Remember when you were a teenager, and you would leave the house with your skirt one length and show up for school with it three inches shorter?
Well, over in the U.K., some schools with traditional uniforms are battling that problem by switching girls from skirts to pants. According to a recent article in the L.A. Times:
Visit Nailsea School here in southwestern England, and about the only skirts you’ll see are those on teachers; most of the girls on campus are required to dress like the boys, in standard-issue trousers, after the school amended its uniform policy this year to become a skirt-free zone.
It’s a new approach to an old problem: the fight against rising hemlines, a perennial battle that probably brings back embarrassing memories for the mothers of many of today’s schoolgirls.
Nailsea belongs to a small but growing number of schools in Britain that have given up chastising students for hemline creep and instead resorted to what one commentator calls “the nuclear option”: blacklisting skirts altogether.
It’s an interesting notion, although it’s tough to know how well it will work, since another school in the U.K. that tried the same tactic found that the girls just resorted to wearing tight pants:
“They were very low, hipster-style, very tight trousers. Staff were becoming embarrassed by seeing too much of the girls instead of the uniform,” said [headmaster David] New, who supervises 1,200 students in this commuter town outside the city of Bristol.
Now, I have mixed feelings about dress codes, since I remember having a grand old time expressing myself through miniskirts and ripped t-shirts. But that said, I think clothing regulations can teach kids the concept of appropriate dress at appropriate times. After all, in the real world most of us wouldn’t show up to an office in, say, see-through pajamas.
But this whole “staff were becoming embarrassed” comment is where we encounter a few problems. First of all, that attitude suggests that other peoples’ reactions to their clothing are something that girls can, and should, control. It’s an impossible premise; we can no more control how other people react to what we wear than we can control the weather. Second of all, it implies that the people being made “embarrassed” don’t need to take any personal responsibility for their actions. Those two things combined, when taken to an extreme, are what’s at the heart of victim-blaming in sexual assault cases: if you weren’t dressed so slutty, that person wouldn’t have attacked you.
Now, I’m sure that’s not what this nice old headmaster meant (all headmasters are old, right?). But when enforcing dress codes for girls, we absolutely need to be aware of the message that accompanies them. For instance, if the girls were told that tight pants were being banned because they’re appropriate for after school but not during school, not only does that send a clear message that translates into the real world, it’s gender neutral. After all, it’s the same reason that boys can’t wear ripped up swim trunks and wife beaters (to most schools).
I’m not saying that a dress code is or is not appropriate across the board. But I am saying that if schools do have one, it needs to be for the right reasons.