Parents shouldn’t need a dress code

It’s sad that it’s come to this.

A Houston high school has notified families that it’s implementing a dress code – but not for the kids, for the adults. Apparently parents haven’t been making good wardrobe choices, and the James Madison High School principal has had enough. In a letter last month she informed families that, as their child’s first teacher, they needed to set an example of respectable behaviour and their attire was part of the example-setting.

“We are preparing your child for a prosperous future,” wrote principal Carlotta Outley Brown. “We want them to know what is appropriate and what is not appropriate for any setting they may be in.”

Among the clothing items banned: pajamas of any kind, sagging pants, men wearing undershirts, leggings that are “not covered from the front or the back,” ultra-short shorts, hair rollers and a satin cap or head bonnet. Reading the list you get an idea of how some parents were showing up on campus, and their ensembles definitely were not helping create what the principal deemed a “professional education environment.”

I get it. I really, really get it. I’m sometimes appalled at the get-ups I’ve spotted in public, and it’s not students who are the culprits. Actually, the students I have seen over the years haven’t been dressed inappropriately at all in comparison to what the standard for inappropriate clothing was in the 1990s. I think the appeal of “letting it all hang out” has passed. Grown ups, on the other hand, show up in some questionable garb.

I’ve seen women wearing shorts so short that their kids were visibly embarrassed. I’ve seen fathers showing up to school with no shirt on. And while I’m all in favour of casual Friday and even self-expression, there is a time and place for everything, including what we wear and how we wear it.

Yet the James Madison High principal’s letter has sparked a storm of controversy, including accusations of sexism, elitism, and racism. The student body in that school is 58 per cent Hispanic and 40 per cent black, with three-quarters of students coming from homes classified by the state as “low income families.” A community activist running for Houston City Council tweeted: “Most of the parents likely cannot afford to comply with this dress code.”

Sorry, but that’s a cop out. Anyone who owns pajama pants very likely owns pants that aren’t pajama pants. Regular shorts are no more expensive than Daisy Dukes. Spare me.

Granted, there’s a fine line between making rules about what is proper attire on campus and enforcing regulations that discriminate against particular groups. Society has a long and troubled history of policing women’s bodies, imposing bans that are even more eyebrow-raising than the styles they’re prohibiting. Minority women especially have had even their hairdos targeted in a way that is discriminatory. In that vein, some critics have taken aim at Madison High’s rule against satin caps and head bonnets, which are often used by black women. But tweaking the policy to make allowances to take into account cultural considerations is a better solution than dismissing it altogether.

Now, what I’m about to say might not be popular. Lord knows my stance has been criticized by friends and acquaintances in the past. Still, I am who I am and I’m just as entitled to an opinion as anyone.

Appearances matter. We can rail against this all we want, but the reality is, we are judged, at least to a certain extent, on our appearance. We don’t have to like it, but that doesn’t change the reality. We leave impressions on parents, teachers, bosses, human resources managers, loan officers, by many, many people whose opinion of us can have a tangible affect on our lives. So just as important as knowing which attire is appropriate, is recognizing when it’s your responsibility to acquiesce to the guidelines set by other people and institutions, regardless of your own standards.

Schools should focus on academic achievement, yes, but its job is also to prepare kids for adult life, and one way of doing this is by setting standards that demand good judgement and attention to appearance – not meaning being fashion-forward, but having an awareness of cleanliness and public decency. It’s better for students to learn this early than suffer the consequences later in life when the stakes are higher.