Is That Appropriate for School? The Dress Code at Collegiate

“The following are not permitted: tank tops, spaghetti straps or any top in which too much shoulder is revealed. Tops that are low-cut or revealing in either the front or back. Leggings or tights worn as pants. Skirts, shorts and dresses that do not meet the required fingertip length minimum.”

Senior girls on the first day of school. Photo Credit: Tana Mardian.

Senior girls on the first day of school. Photo credit: Tana Mardian.

These are a few of the rules that outline the Upper School girls’ code of dress at Collegiate. Dress code appears to be more complex for the females, as the males’ code consists of more concrete rules: “The following are not permitted: untucked shirts (except for long sleeve rugby-style shirts)” and “Belts and collared shirts are required” are two of the rules for male students. The girls have many more options for dress, leading to greater opportunity to regulate. Among the students, dress “coding” feels more prominent this year than in recent ones. Female students have been admonished for wearing clothing deemed inappropriate, a judgment they often disagree with. This raises the question of whether or not the school’s dress code is connecting effectively with contemporary culture.

Associate Director of Student Life Missy Herod, Collegiate alum and current faculty member, remembers the dress code from her time at the school in the 1970s. Dresses and skirts could not be shorter than three inches above the knee, and students were evaluated as soon as they walked in the building. Catherine Flippen, the head of the school at the time, waited at the front door of the building, and if a skirt appeared too short, she used a yardstick to measure the distance between the knee and hemline. Herod remembered girls rolling up their skirts once they passed Flippen, and then would quickly roll them down if she walked by. Girls were prohibited from wearing pants at any time, and shorts were only permitted if the temperature exceeded 90 degrees. While the dress code has obviously changed over the decades, some members of the community still question its suitability for 2016.

Assistant Head of Upper School Sarah Baker offered her perspective to students struggling with the dress code. “Like all policies, [the dress code] bears frequent examination. This is especially true of the dress code because it is so chronologically sensitive.” Baker attended, and eventually taught at, The Episcopal Academy in the suburbs of Philadelphia, where “girls [had to] wear dress pants (no sweatpants, jeans, yoga pants, etc.) or the school kilt, white or blue collared shirts or blouses, white or blue sweaters, and dress shoes [and were not allowed to wear] sleeveless shirts, sneakers, sweatshirts, t-shirts, open-toed shoes, skirts or dresses other than the school kilt.” Coming from a school that almost had a uniform, Baker immediately felt that Collegiate’s dress code was quite relaxed compared to her experience. But she quickly realized that many students find this dress code limiting. Baker agrees with students about potentially reforming the dress code, highlighting its importance in time by saying, “What worked for a dress code ten years ago won’t necessarily work now. I think that’s the root of a lot of the conflict and discourse—the extent to which our current dress code is feasible, and people have different opinions on that.”

Rhiannon Boyd, Upper School Senior Seminar teacher at Collegiate, echoes this idea that our dress code is outdated and explained its relevance to earlier generations when she stated, “I think that it makes sense that we have the dress code that we have given the idea that the dress code hasn’t really changed much since it probably was originated. In your parents’ generation, for example, to be a college prepatory school meant that you were preparing students to succeed in business context, in college and then beyond. What that looked like actually had a look. To look successful meant something, and it meant some very specific things. It meant boys looked a certain way, and girls looked a different way, so I understand how it came to be. I think it was valuable actually for that time. We were preparing students to inherit that kind of world.”

Boyd expanded on this idea when she said, “What it means to be successful now is much more complicated. The kinds of jobs we are preparing students to have are quite varied. We have students in many different fields. And what it means to be successful on Wall Street has a look, but what it means to be successful as a professional actor in New York City has a very different look, and we have both of those graduates. I don’t think success looks one way, so I think we need to consider that.”

Senior Class President Kate Surgner (‘17) agrees with the need for an update. “I feel that Mr. Loach and Mrs. Baker are doing their job enforcing the dress code. There have not been any alterations to the dress code this year, but it has clearly been stressed and enforced more. I don’t see anything wrong with having a dress code. I think it’s respectful for students to show up looking nice. However, I do feel that our dress code is out of date, which makes it harder to follow.”

Currently in his 17th year at Collegiate, Head of Upper School Patrick Loach realizes this struggle with the dress code’s applicability with our current society, remarking, “Trends in fashions make, at times, the dress code more challenging because you, as young people, when you go shopping for shorts, there aren’t many options. So I get it, and that’s one of the challenges.” He continued, expanding on his understanding of the purpose of the dress code and its enforcement. “What I broadly believe is serious dress for serious work. That’s the way I look at school dress. If we have rules in the handbook, we have to enforce the rules… So if the students want to have a conversation about whether we should change the rules that are in the handbook, I’m happy to have that conversation, but we’re going to go ahead and enforce the rules that are in the handbook. That’s one of our responsibilities, and I think ultimately what students want, while they might not say this, is consistency, because if it’s consistent, then it’s predictable for the student, and it feels fair. I think students struggle when it’s inconsistent because then it feels unfair and unjust.”

In addition to students feeling like the dress code is outdated, many struggle with the notion of subjectivity with the dress code’s language. Baker was willing to offer her solutions to this when she stated, “If we are concerned about subjectivity in the dress code, the answer is to move in one direction or the other. We could either make the prose more objective, which is to say that we could write rules such as ‘Students may not wear V-neck, sleeveless shirts,’ or ‘Collars must rise to the neck.’ Or we could move in the opposite direction, and this is something that some students have suggested: to increase the subjectivity by writing a brief dress code statement like, ‘Students are expected to dress modestly and appropriately for school.’”

Some students are confused by this subjectivity, as faculty members do not always agree. One adult may say an outfit is inappropriate, and another may deem it suitable for school. In one particular situation, a faculty member told a student that her outfit consisting of a shirt and leggings was not according to the code, while another teacher told her it was appropriate. After hearing about this instance, Baker commented, “Whereas I am not familiar with this incident specifically, perhaps this faculty member felt that the shirt that the young woman was wearing was not long enough, given the pants that the student was wearing. I would imagine that is what the faculty member’s concern was. And yet another faculty member, here we get the subjectivity, may have believed that that shirt was indeed long enough. The way the code is currently written, the check is to have the girl lower her arms to see if the shirt fingertip length, but of course, you may wonder if the teacher did not want to do that publicly and simply assessed it differently than did her colleague. I agree that the code’s setting up this sort of conundrum is a point of weakness that we may need to discuss.”

While she does think the subjectivity is difficult, Baker offered the other side of this argument. “I do think it is an appropriate role for a faculty member to help students to dress in ways that are appropriate for the seriousness of what we are trying to accomplish here. We’re a group of people that come together here for widely different reasons, all within the same day. Some of [the students’] day is spent socializing; some of our day is spent sharing meals together; some of our day is spent mentoring and advising; some of it is spent studying, researching, learning, and really seriously attempting to become an intellectual community with each other.” She continued, “There is this kind of core to this, which is that this is an intellectual community. And, as you all join other intellectual communities, you will find that people dress differently to be in various intellectual communities. A lot of work spaces are much more casual than they used to be. Some aren’t. So, I do think it’s an appropriate function for an adult to say to a student, whom that teacher believes may benefit from this, ‘Hey, let’s talk about how seriously you’re presenting yourself…’ and then to counsel that person. I’m not opposed to this notion of subjectivity in that these adults are here to help students learn.”

Baker has been listening intently to students’ concerns with the dress code and is even asking questions herself. “This notion of fingertip length has been brought to my attention, and I think it’s a good question to raise. Whose fingertips, is a question that I have. Where are these shorts that are fingertip length? Where do we find them?” Surgner echoed this when she said, “I also think the fingertip length rule is out of date, considering so few stores carry shorts that length.”

Another topic of discussion has been the rule prohibiting blue jeans while allowing all other shades. Loach is open to the idea of blue jeans, stating, “If SCA wanted to go ahead and explore that question and consider a proposal about whether jeans could be worn, I certainly would be open to considering that question. What I would want to believe is two things: if we did allow blue jeans, that would eliminate some of the issues we have with other things, in terms of skirt length not being appropriate or short length not being appropriate, meaning that girls would see this as an option of something that they could wear, which would make it easier to continue to follow the dress code. I would also want to make sure that the jeans [are not distressed].”

While Baker struggles with this jean regulation too, she offered her understanding. “I don’t have a good answer to that beyond this kind of American preoccupation that blue denim is synonymous with the casual, but since we permit sweatshirts, that is something I have considered.” Surgner believes in a need to change this rule as well, pointing out the shift in perspective of blue jeans by stating, “No blue jeans seems extreme. We are allowed to wear grey, white, black denim, but no blue? Also, blue jeans have been worn more and more by professionals in recent years. Many companies have jeans day once a week, including my dad’s, who works at Altria.”

While many students agree that the dress code may need reform, Parker Conquest (‘17) believes in a completely new solution. He remarked, “I would prefer for Collegiate to adopt a school uniform. It’s not necessarily about professionalism but more about simplicity. The way you dress should be way less important than what you do at school. Why not keep the dress simple and equal? There are economic gaps at Collegiate, and people shouldn’t feel pressured to buy expensive clothes.”

Reilly Gallagher (‘18) offered her thoughts on just a few rules that she believes need to be changed, saying, “I would like if we could wear regular blue jeans, and I wish we could wear leggings as long as the outfit is appropriate.” Boyd believes in a need for a collective discussion. “I think that we need to have one conversation as a school body. It’s time to figure out what we value, what we should do, and to have a conversation that actually starts fresh. It’s time to have a thought experiment about what the dress code should be, instead of what it is now.”

Many members of the female student body have another separate issue: the approach from faculty when designating inappropriate dress. In some cases, the conversations have been particularly loud or in front of fellow classmates. Some girls have felt ashamed or embarrassed after the confrontation. Baker was saddened to hear this, stating, “I am sorry that any student would feel that way. That is, of course, not what any of us would intend. No student should leave any interaction feeling ashamed.” Loach agrees; he said, “What I also think matters is that there’s both the substance and the style. So substantively, I could have a conversation with a student about dress, and I could be right in terms of them violating the dress code. The manner in which I have that conversation, I think, matters. I don’t want the experience with the student to feel like a moment that is embarrassing or shaming.” Loach stated that, “[If that happens to a student], I want that student to come to me or come to Ms. Baker or Coach Kondorossy if they don’t feel comfortable saying something to the teacher, which I could see why they might not, but if they felt like they were confronted about it in a way that wasn’t appropriate, then I want to know about that.”

Surgner agreed with this when she stated, “I don’t blame teachers or faculty for enforcing the rules that they are supposed to enforce, but I do hold the teachers responsible for being unprofessional and unkind during instances of correcting dress code violations, and I also blame the dress code for being out of date.” Bryce Ritter (‘17) stated, “A lot of girls are angry [about the dress code] because they feel like it’s targeting them, and it makes them feel bad about themselves when they get called out.” Tess Perry (‘17) agreed with Ritter’s statement by saying, “It seems like teachers care more about appearance than how I participate in class, which makes me feel like more of an object.”

Brigid O’Shea (‘17) struggles with the perception of body types within the school’s dress code. “I just think that recently the line between dress code violations and body types has been blurred. Teenage girls are thoughtful and emotional by nature, so the messages that people’s actions send are taken to heart. When a girl is told she’s violating dress code, especially if she has a big chest, long legs, or a body type [different] from the accepted norm, it can often be taken as a bad reflection of her body, rather than her wardrobe choices. I think that it’s wrong to require a girl to work harder and spend more money on clothes within the dress code because of her body, and that tends to be a trend.”

Baker reflected upon the issue of the dress code and females as a whole. “A question that I ask myself is, ‘Why is this issue such a female issue?’ So what are we doing right with respect to the male dress code that we’re not doing right with respect to the girls’ dress code, such that the girls feel so much less comfortable with both the code and the interactions surrounding the code?” Boyd has a similar thought, stating, “I think students feel judged. There’s an important conversation to be had about how we regulate bodies. We regulate boys’ bodies much differently than how we regulate girls’ bodies, and that’s a problem.” She added, “We have to consider whether or not we should be contributing unintentionally, because I do believe it’s unintentional, to the continued sexualization of young girls’ bodies. If we tell girls that their bodies must be covered in certain kinds of ways, then the unintended consequences are these as I see them: we are telling girls that their bodies are potentially shameful but also potentially powerful, which sends mixed messages about how girls should use their bodies.”

This question is not only relevant to Collegiate but on a national and global level as well. Female students are feeling uncomfortable in many situations, even in middle school. At the prestigious Boston Latin School, the oldest public school in the country, female students insist that the rules at their school maintain a “patriarchal society.” In response, the headmaster of the school revoked the prohibition of leggings. At other schools, students are required to change into another outfit for their dress code violations, which then can interfere with their parents’ day. Some schools will give students an alternate outfit, such as Urbana Middle School in Frederick County, Maryland, which requires students to wear a large, yellow shirt or be sent home, if found to be out of dress code. Many students are taking the issue into their own hands, questioning the rules and protesting in various ways. Students from Urbana decided to wear yellow shirts that read, “I am more than a distraction.”

Students at Urbana Public School in yellow shirts that read "I am more than a distraction." Photo Credit: Bill Green.

Students at Maryland’s Urbana Middle School in yellow shirts that read “I am more than a distraction.” Photo credit: Bill Green.

Collegiate student Olivia Brown (‘17) addressed this aspect of the issue when she said, “By sending girls home for breaking dress code and ‘distracting their male peers,’ you’re teaching young girls that their education isn’t as valuable as boys’ educations are, or that [girls’] education isn’t as important as their physical appearance—an antiquated idea that is unfortunately still perpetuated.”

Individuals are exploring this notion that strict and unfair dress codes are shaming girls, especially during juvenile years. Laura Bates of Time Magazine discusses this in her article, How School Dress Codes Shame Girls and Perpetuate Rape Culture,” stating, I can’t help feeling there is a powerful irony in accusing a girl of being ‘provocative’ – in projecting that societal assumption onto her adolescent body – before she is even old enough to have learned how to correctly spell the word.” Bates continues, pointing out statistics such as those that state 1 in 5 women will be a victim of sexual assault in college. Bates believes that this mindset is setting young girls up to believe that males “are biologically programmed to objectify and harass them.”

On a global scale, the idea of a dress code is a part of greater political and social struggles. The Islamic State in Iraq stoned five women to death for refusing to wear a veil. The group then decided to ban the burka after a veiled woman killed two of their soldiers. In France, the government has gone in a different direction. The country banned the burka in public. France is also prohibiting women from wearing the burkini, and police have stripped down women in public in order to enforce this rule. The burkini is clothing worn as a swimsuit by some Islamic women who wish to cover more of themselves for religious reasons, and it can cover all areas of the body except for the face, hands, and feet. France has experienced multiple terrorist attacks and claims to use this ban to protect their secular values as a country.

Police in France making a woman take off her burkini. Photo credit:

While this issue of dress code may seem minor at Collegiate, people around the world have been fighting the societal norms that surround a woman’s choice of clothing for decades. In 1907, Australian swimmer Annette Kellerman was arrested in Massachusetts for wearing a one-piece swimsuit, as it was perceived as extremely revealing. In 1969, Rep. Charlotte T. Reid (R-Ill.) was the first woman to wear pants on the US House of Representatives floor. These matters may seem petty, but they are essential in understanding the advancement of women’s rights. Dress code is ever-evolving with the social progression and judgment of women, and the questions become more difficult as time passes. Who should legislate women’s dress? Is it necessary? What do the regulations mean in regards to the authority of women, specifically when the rules are created by men? While the nature of dress code is an ongoing conversation at Collegiate, this issue of outfit choice continues to impact the perspective of women.

About the author

Tana Mardian is a senior at Collegiate and has a fear of cotton balls.