An adage says that nothing has the power to tell the truth about an age quite like fashion. Clothing speaks to time, place, events and values. What is fashion telling communities and parents when their public schools find it necessary to enforce a uniform dress code policy?
I’ve experienced the headline grabbing debate in two communities as they made the switch from students walking the halls wearing fashions inspired by a combination of corporate capitalism, slick advertising, peer pressure, retail availability and family circumstance, to a new fashion era where the school uniform is the new black. Now that some time has passed since students started attending class in clothing inspired by their local school board, is hindsight proving either side of the debate right? Community members that support a “uniform agenda” claim that uniforms promote school unity, develop student discipline and create an atmosphere more conducive to learning. Critics of the uniform policy say that students have their freedom to express themselves compromised and that a change of clothing will not affect academic performance. Both sides have their fair share of valid evidence and supporters, but hindsight is proving them all to be a little short-sighted.
While watching the uniform debate take place in a school that my daughter was attending, I was also working for one of America’s most beloved department store chains. Unlike the critics of school uniforms, retailers are well aware that children already dress like their peers—their consumer group peers. The entire retail clothing industry is built upon the fact that we don’t express ourselves as individuals when we shop. It would be difficult to mass produce, nationally advertise and sell huge quantities of individuality. What consumers buy is known within the industry as McFashion-clothing that is fast, disposable, easy, entertaining and largely homogeneous. To industry insiders, shoppers are expressing their lifestyle reference group whenever they make a retail purchase. Our shopping patterns are so predictable that marketers are able to guess what car you drive, which restaurants you frequent, what books or magazines you read, how much money you earn, what music you listen to and which brand names you covet. Think that you are above it all? Don’t worry. The retail industry has a consumer group for you, too.
The word “teenager” was coined by Madison Avenue in 1941 when the marketing of products to adolescents began. Like all products, children’s clothing is produced by commercial interests that don’t care about what they are creating. Fashion trends used to flow from the top down. Now, they flow from the street up. Today it is fashionable to look downtrodden, overtly sexual or downright criminal. According to Alissa Quart, the author of Branded: The Buying and selling of Teenagers, today’s teens are the victims of the contemporary luxury economy. Culturally, where and how teens shop and what they buy is the new common denominator of social discourse. There has never been a generation with more “stuff requirements” than the current generation of students because our consumption-based society is using shopping to create community. This generation lets other know who they are through what they buy and own. Back-to-school shopping isn’t new, but the amount of money being spent each year has grown tremendously making it the most important selling season of the year for retailers, after Christmas. According to Richard S. Tedlow, a Professor at the Harvard Business School and former Editor of Business History Review, the emphasis on mass consumption in American society is so pervasive that we tend to take it for granted. In his book New and Improved: The Story of Mass Marketing in America, Professor Tedlow states “mass consumption is a rare phenomenon in the history of the world”. He says “there is nothing “natural” about mass consumption. It is a cultural and social construction”. Therefore, the clothing that we choose to wear is also devised systematically and subject to a culturally agreed upon interpretation.
We are all more or less conscious of a “mysterious bonding by means of cloth that creates for human-beings an atmosphere of human uniformity” according to Paul Fussell, a professor from the University of Pennsylvania and the author of Uniforms: Why we Are What We Wear.
Whether we want to admit it to ourselves or not, we all wear a uniform. Jeans used to represent freedom from convention. They were adopted by American society as “an impudent antidote” to uniformity and now that everyone has at least one pair of jeans hanging in their closet, they have become the most important American uniform of all.
When someone says soccer mom, lawyer, college professor, skateboarder, janitor, nurse, surfer or computer programmer, certain images come to mind and clothing is a part of that image. And even renegade image labels such as gangster, rock star or political revolutionary make a fashion statement in this day and age, a concept that borders on ironic. For example, the creation of the epitome of revolutionary-chic, the “Che Guevara Brand” (just visit The Che Store.com -“For ALL Your Revolutionary Needs!”) is accused of creating “the commoditization of an anti-capitalist rebel, who opposed all that his hyper-commercialization image now represents”, by writer Michael Casey, the author of Che’s Afterlife: The Legacy of an Image.
Those who support the uniform agenda in public schools are actually making sure that any young revolutionary want to-be’s don’t make a mockery out of themselves by showing up in commercialized revolutionary-chic garb for class. Most dress code policies do NOT permit students to wear military fatigues, in addition to dog collars, or any article that condones violence or suicide. Should any parent be upset that their little darlings will be unable to do their back to school shopping at Hot Topic if their school district decides to go with uniforms?
Even the non-conformists have to conform to some degree to fit in with the other non-conformists. According to the Bohemian Manifesto: A Field Guide to Living on the Edge, you will be rejected by the other bohemians if your attire does not express your eccentricities, decadence, creativity and deviance with your personal style. Not that any teen or tween non-conformist would even want to be a bohemian now that being un-Dead is all the rage.
You thought that the grunge movement was bad? Did you give a sigh of relief when heroin-chic made its way to the clearance bin? Teen fashion trends never end. Vampire-chic is hot now thanks to the popularity of the Twilight series among young teen girls who are sporting their “I Like Boys Who Bite” T’s and vamp jewelry. The zombie-look is currently considered chic and edgy, so if you had to pick an era to become a zombie, this is it! But even zombies have their own clothing issues to contend with as members of the army of the non-living, and most of these clothing issues seem to center around dealing with gender differences according to David P. Murphy, author of Zombies for Zombies: Advice and Etiquette for the Living Dead. This just shows how cutting edge zombie-chic is since gender issues are so trendy hot right now, even in mainstream society. Gender-bender fashion issues are nothing new to the principals of our public schools across the nation.
A growing number of teens have been dressing to articulate gender identity in the classroom, much to the befuddlement of school officials. Diane Ehrensaft, an Oakland psychologist who writes about gender issues, says “A lot of youths say they won’t be bound by boys having to wear this or girls wearing that. For them, gender is a creative playing field”. This latest teen cultural phenomena often leaves school officials grappling for answers to questions about whether or not boys should be allowed to wear dresses and make up to school. “Dress is always code”, states Jan Hoffman in her article for the New York Times, “Can a Boy Wear a Skirt to School?”, “particularly for teenagers eager to telegraph evolving identities”. And as if that hard enough, when school officials want to discipline a kid who is inappropriately using their wardrobe to express a variance in what is considered a cultural norm of ANY KIND, they have to contend with “antidiscrimination policies, mental health factors, community standards and classroom distractions”.
But even the counter-culture bad asses like those who adhere to Goth fashion recognize the inherent need to sometimes blend in with the mainstream. Jillian Venters, the inspiration for Gothic-Charm School.com, suggests that Goths should dress in appropriate attire for job interviews, the corporate world and family get-togethers. Only a foolish Goth fails to recognize that the usual Goth wardrobe may not be ideal for the summer months since all black clothing does absorb heat very efficiently, making it difficult to maintain that air of other-worldliness and mystery while sweating profusely. There are many practical reasons that self-expression by clothing sometimes has to be curtailed. Even the most hard-core Goth never wears PVC trousers to the beach.
Sometimes things such as safety concerns, functionality, community values and standards of decency need to be considered when it comes to our clothing choices in both the adult and student-world. Like it or not, as a community and as a culture, clothing etiquette does exist and our young adults need help learning the rules.
Those who argue against school uniforms inevitable say that the policy goes against the American value of freedom. But all freedoms come with responsibility. The Northwest Florida Daily News, while arguing against school uniforms in their community, stated “In our view, a splendid way to teach the values of freedom and responsibility is to let youngsters experience freedom, and, in the process learn to act responsibly”. In his article “Erosion of Freedom” from the Salt Lake Tribune, Kent J. Fetzer argues against coerced uniformity and says that as long as clothing choices meet with common standards of decency, schools should accept these choices. But who defines “decent” in a school setting and who is to teach the student to act responsibly when it comes to clothing choices if not the school officials and the school community?
Self expression in schools will always have to be partially limited because it is a communal setting according to Kay Hymowitz, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. The federal courts seem to agree with this notion. The claim that school uniforms in public schools violate the constitutional rights of students is fundamentally flawed according to “Jacobs v. Clark County School District” because “the rights of students must be applied in light of the special characteristics of the school environment”.
So what does all of this talk about fashion, consumer groups and our present consumer based culture have to do with goes on behind closed doors in the public schoolhouse? Parents allow many things to influence their children that have no vested interest in their future outcomes. While doing research for a column about how children learn for the Delaware County Daily Times after my daughter was determined to be “at risk” for having a learning difference in kindergarten, I learned that students only spend 10% of their life in school by the time they turn 18. The other 90% is spent at home and in their community absorbing the influences that shape their values and habits. Social scientists observe that adult authority is weaker and more fragmented than it has ever been at any other time in history. Young people are spending more and more time with their peers and exposed to the media than any previous generation.
When local communities debate about school reform and lofty goals like leaving no child behind, they talk as if our problems with education are limited to what happens in school. Every year, we spend more of your tax dollars trying to fix education. But schools themselves can’t make up for the fact that many inequities in education take place outside of school influence.
The impact of family and community life follows a child through the entire learning process. We spend a lot of public debate time talking about making teachers better at teaching, but little is ever said about preparing parents for their role as their child’s first and most influential teacher. Schools, businesses and other social institutions require skills that children just can’t acquire without extensive parental assistance.
Many of today’s kids need more attention than what they are getting from parents. But because problems at school get more attention than the problems at home, a culture has been created that tells many parents that they don’t play an important part in the education process.
To really improve schools, everyone needs to realize how important it is to make sure that home and school work together. A uniform dress code policy represents that goal. It serves a an unconscious reminder to parents and the community at large that what happens at school matters just as much as what students bring in with them from the outside. Parents have to actively enforce the values and habits that schools require so that their children are entering the building with the skills needed to get an education. Parents, and the community at large, need to show their children that they support their schools. A simple way to get this message across to our kids is by supporting your local school officials when they state that they have a need to enforce a dress code within the school community.
We have specific clothing that we wear to life changing events like weddings, funerals and other special occasions. Our children attend school to prepare for their future. It seems more than appropriate to teach students that their future is worthy enough to require special clothing.