From suit-jackets to leggings: the history of the dress code at the school

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Audrey Carbonell, Staff Writer

For the majority of his time at the school, Robert Watson ‘71 was expected to wear a jacket and tie with neat, short hair. However, the counterculture of the late sixties began to challenge these formalities, he said. “Maybe the control of students was compromised, but I think on the whole the spirit and freedom of thought were more than enough compensation for that,” he said.

In 1968, the school — along with the rest of the world — went through several political and cultural shifts, Watson said. This included the removal of dress code regulations. “The insistence on short hair yielded, but that concession was accompanied by a rule that students had to have a comb handy to keep the hair neat. If you didn’t, you had to go immediately to the bookstore and buy a new one — some students ended up owning a lot of combs.”

In the 50 years since Watson graduated from the school, dress regulations have changed significantly. The conversation about the right balance between dress regulations and freedom is still ongoing. 

Prior to the changes, the school had strict dress codes. Although there was no official uniform, students had to wear a tie and jacket at all times, Robert Owens ‘67 said. 

“It was more like a British prep school — we looked like little businessmen,” Owens said. “The teachers would make you put your jacket back on if you took it off, and they did not like it if your collar was open. There was a real emphasis on proper dress.” 

Owens saw benefit in this dress code, he said. “For adolescent boys, it helped to create a certain amount of discipline.” 

Today, however, the school no longer has an official dress code: “the school expects students to dress appropriately for school and for the season,” according to the Family Handbook. 

The Family Handbook outlines the expectations for Nursery and Lower Division students, discouraging certain articles of clothing including specialized sports attire, spaghetti-strap styled tank tops, and very short or very long skirts. 

Restrictions for Middle Division (MD) and Upper Division (UD) students are more relaxed and do not outline the specific types of clothing to be avoided: “Students, however, are expected to dress in a way that is respectful of the core values and academic purposes of the School. For special occasions, students are expected to dress in accordance with the formality of the event. Excessively revealing shirts or shorts are not permitted; additionally, T-shirts with inappropriate images or messages are also not permitted.” 

If students do not follow these dress guidelines, the school can ask them to change clothes or can send them home. If students are continuously dressing in an inappropriate manner, they are subject to the disciplinary procedures of the school, The Family Handbook said. 

In 1968, the school’s Community Council (CC) proposed a plan to effectively remove the original dress code at the school. Led by Chairman Roger Meltzer ‘69, the CC conducted a series of debates to determine whether or not to enact a change in dress policy. 

With approval from then Head of School Robert A. Thomason, the CC produced reports from both the majority, advocating for the removal of the dress code, and minority, wanting to maintain the current limits on attire. 

“[Cultural changes at school were] amplified when the long-term traditionalist headmaster Mitchell Gratwick was succeeded by the youthful Robert Thomason,” Watson said. Thomason became headmaster in the fall of 1968, the same year that the dress code was abolished. 

Even with the administration’s support, the majority of change was driven by student initiative, Watson said. “I never heard of the faculty opining on it, though no doubt it was discussed by them in some meetings, and I could certainly have guessed a few who would have supported it and quite a few of more conservative leanings who would have resisted it.”

After a four week-long discussion in November of 1968, the CC motioned to abolish dress regulations and promote “student self-determination matters of attire” with a final vote of 11-1 in favor of removing the dress code, according to Volume 52, Issue 8 of The Record. Dress regulations were officially suspended following a school-wide referendum where students voted 391-282 in favor of the CC’s motion.  

Following the changes in dress policy, students began to notice a change in the atmosphere at the school, the Record Press Staff said in an opinion piece in Volume 52, Issue 11 of The Record. “To many people, the most gratifying result has been an increase in interest in the arts,” they said. “It’s difficult to say precisely why this has occurred; some may deny that it has anything to do with the dress rules. But the general atmosphere of reduced pressure at H.M. — and this is a result of several changes in addition to the dress rules — has promoted an atmosphere more conducive to artist endeavors.”

Watson was in favor of abolishing the dress code at the school, he said. “I’m confident the great majority of my classmates felt the same way, and it certainly did lead to a less stuffy atmosphere around the place,” Watson said. “To me, it was a relief not to be pretending all the time that we were Eton or some similar ancient high-class British academy, and being disciplined in ways that had nothing to do with our learning.” 

Karen Davis ‘77 joined the school seven years later in 1975 in the first class with female students. By that time, the school no longer had a dress code, she said. “We were allowed to wear jeans, and people dressed up sometimes,” she said. “No one wore sweatpants or leggings — none of that really existed back in the 70s.” 

Davis did not see the same types of dress issues that are found today, she said. “They didn’t have to tell you not to wear certain things,” she said. ”Although popular in the early 70s, mini skirts — short-short skirts — were not in style by 1975, so we didn’t have that issue either.”

By 2004, however, mini skirts had become a controversial topic, according to an article in Volume 101, Issue 31 of The Record. The piece, titled, “How High Can You Go? Miniskirts Hit HM,” reflects on the fashion trends of the early 2000s and their effect on student’s clothing in the school setting. 

The article starts off with the lede: “Keeping cool will not be an issue on this wonderful spring day, but making sure that blue Cosabella thong is not peering over of the top of your Sevens might be a distraction from that proof of the Pythagorean Theorem written on the board,” Elizabeth Olanoff ‘07 wrote.

Students were hesitant to pinpoint the causes of recent changes in dress, Olanoff wrote. “But does HM have a problem with inappropriate clothing? The answer depends on who one asks. Most Upper School students blame the rise in inappropriateness on the younger students, but few students would agree to be quoted for fear of sounding hypocritical.”

Another instance in 2010 led to further conversations about appropriate dress in the school community. In Volume 107, Issue 19 of The Record, an article titled, “‘Banned’ Swim Team Spirit Sparks Disputes” commented on the former team spirit traditions of the swim team where they would switch clothing with teammates of the opposite gender. Former Head Dr. David Schiller banned the tradition because “[he] did not like it.” 

Schiller’s decision led to a strong response by the student body, according to the article. Members of the swim team in particular were frustrated by his decision, according to the article. “Take the example of a closet transgender student at the school who finally feels comfortable enough in our supposed ‘safe and caring’ environment to come out as a transgender student,” the Swim Team captains wrote. The banning of the swim team spirit will send a bad message to this student, who will think that the school would not be accepting of them, they wrote. 

After hearing the team’s complaints, Schiller reflected on his decision making. “‘Was it right to prevent the kids from expressing themselves in that way? I don’t know. Am I responsible for it? Sure. If people are angry, let them come to me,” he said.

Over a decade later, the current student body, faculty, and administration have varying opinions and perspectives about dress regulation and freedom at school. 

For the six years that Head of the Upper Division Dr. Jessica Levenstein has held her job, it has been a priority of hers to not enforce the dress code regulations, she said. “I really firmly believe that dress is an expression of your personality and can be an art form,” she said. “There might be students who walk to class wearing something that I would never wear that I didn’t even wear when I was 16, but that’s just my own personal style, and I’m not going to interfere in their personal style.” 

“Schools should be a place where students feel comfortable and empowered to be who they are and express themselves in a way that matches their identity,” Upper Division Dean of Students Michael Dalo said. “We all spend so much time here and it’s important that students feel as comfortable as possible,” he said. “Clothing is also a principal way by which people can express who they are and how they identify. I want students to have that freedom on our campus.” 

Lucas Borini (11) saw a great difference in dress regulations when joining the MD as compared to his previous school, he said. “I’m coming from a school that has a uniform,” he said. “It wasn’t even that strict of a uniform, it was a collared shirt and slacks, but even so, not having uniforms is pretty nice.”

At his previous school, Borini had been dress-coded for wearing sweatpants on days he was not supposed to, he said. “They made me go into a lost and found bin and take someone else’s pants.” When joining Horace Mann, Borini enjoyed the newfound freedom in dress, he said. “I’m a big boy,” he said. “I can dress myself.”

Like Borini, Kailyn Ortiz (11) came from a school that required uniforms, she said. She hated wearing a uniform because it made her look like “a purple grape,” she said. Ortiz now enjoys the freedom of choosing what to wear to school and not being overly worried about the length of her shorts, she said. “It’s less restricting in the way that I could get up and choose anything from my closet, as opposed to having to stress about whether I will get dress-coded for something and get detention.”

The school is overall open to students choosing their own clothing, Kayla Choi (10) said. “Having no dress code is a part of Horace Mann’s image because we are very open to everyone,” she said. “You can express your individuality through your clothes, and Horace Mann allows you to do so.”

Ana Aguilar (11) also likes the lack of dress restrictions at the school, she said. “It gives me the freedom to express myself through my clothes,” she said. “I feel like I found myself and my personality through exploring my clothing options throughout my years at Horace Mann.” Aguilar has been experimenting with her clothing and hair since her freshman year, and she feels her style has dramatically changed, she said. 

On the contrary, Peter Yu (11) would rather have uniforms at the school, he said. “I really think that economically disadvantaged students feel the pressure of having their peers clattered in designer clothing, and it really is to the detriment of their mental health.” 

There are possible benefits to having a dress code at the school, Coco Trentalancia (11) said. “Having uniforms is so much easier, not only to get ready in the morning, but just for everyone to look so much cleaner and more professional,” she said. “Having a bit of structure and system in our attire is very nice.”

Yu finds that a uniform will have multiple advantages to the entire student body, he said. “First of all, we can better identify [by attire] who’s actually part of our school or not, and also it takes the stress out of the morning routine of going to your drawer and not being able to find the right clothes,” he said. “Most importantly, it levels the playing field so less privileged students won’t feel bad when their peers wear expensive designer brands.”

Upper Division Library Department Chair and Director of UD Student Activities Caroline Bartels thinks although it is unlikely to happen, the school should have a uniform, she said. “First of all, uniforms also level the playing field a bit in terms of money,” she said. “I have long wanted us to have a uniform. I think it would be good for kids.”

Rain Li (9), however, does not believe that the school should have uniforms, he said. “Wearing whatever you want is your own kind of expression of what you’re feeling that day and your personality,” he said. “Requiring everyone to wear the same thing wouldn’t be beneficial.”

Yu’s interview prompted Frederick Volgelbaum (11) to respond. “I agree with the point that Yu said about economically disadvantaged students having an equal playing field here and not feeling like they’re lesser than because they cannot pull up in the same kinds of clothes,” Volgelbaum said. At the same time, students should have freedom in what they choose to wear, he said. “There are going to be people who feel very limited by a certain uniform, so I think we can avoid this by keeping the [dress code] as we have it right now.”

Even without an official dress code, Ortiz feels external pressure to dress in certain ways, she said. “My parents, if they see me in a crop top, they’re pretty against it — but I feel like that’s pretty standard for many parents,” she said. 

Ortiz thinks that the way she dresses has an effect on her teacher’s attitude towards her, she said. “If I see a teacher in the hallway and I’m wearing something a bit more showy, they won’t smile or say hi. It’s more so when I’m dressed in a more conservative way that I feel more respected.” However, Ortiz does not change the way she dresses due to this potential judgment.

Due to her experience, Aguilar sees adverse effects when faculty members comment on female student’s clothing, she said. “Telling a girl to cover up a part of their body is a form of slut shaming,” she said. “I shouldn’t be taking responsibility for someone else’s actions just because I dress a certain way.”

Comments by teachers can have long-term harmful effects on female students, Aguilar said. “Psychologically I think that it’s also harmful for the girls for when they grow up and become women; I think it creates this habit of where they should accept the comments of others,” she said. “It’s gonna affect their willpower. It’s going to lower their self esteem, it’s going to affect the way they see themselves if there’s teachers, adults, who they’re supposed to look up to are constantly telling them to change the way they dress, just because it doesn’t appease them or just because they don’t like it.”

Elena Zhu (9) does notice a difference between the expectations in dress between the MD and UD, she said. “I didn’t have a first hand experience with anything, but there were rumors in the middle school about people getting detention for wearing cropped shirts,” she said. “I felt this was ridiculous. The whole idea of a dress code can be controlling.” Dress codes can limit student expression, especially when it comes to students who identify as female, she said. “The dress code tends to be a lot stricter for them while not mentioning anything for male students.

Due to his gender, Jack Bleichmar (11) does not feel the pressure to dress a certain way at school, he said. “Because I am a guy, I have the luxury of not being subjected to the same rigorous societal pressures and beauty standards that women have to deal with on a daily basis,” he said. For this reason, Bleichmar does not notice other student’s attire and feels comfortable “being lazy” and showing up to school in sweatpants and a sweatshirt, he said.

Bartels also sees a problem with dress codes, she said. “They tend to always impact a girl’s clothing, not so much a boy’s clothing,” she said. “I can understand not letting kids wear any sweatshirts or t-shirts that say anything because they tend to be somewhat inappropriate. But, I really hesitate about the other issues, like whether something is too short.” 

At her old school, Aguilar noticed the gendered component in dress code enforcement, she said. “I thought it was toxic, especially towards the girls,” she said. “The guys were not dress-coded as much as we were.” Aguilar and her female friends would constantly get dress-coded, and she hated the fact that the majority of her clothes were off-limits even on casual-wear days, she said. 

There are potential limitations and points of confusion within the informal dress code, Choi said. “I like that there is not a strict dress code, but, because it is vague, you never know sometimes if something is school-appropriate or not.” She interprets the code to mean that students shouldn’t wear anything too revealing, she said. 

Bartels has not seen many instances of disciplinary action due to inappropriate dress in her 25 years in the UD, she said. “In all the time I have been in the Upper Division, I know of one kid that I specifically said ‘hey’, and this kid had amazing taste in clothing, but pushed the edge all the time,” she said. “When you actually get a flash of nipple, that might be too much. So I told them downstairs and they told her to come down and gave her a shirt to put on.”

Although in the past teachers would stop students who wore low cut shirts or high cut shorts, the UD no longer concerns itself with these regulations, Levenstein said. “If we’re going to ask someone to alter their clothing in any way, generally it’s because it contains a message that has obscene or offensive language in it — that is pretty much the only time we ask somebody to change,” she said. 

The school is conscious of the harm that dress regulation can have on students, Levenstein said. “We have students who have come from other schools than HM, who had very negative experiences with being told to change clothing,” she said. “Clothing draws different attention depending on your body shape, and so it can be very hurtful for students to be told to change when their friend is wearing the exact same thing, but they’re just less curvy than they are.”

The generational gap between students and faculty can lead to differences in opinions regarding dress, Bartels said. “I’m also the generation that doesn’t think that leggings are pants,” she said. “At the same time, I want you guys to be comfortable and you’re clearly comfortable in what you’re wearing. I just feel you’re not the only people here, so there’s this two levels of people, adults and kids, and your comfort frequently leads to our discomfort.” 

This discomfort can lead to tension in the student-teacher dynamic, Bartels said. “I always think to myself, because you guys are being taught by a different generation, ‘is that really the image that you want to project in the classroom to a teacher who is of a different generation who’s probably thinking to themselves ‘what happened to your pants?’ or ‘why am I seeing your midriff?’” Bartels thinks it would be beneficial if students can have a change in perspective so teachers will not question “why don’t you have clothing on?” she said.

UD History teacher Dr. Emily Straus ‘91 finds that the biggest discomfort in the classroom does not relate directly to dress, she said. “What’s making me the most uncomfortable is kids without their masks on, so that’s the thing I’m focusing on,” she said. “It’s hard enough to enforce people wearing masks for a health reason that I don’t think I would want to spend my time enforcing a dress code.”

However, Straus thinks there are many factors that need to be considered when deeming the appropriateness of dress, she said. “There’s a fine line between self-expression and what’s appropriate, and it’s a complicated issue,” she said. “Different cultures have different standards of what’s appropriate, and it can be hard for a school to decide what that is.”

Parents can be held partly accountable for the students’ choices in clothing, Bartels said. “I frequently think to myself, because your parents are my age, ‘what was that parent thinking letting their child walk out the door like that?’” she said. “But I don’t know what battles go on at home before that child walks out the door.”

Bartels thinks that the lack of dress regulation will not prepare students for the future dress requirements in the workforce, she said. “I think it’s going to be a rude awakening for kids when they go to jobs because in a job you can absolutely say to somebody ‘what do you have on?’ and ‘go home,’” she said. “It would be great if they learn that now.”

Despite her own personal beliefs about what clothing is appropriate or not, Bartels admires the student’s attitudes towards clothing, she said. “I love the fact that your generation is like, ‘we don’t care, we’re proud of our bodies,’” she said. 

As a faculty member, conscious of students’ clothing, this duality in feeling causes internal conflict for Bartels, she said. “There’s this warring part of me that’s like ‘what do you have on?’ versus ‘that’s really great that you guys feel comfortable enough in your bodies,’” she said. Nevertheless, Bartels thinks that some change in dress could be better for the school environment, she said.