Students create and enforce the dress code, always


Thanks to the City Pulse recent report on school dress codes, I was reminded of one of my students. She was maybe 23 in a sea of the 18-and-19-year-olds who usually enrolled for the daytime classes I taught.

Early in the semester, she asked to speak with me. We stood in the hallway outside the door of our classroom. She said she didn’t feel welcome in the class by the students. She wasn’t being included in the informal parts of class — the what-did-you-do-on-the-weekend chit-chat. She was getting the cold shoulder, before it was a fashion style.

I had noticed that as well. After listening to her complaint, I explained that my job was to make sure the class work got done by my students.  

“But,” I said, “what do you think is going on?” 

“I think they are jealous of the way I dress.” 

She was a Barbie doll-type, when Barbie aspired only to ride around with Ken. Her clothes were from the 1950s, without the vintage edge. Tight, a mini-skirt, and blouse with deep v-neck cleavage. She wore high heels. It all went with a heavily made-up face.

Students promenaded through the hall. I invited her to “check ‘em out.”

Most were wearing jeans and T-shirts, and white athletic shoes.

I didn’t even need to look at her to make the point. It was a fashion show of student gear. Everything she wasn’t wearing.

Over time, she switched to college student clothes, finished my class with a pass, and, if not with friends, then with people who at least spoke to her.

To mask how vulnerable they are, students create and enforce a dress code. It’s not formal, or written down.

School dress code is paraded through the halls all day, every school day. Everyone can see it. Clothes are the antidote to students’ lack of power. Required by law to attend school, and dependent on parents for housing and transportation, students find control in what they eat and wear. 

The Michigan Department of Education rationalizes a dress code to “prevent risks to health and safety.” That means no stiletto heels, or bare midriffs in welding class, but otherwise ... ?? Students in today’s athletic-centric world wear clothes that show off their bodies. For young women that might mean looking like what others call  tramps, prostitutes, streetwalkers, whores/hoes, among other judgments. 

My student’s problem reminded me of an analysis lesson I taught. I’d ask everyone in my class who was wearing jeans to stand up. In a class of 22 students, 19 would stand. 

It was obvious that these students had agreed by their action that the class dress code was jeans. It was their uniform. Students who want to be classified as students and accepted by their peers as such, dress alike as much as possible.

Fights about proper dress remind me of when people — one after the other — would tell me my slip was hanging. Young adults get more help getting dressed than runway models.

And then there’s religion. Remember the Catholic school girl uniform? The below-the-knee pleated plaid skirt and the longsleeved white blouse gave way after school. Rolled-up waistbands shortened the skirt and sleeves folded to create a holder for a pack of cigarettes. Any girl who didn’t want her skirt above her knee or her elbows showing did it anyway. To be in.

In-crowd status lays the foundation of all groups. It provides psychological and emotional security, and physical safety in the presence of force. 

The burka, an all-body, including face, covering garment was mentioned in the City Pulse news report by Theresa Winge, a Michigan State University professor of apparel and textile design. It references some Islamic traditions that require believing women to wear the burka. 

According to a documented Wikipedia entry on the burka, one antiquated idea of covering up a woman’s body had to do about knowing a lady from a slave girl. The lady was protected from rape, but not the enslaved woman. Have we not come any further in history? Are we in the 21st century in digits only?

Why any board of education would install a restrictive dress code for students boggles my mind.

Sure, parents of K-12 students have a legal say in how institutions treat their children. Lawyers accessorize that. But as kids mature, too much parental interference over clothes increases problems. Students are reduced to sneaking a change of outfit to fit their tastes of rebellion, hiding clothes, borrowing from a friend with more lenient forebears, or when they don’t have money, stealing the clothes the ‘rents won’t buy. 

Schools’ best bet is to make the academics carry more of the workload. 

My niece came up from Detroit to attend MSU. Crystal was the hair version of my bustier student: Her hair was dyed, fried and laid to the side. That’s a Black phrase for carefully coiffed stylish hair. And her fingernails were filed to a point out to here with jewels stuck to them. These things were selected for their flash.

But four years later when Crystal graduated from MSU’s prestigious College of Education, her hair was in corn rows; her nails trimmed short and buffed shiny. Her previous look did not work. As she matriculated through to graduation, that became more obvious. It was too time consuming to maintain, and succeed in school. Her class assignments needed her attention more.

Black women, like me, know that suppressing appearance does not lessen violence. Our features — skin, hair, high booties — provoke curiosity, objection and lust. 

Young men display vulnerability in behavior that impresses their peer group. Like a politician unsuited for office, an insecure person’s coveting may not stop at the boundary of another person’s person. But when it’s your neighbor’s actual ass, the lesson needing to be taught is to hem in behavior. Dress codes tailored by boards of education to intentionally and unintentionally restrict young women’s choice of clothing for their protection, fail to educate young men about respect and self-control.

(Dedria Humphries Barker, a Lansing resident, chairs of the Andrew and Mary Jane Humphries Foundation. She wrote “Mother of Orphans: The True and Curious Story of Irish Alice, A Colored Man’s Widow.” Her opinion column appears on the last Wednesday of each month.)

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