My first encounter with public school dress codes was in fall 1997, when the Sanger Unified School District initiated new policies and my son Jeff had to completely change his wardrobe to meet the requirements. From a purely practical standpoint, our family was not very happy at the outset.
The new dress code meant either a large initial financial investment or having the washer and dryer run with light loads almost continuously. It also seemed to us that uniform dress requirements stifled individual creativity and meant that administrators would now have to spend an inordinate amount of time patrolling the hallways in search of minor transgressions, a significant distraction from their more important roles as curriculum leaders, pedagogical specialists and counselors.
Philosophically, however, dress codes did make some sense. The underlying intention, for example, was to eliminate undue class stratification based on whether or not particular students could afford to purchase the newest, most chic designer clothing. Uniform dress also eliminated the need to deal with the mysteries of symbolic attire (perhaps associated with gangs) or imprinted esoteric words (advertising drugs, questionable rituals?). The hope was to ensure a greater focus on academic achievement and other school-related activities as well as to promote a strong sense of community.
It struck me as well that the dress code rationale used by public schools is the same one employed by thousands of private religious and non-religious institutions across the country; schools associated with Roman Catholic, Protestant, Islamic and other religious communities. It is also similar to the reasoning used by many old order, plain, religious societies in the United States, groups that I have written (or am writing) articles and books about, including the Old Order Amish, the Hutterites, conservative Mennonites (for example, the Holdeman People in nearby Livingston), the Old German Baptist Brethren (in the Modesto area), the Molokans (in the Kerman area) as well as Catholic and Eastern Orthodox religious orders. In all of these cases, a decision has been made to create a separate and very public identity, which in itself sets the group apart from mainstream society. Rigid dress requirements show a deep commitment to a particular set of values.
In the same way, public schools adopt dress codes in an attempt to separate schoolchildren (at least between the hours of 8:00 a.m. and 3:30 p.m.) from the rest of American society. There is a deep concern that students show commitment to academic learning, to relating to people as people, to being part of something larger than themselves (a school community) via the expiation of unnecessary dress-related distractions. There is no religious rationale employed in any of this, but there are, nonetheless, significant similarities.
I have always admired groups like the Amish who place a good deal of emphasis on uniform dress. So how can I not hold the same opinion of public school dress codes? Ultimately, at least in theory, I have come to view them as a worthy endeavor. At the same time, however, I have to admit that members of our family are very happy that my daughter has now completed the eighth grade, and will be attending a school next year (University High School, on the California State University, Fresno, campus), where she can wear whatever color of Converse shoes she desires.
Rod Janzen is senior scholar and history faculty at Fresno Pacific University. Recent publications include the books The Rise and Fall of Synanon: A California Utopia (The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001), and The Prairie People: Forgotten Anabaptists (The University Press of New England, 1999).