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On Dress Codes

Monday October 7, 2013

There are dress codes everywhere you go. Some are definite and published, like the dress code at our children's day school, where the principal rule is collared shirts and no jeans, or at our club, which has a similar ban on jeans and t-shirts. Others are implied, such as wearing Sunday Best to church, or dressing up for dinner at a friend's house. Sometimes dress codes are imprecise but are nonetheless widely understood, such as business casual. Men can wear a bottom down shirt, khakis, a belt and loafers and they are suitably dressed. Women have more choice but certainly low-cut blouses or skirts that are too short would strain most people's sense of what business casual should mean. This is all to say that dress codes, explicit or implicit, are a fact of life.


However, what never ceases to amaze me is how casual, even indecent or just plain scruffy, young people look today when there are no explicit expectations for attire. For boys, it is the long, long swishy basketball shorts, with a tank top or dark t-shirt with decals, and the open high-top sneakers, the baseball cap on backwards. For girls, it is the muffin top spilling over the low-slung short shorts, the skimpy camisole top with the bra straps hanging out. I see these children waiting for the bus stop to go to school. I see these children at the park. I am constantly surprised by what parents let their children wear. Why do the parents even buy the black t-shirts with the skulls on them? Do they not think it is objectionable, both on standards of decency and on a basic level of what is appealing and pleasant to look at? By and large the parents of these children conform to a basic dress code themselves, both in their private life and in their work life. Why do the parents not dress their children how they dress themselves?

At the public high school in Greenwich, Connecticut where I live, there was recently a brouhaha over the fact that a female student was told she needed to cover up. She screamed discrimination and said that the dress code, such as it was, was applied unfairly in her case. And, to her point, the dress code at Greenwich High School is vaguely written. The only requirement is that the children must dress "within reasonable limits." What it effectively means is that there are no clear cut rules and it is up to the discretion of the school administration. A small midriff may look fine on one girl, and look positively indecent on another, depending on their size and figure. To me this is obvious. She, however, did not see it that way and furthermore, protested that she was being judged on how she looked and that she should be free to wear what she wants. My view is that she may be free to wear what she wants (within an ever increasingly liberal view of what is and is not decent) but she should be taught that she will certainly be judged on how she looks. 

A friend of mine has two boys who go to school in Silicon Valley. The understood dress code is skateboard chic, and my friend does not require her sons to wear collared shirts or chino shorts when they go to school. From a parenting perspective, she is probably making the right choice since making them dress differently from all the other children would not help them make friends. However, every year when they travel to Palm Beach to visit her mother, she buys them a whole new wardrobe of collared shirts, khakis, navy blue blazers, and loafers. She told me that she wants her children to know that there are places where the expectation of dress is different, and I applaud her for it. My sister-in-law has always declared her intention of never letting her son wear anything but a collared shirt.  In her words, "t-shirts are for soccer and sleeping at our house- plain and simple.  Additionally, I think when kids are dressed up, even a bit, they tend to behave better and show respect to their surroundings and adults."  I had never really thought of the connection between being dressed properly and behaving properly, but it is obvious, once you think about it.

Partly, it is just my sense that in past generations, and I realize I must be careful to not overly romanticize the past, that society banded together to insist on certain dress requirements, and the children, as part of that society, for the most part (with some balking) conformed to those requirements. In the novel Past Imperfect, by Julian Fellowes (creator of Downton Abbey), the unnamed narrator muses on the contrast between society before 1968, and the society of today, and one of the primary distinctions he finds is in how the young of today look vastly different ("aliens from a foreign place") from their parents. Like me, he is bewildered by how unalike they look and act, both in attire and in the way they talk. "Why don't parents mind this? Or don't they notice? Isn't the desire to bring up your young with the habits and customs of your own tribe one of the most fundamental imperatives in the animal kingdom?" Of course fashion changes, and everyone is dressing more casually today, but it is the disconnect between the appearance of the children and the appearance of the parents that I find puzzling. In these cases, the apple does in fact fall far from the tree, and not for the better. For me, it is indicative of a broader problem of the failure of parents to teach their children how to be adults, but, that is a thought that must be deferred to another day. Let it simply lie with my exhortation to parents, "Teach your children how to dress!"

About the Author

Caroline Pillsbury Oliver is married to Drew Oliver, and is the mother of four children.  Caroline and her family live in Greenwich, Connecticut.  When not driving her children around, supervising homework, tracking down lost articles of clothing, grocery shopping and making dinner, Caroline works part time as a trusts and estates attorney.

Caroline is a graduate of the Hotchkiss School in Lakeville, Connecticut, Brown University and Columbia Law School.  Caroline grew up living abroad as the daughter of an American Foreign Service Officer, and was born in Lubumbashi, Democratic Republic of the Congo.




0 Erika 10-11-2013 17:55
Well said!
0 Marc Fleuette 11-21-2013 14:21
Well said and well needed. The clothes don't have to be expensive, but they do have to be clean and neat. From my experience, a basic uniform would greatly simplify school dress and lower costs. It would also send the message that school is a special place and needs to be respected.

Your message needs to be shared with a much wider audience -- I think there are natural allies in the home-schooling movement, the 'tea-party' groups, and every other faction that is trying, in the face of incredible pressure, to uphold standards and to ready their children to become productive adults instead of lifelong teens.

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