Change Through Art & Text

According to the Upper School Handbook, the dress code is “designed to maintain appropriate decorum and an optimal learning environment for teachers and students.” However, for many students the dress code often can evoke stress and lead to people feeling singled out due to their height or body type. Tana Mardian (‘17) addressed this issue in her November 2016 Match feature article on the dress code, raising the question of whether or not permitting blue jeans could be a feasible option within the school. Inspired by Mardian, as well as by a desire to bring change to the school, Upper School art teacher Pam Sutherland’s Art & Text class set out to challenge the status quo and call for change within the Collegiate community through an art installation in the North Science building. 

The stairwell in North Science. Picture credit: Caroline Campos.

Art & Text is a new semester-long art elective that teaches students how to incorporate both words and drawing into their art in order to create a new form of visual expression. The class uses various types of media, such as technology, painting, and collage, as well as different literary genres, such as poetry and memoir, to create and write in their different pieces. As the course description states, “[because] words are the impetus for each project, exposure to the literary genres of poetry and memoir writing will also occur, but more vitally, students’ personal relationship to words/language as a whole will be the chief catalyst to their creative expression. With the larger world increasingly fixated on the relationship between text and image, this class ultimately asks students to consider more concretely: Who am I? And how can I see/say my ideas best?”

Photo credit: Olivia Laskin.

For their final project for Art & Text in the fall 2016 semester, the class decided to address and discuss issues presented by the dress code and petition for the right to wear blue jeans in school. When asked how this project came about, Sutherland stated, “The dress code is a thing that comes up a lot in class. I thought it might be interesting to offer dress code as a prompt and see what people did. The idea of the petition came later.” Furthermore, student Eliza Goggins (‘19) stated, “Many people in our class were frustrated by the set rules and were passionate about the need for a change. We were also encouraged and inspired by Tana Mardian’s Match article about the dress code at Collegiate.”

Many people agree with the Art & Text class. Eli Gee (‘19) said that he signed their petition because “I’m getting tired of wearing khakis every day.” However, others are more sympathetic to the pre-existing code. Abigail Winfree (‘17) says that while she would be in support of blue jeans, “the rule itself has never bothered me personally. I’m fine with wearing khakis and other colored jeans.”  

When asked about whether there was any apprehension to the topic, Goggins stated,  “I will be honest, I was apprehensive when I first heard about the project and was afraid we would get in trouble for speaking our mind in our installation. Many project work days were spent being reassured by Mrs. Sutherland that there was nothing wrong with what we were doing and we should be proud of ourselves for sharing our opinions and standing up for change.” Sutherland also addressed the issue, stating, “Kids have the power to effect change. We aren’t doing anything wrong. We are questioning a rule that directly affects your life.”

Picture credit: Olivia Laskin.

Caroline Campos (‘18) went into further detail when speaking about her project and the different issues that arise due to the dress code. Campos stated, “When it came to creating my piece and really being part of this collaboration and final project, first and foremost I would say that what motivated me a lot was my passion for the statement that the dress code is a standard for something that is not standard, our bodies. We all have different body types in all shapes and sizes, so when we set these guidelines I think a conflict is created where we don’t acknowledge the difference and the difficulty that often comes with a dress code.” Furthermore, Campos added that, “If we strive to be the diverse community Collegiate deserves to be, we must take into consideration and confront both the underground issues and those more clearly on the surface. In terms of our installation, we all wrote concrete poems stating some of our views, and in terms of taking action, we chose to do so in relation to the jeans rule. We believe that it is the first step to unwinding this standard while still promoting a healthy environment… This is a topic that can be taken on hundreds of tangents, it really goes deeper than just what we might see on the surface, relating to issues people and societies have faced for decades.”

Photo credit: Olivia Laskin.

The final art instillation took the students in the Art & Text class a little over a month to complete, and is now hanging in the North Science building. Sutherland hopes that, “people really look at and read the pieces. I want people to look at the dress code in a lot of different ways in terms of its problems. The dress code can impede expression, and through trying to standardize what you wear (especially with girls, who are so many different shapes and sizes) it’s a slippery slope and you cannot win. With the blue jeans… I think it would be such an equalizer if we simplify and make jeans allowable.”

Art & Text’s thought-provoking installation currently resides in the North Science building. So, if you want to make a change or are curious, visit the exhibit. The petition is in the center of the exhibit, accessible and available for students to sign.

About the author

Olivia Laskin is a senior at Collegiate School.