Wednesday, May 9, 2018

US School Dress Codes

The admirable NPR discussion show 1A recently had a discussion title, "When School Dress Codes Ban Students’ Bodies." The discussion elicited a lot of comments. Here is mine (lightly edited).

For many years back in the last third or so of the 20th c., the first assignment in my writing courses was "Clothes" ("Write about what you know about; write about what you care about"— and, oh boy, my students knew about clothes). What many of my students most wanted to write and talk about was high school dress codes. Here are some discussion questions we started out with.
Discussion/Opening Questions:
(1) John T. Molloy [in Dress for Success] says that "Dress codes can work." If you've been places with dress codes—have they worked? If so,
How have they worked? For whom? To what ends? If authority figures have given you different justifications for dress codes than Molloy gives, which justification(s), if any, do you believe? How could you test the theories?
(2) With "code" in the sense of "a set of rules for affecting behavior and/or allowing communication," there were dress codes at your high school, and there are codes at Miami U. at Oxford (MUO). At your high school, who set the rules? How were they enforced? At Miami, what rules have you inferred?
(3) Molloy finds college students prejudiced about clothes; is this true? Are you(se) more prejudiced than high school students or, from Molloy's comments anyway, business executives?

High school girls' having to kneel so adults in authority could judge the length of their dresses is mentioned in Jerry Farber's satiric essay from 1967 that you can look up under his name and "The Student as ...": "In some high schools, if your skirt looks too short you have to kneel before the principal in a brief allegory of fellatio." Farber's analysis was that dress codes are part of the larger function of American schooling in general to teach Obedience to Authority. What Farber missed in 1967 was that there are always social rules and that the key question are Who makes them, and How are they enforced? At the Oxford, OH, campus of Miami University, groups of students made the rules for their groups and enforced them through usually subtle, sometimes not, peer pressure. The strictness of student rules was clear in the shifts over time from backpack carrying over both shoulders to over one shoulder and than back to both shoulders. I counted 99/100 students obeying the rules, and a student tested the theory by wearing his backpack over both shoulders when the rule was one shoulder. He got looks but elicited a comment only when he buckled the waist straps: *that* was going too far. The one-shoulder rule was robust enough that a male student risked life and limb obeying it while riding a high racing bike in a strong wind next to a busy highway.

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