October 12th, 1999

School uniforms: the debate

Arts & Culture

It’s official — the largest school district in the U.S. has adopted school uniforms. Over a half-million elementary-school students in New York City will have to adhere to a dress code by the fall of 1999. The president of the school board said the policy is “important to diminish peer pressure and promote school pride,” but that it’s not “an act of magic to transform schools overnight….It isn’t going to replace good teaching, good principals, small classrooms.”

It’s a fashion trend that’s spreading. From Los Angeles to Louisiana, from Maryland to Miami, public schools are discussing, and in many cases adopting, the old private school idea. School uniforms are designed to help kids focus on algebra instead of high-tops; to make students compete for grades rather than jackets.

Weekend Wear vs. School Wear

“It helps to get up in the morning and not have to think about what you’re going to wear,” said Maria, a ninth-grader who swims, plays soccer, and wears exactly what everybody else does at her high school in Washington, DC. Each school day, Maria dons an all-white oxford shirt, brown shoes, and a gray/maroon plaid skirt that has to be long enough to the touch the ground when she kneels. After school and on weekends, of course, all bets are off. Maria has a simple yet effective strategy: she borrows her friends’ clothes, typically baggy jeans.

No-nonsense uniforms are what many school are using as weapons in the war against gang-related violence and classroom distractions.”I just kind of steal them,” said Maria. “That way, they do the shopping, and I get to wear them.”

President Clinton: Pro-Uniforms

President Clinton thinks they’re a good idea. In a March 1996 speech he said:

“If it means that the school rooms will be more orderly and more disciplined, and that our young people will learn to evaluate themselves by what they are on the inside, instead of what they’re wearing on the outside, then our public schools should be able to require their students to wear uniforms.”

School uniforms also take the pressure off students to pay top dollar for clothes, according to Reginald Wilson, a senior scholar at the American Council on Education in Washington, D.C. “I think it does lower the cost of clothes, and kids don’t emphasize clothes as much when they’re all wearing the same thing,” Wilson said. “Certainly the competition to wear the best shoes or the best sweaters and so forth has been prevalent in school ever since I was in school, and the poor kids felt inferior.”

It always starts in California…

Public school uniforms became popular 1994, when the Long Beach, California school district became the first to require uniforms. A year later, according to the district, school fights and muggings there went down 50%; sexual offenses declined 74%.

Since then, many public schools–usually one at a time–175; have followed suit, in most cases following discussions among faculty, students and parents. And it’s not always mandatory: some schools let students opt out for personal beliefs, and others say uniforms are totally voluntary.

One in four students will soon be wearing uniforms.

Uniforms are most common in elementary, middle and junior high schools, according to the federal Department of Education. The Lands’ End clothing company, which just came out with a school uniform catalog this year, estimates that one in four public school students below high-school age will be in uniform in the 97-98 school year.

Not everybody is welcoming the idea. The American Civil Liberties Union says there’s no link between school uniforms and safety or good grades. Former California high school principal Dennis Evans says teenagers who decide what to wear in the morning are developing decision-making skills and learning to take responsibility for their choices in life. Many students agree.

“If I wear flared pants, it means I’m kind of trendy and I’m kind of cool and with-it,” said Athey, an eighth-grader who plays basketball and soccer at school in Washington, D.C., where students can wear what they want — so long as there are no spaghetti straps, frayed pants or exposed midriffs. “And if I wear something nice on special days, people think: ‘that girl dresses well and cares about how she looks.'”

But how do they look?

Let’s cut to the chase. How do they look? In many public schools, the formula looks like this: polos and oxford shirts on top; khakis, skirts and chino shorts and pants on the bottom. Most schools require solid colors, the more popular choices being red, white, navy blue, evergreen and soft yellow maize. And there’s more variety on the way. Soon uniforms will include jean shirts and striped polos.

“School uniforms are conservative by design,” said Andrea Rachels, who designs school uniforms and other kids’ clothing at Lands’ End. Still, there are ways to be hip, according to Rachels, whose recipe for success includes “cool, cool socks.” Multi-colored, striped stockings are said to be a student favorite.

Other fashion suggestions offered by students and designers for uniform-wearing kids: varied skirt lengths, colored shoelaces, hair bow experimentation, locker decoration, experimenting on the weekends, and jewelry overload — if allowed. In short, you can look different, if you try.

“Twenty years ago, school uniforms made us look and feel like we were in prison… it was awful. It was so rigid. Skirts had to be exact lengths. There was no latitude for self-expression.
-Designer Joanne Arbuckle, Fashion Institute of Technology in New York

But for Peter, an 11th grader who runs cross-country and wears what he wants at his high school in Potomac Maryland, school uniforms could be an unwelcome hurdle in social situations.

“I guess it would be hard to get girls, because a lot of times they like the way you dress, and that’s always a helpful thing,” said Wong, whose brown leather shoes of choice are Sketchers.

Nevertheless, Wong admits that many students could get to school sooner if they didn’t have to worry over what to wear in the morning.

Uniforms in Japan

Maiko Covington, a high school student in Japan

Most public school students in Japan wear uniforms. For boys, it is usually black pants and jacket with gold buttons down the front and a white shirt inside, or sometimes it is a sort of suit- like thing. For girls, it is a “kon” (a kind of dark blue) or gray skirt, with either a sailor top or a white shirt and matching vest. These vary in detail from school to school, so you can tell what school people you meet on the street go to.

Of course, people try to alter their uniforms a lot. Depending on who you hang around with, it is cool to either make your skirt really long or really short. For tough guys (or those who think they were) the “in” thing is to make the black uniform pants really big, and the jacket long with a super high collar (at least in my area). Also people do stuff like wearing cute socks with pictures on it instead of white ones, wearing white shirts of a pattern different from the school one, wearing cool sneakers, etc. etc.

Also people put their hair up in ways you aren’t supposed to. They wear bright hair ribbons, and put all sorts of key chains on their school bags. The more daring girls might dye their hair, or perm it. One girl in my high school class was forced to go to the barber and have her hair dyed back black after dying it reddish-brown. Some people also experiment with cosmetics.

In Japan you don’t get to decide whether to wear the summer uniform or winter one just by if you are cold or not. Oh, no. There is a day called “koromo-gae” (changing of the clothes). Everyone in Japan changes from winter to summer uniform or vice versa. The days are in October and June, and on that day EVERYONE changes uniform. If you just changed to winter uniform and then it gets really hot in late October for some reason, too bad.

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