A Little Give in the Dress Code
By STEPHANIE CLIFFORD
As more and more schools adopt dress codes, back-to-school shopping is often a rather dull exercise. Polo shirts. Khaki pants. Plaid skirts. As the students might say, bo-ring.
But in the great tradition of teenagers challenging authority, students at schools that require uniforms have been bending the rules a bit, showing up to class in cargo shorts, leggings and yoga pants. And some schools are not only looking the other way at the modifications, but explicitly allowing the fashion-forward items.
“At first they couldn’t accessorize, but then again, how do you tell someone what color shoes to buy? That’s ridiculous,” said Beverly J. Hutton, principal of educational services for Burlington County Institute of Technology, a public high school district in New Jersey that recently relaxed its dress code. “We said no leggings, but, you know, you can’t control that — they have leggings that look like jeans now. So we just ask them to stay within the color scheme and to abide by the code as far as modesty.”
“They’re teenagers. If you take it all away, you get rebellion,” Dr. Hutton said.
Retailers have been happily catering to the changes. For the first time this year, the Lands’ End uniform catalog is offering girls’ khakis in pencil and boot-cut silhouettes. There are also shawl-collar cardigans, fleece peacoats, leggings and yoga pants. French Toast, another large uniform company, has made its girls’ polos and blouses tighter-fitting, and has added items like a boyfriend cardigan.
“Schools really do adjust to fashion,” said Matt Buesing, school marketing coordinator at French Toast. If a girl wears a polo that’s a little form-fitting, for instance, “it may not fit their code exactly, but the administrators in the school say, ‘That’s an acceptable shirt — we should allow it.’ ”
Public schools have been attracted to student uniforms to reduce the amount of exposed flesh, limit gang colors and eliminate disparities between the label-driven and those wearing hand-me-downs. While private schools have required a dress code for decades, one of the first public school districts to do so was Long Beach, Calif., which put all its elementary and middle-school students in uniforms in 1994. By 1996, President Clinton was urging other public schools to follow Long Beach’s example, saying uniforms could “reduce violence, reduce truancy, reduce disorder and increase learning.”
In the 2009-10 school year, the most recent year measured, 18.9 percent of public schools said they required uniforms, up from 12 percent in 1999-2000, according to the Education Department. More than half have a dress code.
Lincoln Middle School in Indianapolis has started to allow leggings beneath skirts, polos in any color and camisole undershirts for girls. Ruby Luke, the extracurricular secretary-treasurer at Lincoln, said the looser policy had resulted in fewer interruptions during class, because teachers rarely have to eject students from class to change into regulation clothing. “The kids are much happier, and there are not nearly as many dress code violations,” Ms. Luke said.
Sometimes, even with looser dress codes, students rebel anyway. Briarmeadow Charter School in Houston relaxed its dress code this year to allow leggings — and Andie Alexander, in eighth grade, has already gotten into trouble over it.
“When I realized we were going to be able to wear leggings, I went and bought a bunch in wild colors — neon purple, violet, bright green, turquoise, red and yellow,” said Andie, 13.
When school started last week, Andie wore her basic polo-shirt-and-khaki-skirt uniform on Monday, added red knee socks on Tuesday, and on Wednesday, wore bright leggings beneath her navy shorts.
“My science teacher looked at my turquoise leggings and said, ‘This is not going to work,’ ” Andie said. “So I told her there is nothing in the dress code against wearing turquoise leggings.”