Student dress codes: Their past, present and possible future

January 29, 1997

Bob Maginnis

Editorial Page Editor

The current flap over strict enforcement of the dress code at Williamsport High School brought back memories of my own days in parochial school, where the boys' uniforms consisted of blue corduroy slacks, white shirts and navy blue ties.

The uniforms were purchased at a specialty store so that there was little variation in the color, except in those students whose families passed the items down from child to child, the color fading and the corduroy nap wearing off a little bit more with each passing year.

One thrifty mom even disassembled a pair of worn slacks and turned them inside out, resewing the pockets and the belt loops so that the reconstituted pants could be worn somewhat normally. The child was pitied by his classmates, however, just as we pitied those children whose parents bought "home barbershop" kits, imagining that they could do just as good a job as the pros.


In an institution which tried to make everyone look alike, children found ways to rebel, though it was the mildest possible sort of rebellion. For a while, steel taps on boys' shoes were a craze, though teachers had them outlawed after some students persisted in loudly tapping their toes during class, with the same sort of nervous energy which leads some people to "snap" their chewing gum every few seconds.

Cowboy-style belts with gaudy medallions and leatherwork lent some variety to the familiar outfits, as did jewelry like charm bracelets (for the girls) and tie clasps for us boys, which we needed to keep the pranksters in our midst from snatching off our clip-on ties.

Our uniforms did not keep us from expressing ourselves or developing distinct personalities. In fact, they may have pushed us to work a little harder at it, since we couldn't impress each other with fancy or outlandish outfits.

What's going on at Williamsport now also brought back the memory of a conversation I had some years back with the mother of a Northern Middle School student, a girl who was upset because her family couldn't afford the clothes she felt would give her status with her more affluent classmates in Hagerstown's North End.

I wrote then that the girl should realize if her friends rejected her for not having the "right" clothes, then they really aren't her friends. Of course I knew it would be easier for me to write that than for the girl to give up her dream of being included in that circle, even if she knew they weren't true go-to-the-wall-for-you friends.

Uniforms, I said then, would take the pressure off her and remove the distractions that this sort of "fashion competition" pose in the classroom. I'm not advocating that as policy in Williamsport. For that to work, parents would have to back it up and many of them obviously don't back the dress code as it exists now. However, I can't let school officials off the hook completely.

Not long ago I visited the Boys and Girls Club's new satellite operation in the Frederick Manor housing project. Staffers told me that the children there were yearning for positive ways in which to express themselves, and that if was staff's job to give them a framework in which to do that. With that in mind, what would happen if Williamsport Principal James Hardin announced that he would wear purple jeans to school himself for a week if students raised X amount of dollars for a local charity or if a certain percentage of them made the honor roll?

I make this suggestion not to say that Hardin has done anything wrong, or that he would be less than perfect if he didn't accept my idea. I'm on his side to this extent; a dress code is no bar to free speech and has some positive effects as well. Ten years of dress shirts and ties didn't kill my spirit, and Williamsport's code is much less stringent than that.

That said, these kids are spending a lot of energy fighting for the right to wear holey tee-shirts. Isn't it possible to harness some of that energy so they can accomplish something that will be more than a novelty when they look back on it 20 years from now?

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