Dress Coda

I suppose it’s time for a confession, but I have to be covert about it; devious -labyrinthine, to the extent that my disclosure may fly in the face of current trends. I may be incorrectly accused of retrograde thinking -or, horrors, of prejudice. Discrimination.

Well, perhaps there is a soupçon of babbling admixed in my preference, but only in my desire to avoid the frequent tendency to judge in advance, or on insufficient, and perhaps even faulty evidence. There comes a time when freedom from must be protected against freedom to. Freedom should not be interpreted as license; I very much doubt that many of us would push for the freedom, say, to drive on the wrong side of the road. Some freedoms, surely, are worthier of advocacy than others.

And in some venues, freedom may have to yield a little space to fairness and justice. Sometimes freedom simply occupies a space that others cannot occupy -even if they wanted to. I’m referring, of course, to that flagship of fashion: the school. Inhabited as it is by those who are still dependent on group-think, still on their headlong dash for identity and, let’s face it, peer approval, it is a cauldron for fashion. A furnace of innovation where nuance triumphs, and failure to adhere to unspoken rules may result in isolation or exile.

The rules often include behavioural expectations, quirks of special language, and dress codes. It is what groups of young humans do; it is part of growing up, and it is expected that they will stretch boundaries and rebel at what they consider to be arbitrary and unnecessary restrictions. It may be frustrating for those of us who have passed unscathed through the tumult of that phase of youth, but not all are so lucky.

Fashions, for example, may be not only capricious, but also expensive luxuries that some parents either cannot, or choose not to afford, leaving the child in a quandary. Being accepted -welcomed- into a group may be jeopardized. Nobody wants to be ostracized; few feel comfortable in being regarded as different.

I was interested therefore, in an article in the Conversation that addressed the problem but approached it from a different perspective: https://theconversation.com/its-time-to-address-the-hidden-agenda-of-school-dress-codes-97600  

It starts out conventionally enough, ‘Normally, what children can and cannot wear in schools is explicitly noted in school policies or implicitly implied by broader cultural or societal norms.’ But then it goes on to assert that ‘The problem with trying to develop a set of guidelines for school dress code policies is that the implementation or restriction of dress is just not about the clothes that kids wear. Dress code policies are mired in larger contested debates that have to do with gender identity, race and sexuality reflective of a broader public discourse.’

Fair enough -there are larger issues than simply reflecting the dominant community ideology. So the author, Dianne Gereluk at the University of Calgary, goes on to acknowledge other facets of school dress codes, namely, ‘Most obviously, the nature of many dress code violations interconnects to issues of gender and sexual identity. The vast majority of cases have targeted girls and LGBTQ youth on the basis that what one might wear reveals too much — that it’s sexually suggestive, distracting for other students or offensive to the local and cultural norms of the community.’ Further, she goes on to suggest that ‘girls have taken the brunt of dress codes’ and that ‘The infractions for noncompliance exacerbate the shaming of girls’ self-perception of their worth.’

And her answer? ‘If educators and policymakers are genuinely worried about the safety of their students or the decorum of dress codes, schools could simply follow the steps of one school administrator from Evanston Township High School in Illinois. The high school’s fundamental “rule” mandated that certain body parts must be covered for all students at all times. Specifically, students must wear their clothes in a way that fully covers their genitals, buttocks, breasts and nipples with opaque fabric. Such a simple yet inevitably provocative dress code policy removes the broader contested aspects of gender, sexual identity, faith or systemic discrimination.’

Really? Merely covering the parts mentioned still leaves an awful lot of provocative skin if anybody chose to show it -and you can bet they would. Also, I think it still panders to the clarion call of Fashion, albeit in an impoverished attempt to pretend the schools are still catering to freedom of choice -however watered-down: “You can dress however expensively, or outrageously as you want… as long as you don’t show those things!”

I suspect I have travelled too widely outside of North America, because rather than looking to Illinois to solve the problem, I would look to… Well New Zealand, for one, is a good model: school uniforms for both boys and girls. Nobody in school can out-fashion anybody else. And since everybody has to wear the same thing, there’s no shame from differing clothing styles. No obvious financial stigmatization. What they wear on their own time, of course, is up to individuals, just as who they decide to hang around with.

I know that many private schools here in Canada and the U.S.A. long ago mandated school uniforms, and although to many people, it is a manifestation of elitism, this would no longer be a problem if every school -public and private- required it. Each school would presumably have its own, unique design, and this in itself might become a source of pride and a perhaps a fashion statement of its own.

It has the advantage, too, of not being able to demarcate -at school, at least- those difficult issues of gender, sexual identity, or even faith about which Dr. Gereluk was so concerned. Perhaps items like the hijab, or maybe even the niqab, could be incorporated into the uniform, although I suspect each school would require community or religious consultation to accommodate their concerns.

And yes, no doubt there would be initial resistance to such a major shift, but it need not be mandated universally, and all at once. Fashions change, styles morph -and people adapt. Allow me to paraphrase a sentence I remember from Shakespeare’s Henry VIII: New customs, though they be ever so ridiculous, yet are followed.

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