Dress codes teach kids about obeying the rules


WHEN I read Anne Arundel County's new school dress code and heard that some students were unhappy because it might restrict their "freedom of expression," their lament sounded all too familiar.

Three decades ago when I attended high school, my friends and I hated our own school dress code with equal vehemence. We felt it was restrictive and oppressive.

We protested that the code limited our ability to express ourselves through our clothing in an era when self-expression was of paramount importance. The whole notion of adults telling us what dress was appropriate was ridiculous, we thought. We knew what was cool. They didn't.

Boys were forbidden to wear blue jeans. Bell bottoms, which were coming into vogue, were also banned, as were peg-legged pants -- as if anyone in the mid-1960s would ever get caught dead wearing them. As a result, most of us wore chinos or khakis. All T-shirts were forbidden, as were polo shirts. In other words, if you wanted to dress like James Dean in "Rebel Without a Cause," you had to do it off-campus.

Girls had to wear dresses with hemlines that were about mid-knee. (Girls didn't even think of wearing pants to school.)

Skirt length used to provoke the most trouble for teachers because this was the era when the mini-skirt became popular. Outside of school, teen-agers were wearing skirts shorter than anyone had ever imagined.

The hemline line-up

I remember many mornings when a dozen or more girls were lined up in the principal's office to have their hemlines measured. To pass muster, they had to kneel in his office. If the hemline of their skirts didn't touch the ground, they would have to go home and change clothes.

Girls couldn't wear long, dangling earrings, either. Of course, there was no question about boys' wearing earrings. If any had come to school back then sporting a diamond stud in one of his ear lobes, he would have been beaten silly by the bullies or ridiculed by the rest of us.

Boys could not sport beards or mustaches. We tried to grow our sideburns instead. We were sent home if our hair touched our collar.

Hair today, gone tomorrow

Today, many school administrators would welcome students dressed in clothing that was prohibited during my high school days. But I think that is the whole point of the dress code. The type of banned clothing is not as important as the adults' setting certain standards and demanding that the students meet them. Why else would blue jeans be acceptable today when they weren't 30 years ago? They haven't changed. Society has.

Despite all the rhetoric about needing to preserve decorum or create a safe environment, the real reason for these codes is that adults teach children by setting arbitrary limits.

Learning to deal with rules and restrictions is one of the biggest challenges of growing up. That's my observation from having two adolescents at home who simultaneously want my wife and me to impose limits and resist them when we do. Some of the worst fights I have had with my daughters involve, in the larger context of life, trivial matters.

Doc Martens for dinner

My younger daughter loves her low-cut, thick-soled Doc Martens. She would wear them to bed if she could. When she insisted on wearing them to a four-star restaurant on my wife's birthday, I hit the roof.

She was wearing her nicest dress. Her hair was fixed up and she had on opal earrings given to her by her grandmother. Alas, she was also wearing these clunky, heavy shoes.

XTC When I stood her in front of our full-length mirror and tried explained why Doc Martens clashed with the rest of her outfit, she acted as though I'd been speaking in an incomprehensible language.

I finally said that if she wanted to come to dinner, she would have to change shoes. She did.

In an objective sense, my daughter was right. What difference did it make if she wore her Doc Martens? She argued that wearing her favorite shoes would be better than not wearing any at all. But that was not the issue. The issue was about establishing a sense of propriety.

Adults who haven't developed this sense -- knowing when and how to do what -- spend their lives going from one unnecessary hassle to another.

Most of us who are mature, well-balanced adults know how to behave. We scrupulously follow some of society's rules, follow others when it suits us and ignore many others, too.

We all know that how we dress has little to do with how we do our work. Wearing a necktie does not improve my writing, for example, but I generally wear one to work every day.

Restricting hats from school is not going to result in higher SAT scores either, but Anne Arundel's students will be absorbing a lesson that will help them when they are much older.

Brian Sullam is The Sun's editorial writer in Anne Arundel County.

Pub Date: 12/29/96

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