Dress for Success

Small LogoJanuary 4, 2008

I heard about it yesterday from a friend who works in local news. He was annoyed that his station had not covered the first day the new dress code was put in place in the Lebanon School District. Other stations had reporters and camera crews in place Wednesday morning to interview and film the 100 secondary school students sent home for failing to comply with the new regulations. Wouldn’t such an event hold at least as much interest for the citizens of central Pennsylvania as what Republicans are up to in Iowa and Wyoming? It certainly would have for me

I have been involved in public education in some form or another all of my life, from growing up with a teacher father to my own thirty-year career at the front of a classroom to shepherding my daughter through her college prep years. When I started teaching, the big clothing controversy was over whether girls should be allowed to wear pants to school. I left the year after the principal, with great reluctance, relaxed his intransigent attitude about the wearing of hats indoors. I’ve implemented almost as many variations on the dress code as I did the curriculum. This is territory I know well.

“Let me guess,” I said to my friend. “The parents and students interviewed will say it’s not fair, they spent good money buying clothes their kids can’t wear now, and it won’t change student behavior or achievement anyway.”

Did I nail this or what? From the front page of this morning’s Harrisburg Patriot-News:

Maria Furhman said she spent $71 on two pairs of pants for her son, Martin Snyder. He was sent home from school Wednesday for wearing pants with pockets on the thighs.

Furhman said she doesn’t feel her son was treated fairly because other students wearing the same type of pants weren’t sent home. She said she doesn’t oppose the dress code but thinks students need more choices.

“Cargo pants, to me, are not a problem,” she said, adding that banning them won’t deter a student who wants to bring a weapon to school.

“They should just use a metal detector,” her son said. 

I must admit, I was surprised at the scope of the restrictions imposed by the Lebanon administration. Particular colors are specified for pants, and denim jeans are banned. Tops are restricted to collared polo or dress shirts, and turtlenecks or sweaters with a collared shirt or turtleneck underneath. T-shirts with foolish sayings (a favorite phrase of a clergyman I once knew who disliked seeing them in church) are banned, as are t-shirts with insignias, emblems, imprints, or sayings of any kind. 

One Lebanon mother said the district should have waited until the next school year to implement the new dress code. “It was kind of overwhelming with Christmas,” she said, forcing parents to buy presents and clothing.

I, too, wondered why this change was made mid-year. A glance at the district’s official site shows that notice of the change was given in August, so the point about having to buy a new wardrobe at Christmas and the lament about the $71 spent on the wrong kind of pants are lost on me.

The dress code I had to enforce during my years at Lower Dauphin was far less restrictive and specific. Foolish sayings were allowed unless they were sexually suggestive or promoted tobacco, alcohol, or other drugs, legal or not. (I once asked a girl to cover up her “Just do me!” t-shirt because I didn’t want anyone actually advertising for a sexual partner in my classroom — yes, she and I did have other issues.) Midriffs and shoulders were supposed to be covered, but denim was allowed and personal discretion was advised when it came to holes, rips, or frayed hems. Before the hat restrictions were relaxed there were some dicey mornings when you could hear the principal striding down the hall, throwing open classroom doors, and roaring about negligent teachers who just didn’t care about the hat rule. By the time he got to my room at the end of the hall the boys had squashed their hats into their pockets to avoid their confiscation, even though they hadn’t been wearing them in the first place because Mrs. D was persnickety about avoiding conflict with her mercurial supervisor.

The brouhaha at Lebanon and the reference to the $71 spent on cargo pants reminds me of the only time an actual dress code rather than personal discretion was imposed on me as a teacher. When we assembled for the first pre-season preparation days in August of 1996, we learned that the principal (the same one who raged against hats) had decreed that henceforth all men faculty would wear ties and no faculty would wear denim of any kind. (He would later come to an English department meeting and lecture us specifically about our inappropriate dress, particularly the wearing of boat shoes without socks, a fashion statement some men in the department favored. The principal was wearing a Snoopy tie that day.)

There really had been no prior notification of this. The guidelines stopped short of banning pants for women faculty, but we heard that such a provision had been suggested, and I ran into more than one colleague in the business attire section of Macy’s that weekend. I put away my two denim skirts and the jeans that looked so nice with an oatmeal cotton sweater and linen jacket against the day I knew was coming when this idea had been forgotten.

Grandfather ShirtTwo of my male colleagues, however, were truly upset. The hot fashion that year for men was the Irish grandfather shirt, in cotton or linen, with or without tucks. It had no collar and closed with a three- or four-button placket. This was, indeed, a very sharp look which I’d seen first on an attractive businessman at church. Obviously, a tie was not suitable.

My friends carried on about this through those first two prep days. They had gone shopping. They’d invested in this new look, buying two or three examples. Now what were they supposed to do, hmm?

The carrying on was related mostly to the sudden imposition of regulations that would very likely not all by themselves improve students’ behavior and raise their grades. Their dress code remained unchanged, and it was not clear how no longer seeing their women teachers in denim skirts (I really liked mine, both the eight-gore and the straight one I’d made myself from a Calvin Klein pattern) or their men teachers tieless was going to have the anticipated effect.

My preferred fashion ran to ballet-neck tops with three-quarter length sleeves that I thought had a slimming effect. But over the Labor Day break I pulled out two man-styled Oxford cloth blouses, one with a button down collar and one with a wing collar in a contrast fabric. I wore them with long thin scarves tied in a Windsor knot, to be in solidarity with my male colleagues. Wearing each blouse twice a week with different scarves and different skirts or pants, I extended the look probably through the first month of school.

That’s about how long the tie requirement lasted anyway. The shoes without socks thing came the next spring, and you’ve probably already guessed that the person who sported that look also had some new grandfather shirts in his closet. I’d gained weight and the school remodeling had placed the room where I ate with my friends and the library and offices about two football fields away from my classroom, so I dressed more for speed than for fashion. I remember sitting there in my demure Lands’ End navy skirt and jacket over Easy Spirit tie oxfords (sort of a Dowager Librarian or Retired Nun look) confident that I was not the target of the tirade and wondering why the principal would wear a Snoopy tie to lecture his artsy-fartsy poetry faculty about their shoes.

I don’t have to think about student dress anymore. My current personal style would keep me out of trouble at Lebanon High, although my cowboy boots look better, I think, with jeans than with black cords. My favorite outfits right now are a gray angora blend cowl neck sweater over blue cords that are more robin’s egg than the navy that Lebanon demands, and my killer turquoise silk turtleneck that I wear with anything. My biggest fashion hope is that by the time Lynn gets married, bridal gowns will once again look like bridal gowns instead of white bathing suits with a skirt attached.

Love it? Hate it? Just want to say Hi? Leave a comment, or e-mail me:
margaretdeangelis [at] gmail [dot] com (replace the brackets with @ and a period)

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