24 March 2013

Are you watching out for those dress code police?

This past week I've been corresponding with the administration at the school our kids will attend while we are back in the States for home assignment.

Alert... minor dress code violation!
When that school confirmed they still required uniforms, I felt - as in exhaling a HUGE sigh of relief - reassured - because dress codes (all aspects of them - determining them, establishing them, enforcing them, maintaining them, shopping so that my kids can abide by them etc.) just leave me tired and frustrated. Since my computer was informing me that the temperature outside was 112'F at that moment, I didn't need anything else to compound those sorts of feelings!

Dress codes are one of those things I get and don't get... all at the same time. 

Parents, not schools or other organizations, are the ones responsible for determining a dress code for their own children. As a parent, I also believe that in general, we can't leave teenagers to independently establish a dress standard that the adults in their lives will deem acceptable. It is not, however, the role of the school to come up with a standard of dress that they think every person needs to follow. I do understand that there needs to be some sort of standard or guidelines - for the sake of uniformity and presenting a collective image as students of the school, but adding a judgmental component: right/wrong or modest/immodest or appropriate/inappropriate is not, I believe, a beneficial position for the school to take. Parents may agree to enforce a school's dress code, but realize that when parents do not "buy into" a particular code, that is all it is - abiding by someone else's externally applied rule because the pros outweigh the cons as far as a child's education is concerned. 

Does anyone else find it concerning that parents, in cooperation with schools, then risk teaching legalistic attitudes, that outward outweighs what's happening on the inside, that hypocrisy is justifiable under certain circumstances, that modesty is just about clothing and is concretely and finitely  measurable, and that independent of God and in our own strength we can obey the law? 

Nevertheless, most student handbooks include a list of dress guidelines comprised of some general statement about clothing being neat, modest and clean followed by a list of all the things that are not allowed (i.e. tank tops, muscle shirts, spaghetti straps, midriffs, cutoffs, etc.). Some schools get even more specific - to the point of measuring how far above or below a knee a skirt slit can be, how low on the hips a pair of pants may permissibly ride or how many fingers wide the strap on a sleeveless shirt must be.Some schools find all these rules to be either burdensome or ridiculous and therefore choose to adopt a school uniform. Acceptable items of clothing are then detailed by the school administration and/or teaching staff and the family must then purchase a minimum number of the approved items so that their children arrive at school appropriately clothes. In local Nigerien schools, when students register, they are given tiny swatches of the uniform colors (i.e. khaki for the bottoms, sky blue for the tops) and directions like skirts for girls, ankle length pants for boys, and shirts must have collars and sleeves. They purchase material, take it to a tailor and have their uniforms made. There is some room for individual style and tastes, but most uniforms do end up having a similar look.

What I don't get about dress codes is all the fuss. Yes. Set up some standards and then gently, graciously enforce them. Many times, all it takes is a quiet reminder and a sheepish student fixes the problem because s/he realizes they got caught seeing how far s/he could push... or because s/he honest to goodness didn't recognize s/he was violating the rules and is horrified to be "in trouble..." or the upper elementary kid who has grown and lengths that were acceptable at the beginning of the year no longer work... Don't humiliate or berate children for their clothing choices. Don't automatically assume the worst possible motivations. Don't place children in the role of "dress code police." Don't create anxiety so that students agonize over their clothing choices each morning. Recognize that youth will experiment with what they wear and how it looks and evaluate the different reactions they get based on their clothing. They are exploring what it means to be masculine or feminine and developing a style that says, "Hey, this is me!" Modesty is a concern - but the point of modesty is not making sure the girls don't dress in a way that is tempting to guys (unfortunately, that is what is has come down to in many dress codes). Rather the point is to not call attention to yourself, but instead in your comportment and presentation to bring glory to God - and inherent in the word modesty is also the word softness or gentleness. Dealing with dress code infractions in a harsh or "bully-ing" way undermines that whole principle - and will never bring a "...harvest of love, joy, peace; patience towards others, kindness, benevolence..." (WNT) which then causes me to wonder how many dress codes are the overflow of the work of the Spirit.

What to do with those repeat offenders who are continually pushing the line? The first resource needs to be parents. Parents repeatedly required to leave work, come to school to get their child who violates the code, take them home and help them to find something acceptable and then return them to school will typically begin to ensure that their child dresses appropriately and then accountability falls back on parental shoulders (speaking as a parent, that is exactly where I think it should be). Since both parents and students are typically required to sign student handbooks at the beginning of the school year, parents have already agreed to support the school and their dress code. 

Of course, all of these issues remind me of the benefits of uniforms. Choosing one makes it easier to identify the compliant as well as the defiant. Another plus for uniforms? Teenage girls flinging clothing items all over the bedroom moaning about having nothing to wear becomes a thing of the past - they simply pull the uniform out of the dryer from the day before, iron as needed, get dressed and head out the door for school. 

So yes, I'm clearly a fan of uniforms? How about you? Why or why not? 

I was discussing this with a group of friends the other day and one person commented that our Korean families (we work at an international school) are some of the most adamant against uniforms - recalling too strongly the absolute lack of individualism and the oppression of communism.

Do you have other examples like this one I just mentioned? If you are a supporter of uniforms, how would you address the above concern? If you know of a different concern, what is it and how would you address that one?


  1. Funny - my son and I were discussing this very thing at dinner Saturday.

    We both agreed that having a uniform, or at least a fairly specific dress code, is a good thing. He has been asked by fellow students at his school (The Midland Academy) to sign a petition to change the dress code, to which he has politely refused. He actually enjoys dressing according to code - so much so that he doesn't even "dress down" on the days when students are allowed.

    I think a dress code (or even uniform) policy is a good thing - but maybe more than simply specifying what is appropriate, but also specifying the potential consequences of not abiding by the code. And having uniforms simply simplifies the question of what is or is not appropriate. And I don't think requiring uniforms is a militant or oppressive policy, although I can understand how someone who comes from a militant or oppressive culture could view it that way.

    And I think that any decision made regarding violation of the code should be made by the administration - that way we don't have a case like the one in Illinois recently, in which a student was forced to change his shirt (actually turn it inside out) because the teacher decided that it violated the dress code. It was a U.S. Marines t-shirt with a pair of crossed rifles on it, and the teacher decided it was inappropriate because of the guns on it. The office staff never knew anything about the situation until it showed up in the news. They said they would have overruled the teacher in favor of the boy.

    Of course, that particular shirt would be a violation of the dress code at both CBA and The Midland Academy - but only because t-shirts are not allowed. However, it WOULD be allowed during Spirit Week if the theme called for it. In fact it wouldn't be a bad idea to have a "support the military" day during Spirit Week.

    1. i think a uniform is head over heels better than a list of specifics to follow in a dress code - the more "specifics" you have, the more you risk too much wiggle room to keep admin happy or legalism.

      and i really think a huge part of the consequences need to implicate the parents. the bit about a dress code is to teach that there are certain types of clothing for certain types of occasions - but that is culturally and relatively determined. there isn't a verse in the Bible that says modest= (or neat, or appropriate, or sub in whatever word you want). consequences need to be natural, real life ones. so you show up to work dressed inappropriately - what happens? let the consequences mimic what would happen later in life, on the job.

      as far as institutional consequences - i think the better idea is a come up with a policy that is followed, that everyone buys into and that everyone is responsible to enforce. otherwise it just ain't gonna happen, particularly when it is given top down. if those underneath don't agree, they'll just turn a blind eye to infractions and those who do end up looking like the bad guy police...

      and all of these nuances are exactly why dress codes are hard to handle - i.e. even in real life, if you've got this dude who is an awesome lawyer working for your firm, but won't come to the office in anything but casual dress. he shows up in court appropriately, but the day to day stuff, he refuses. do you fire the best lawyer in your firm or do you decide that it really isn't that big of a deal and put up with his individuality?

      and that is a rhetorical question...

  2. As I was reading your post and Adam's reply. I agree there is a place for dress code in education, but especially in Christian circles, it can so easily slide to legalism. I experienced that in college and the "holier than you" attitude that came with it. I hated it. Even if there is not an "official" uniform, there quite often is a "uniform."

    School dress codes and uniforms can actually be a training point for adult life. Many jobs require a specific type of "uniform." My last job, depending on your role, there was a specific uniform and color you had to wear. There was still room for individuality in the actual style of scrubs.

    I know personally I enjoy having the kids in uniforms. This year having one school kids in uniform and one not, I much prefer dressing the one who is. I don't have to keep checking to make sure an outfit actually goes together. (This morning it was tie-dye shirt with red pants that clash with the shirt.)

    I am a fan of uniforms there is a place for them in lide

    1. so agree that dress codes and uniforms can be a training point for adult life - but is that one that falls in the school's domain or the parent's? uniforms are easier than dress codes.

      where i think uniforms become a problem is when the uniform becomes a subtle tool to make others conform to someone else's sense of morality/modesty. the purpose of the uniform is to give a cohesive and unified look/identification to a particular school and to define what is considered appropriate dress in THAT environment - not necessarily modest or stylish or any other adjective - but the best dress to accomplish the goals and tasks of that setting. guys at a Christian school working in a woodshop obviously would not wear what we picture as the standard Christian school uniform. Teachers working with severely handicapped preschoolers would never want to be required to work in a dress, nylons and heels - just doesn't make sense.


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