when I was in high school. Basically it was that your skirt had to be longer than your fingertips with your arms at your side. The one time I got sent to the office, I scrunched my shoulders a little and got sent back to class. But a girl with longer arms would have been sent home!

  • Lucy McConville

    Ugh…boy did this bring back memories of dressing for high school! No matter what I bought…it was just wrong. Haha. I rarely felt confident in my wardrobe…I just didn’t really have the right fashion sense for 1978 – 1981. Haha. I was a hippie in my soul (like my ten-years-older sisters) and that was NOT in style in the late ’70s! One August I poured over Seventeen magazine so I could finally get it right, bought the outfits, but HAD TO HAVE the Bass two-tone saddle shoes (tan and brown) to go with these “fall” clothes (which were clearly designed for the North East, and not Southern California, but that is another subject!) and my Mom would not drive me to the store to buy them, even though I had saved my own money for them. I had to wear those new clothes with the wrong shoes for two weeks and it was HORRIBLE! As an adult I crack up when I think of this. As if anyone was looking at my shoes. That day when that really cute guy was finally talking to me, and all I could think about the entire time was that I had the wrong shoes for my outfit…hahahaha! AS IF he was looking at my shoes! It is a line I say to myself and my kids to this day, “Don’t worry about it! People are more concerned about their OWN shoes, to notice what you are wearing!”

    All of that said, it is a fine-lined dance. The truth is, boys CAN’T control their thoughts at this age. They can, and must, control their actions…but it is a giant struggle against a gazillion years of biology to control their thoughts. Girls dressed so their pretty tummies are showing, with a loose crop top sort of billowing so the boys can just imagine running their hand under and up…it truly just isn’t fair. I used to tell my daughter, “You might end up marrying one of these guys after you all return back home from college some day…don’t you want to make sure he gets a good, undistracted education?” Hahaha! It absolutely is not fair to girls, but it is biology. It is no pic-nic for the boys, either.