In uniform

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I wrote my first anti-uniform piece when I was 16. I was a member of a local newspaper's teen team, and I fought to be assigned the anti-uniform stance in a point-counterpoint article (front page of the section!). As a picture to accompany the article, the girl who wrote the pro-uniform side was given a small budget and told to go to Target or Wal-Mart or wherever and buy clothes she would consider an appropriate uniform for high schools. I was told to come in my own clothes, whatever I thought best reflected my typical style. Then they took our pictures back-to-back and printed our pieces. She came in navy pants with an elastic waist, a plain white polo shirt, and plain dark shoes. I came in jeans I inherited from my stepfather, a hand-tooled leather belt from the 70s (with someone else's name on the back of it), a striped v-neck, and Birkenstocks. We were equally comfortable and able to move around. We were equally "covered up." We both felt, I assume, that what we were wearing said something about ourselves as individuals.

More than ten years later, I have no idea what my "opponent" (whose name I've forgotten) thinks about dress codes and uniforms. As for me, though, my stance hasn't changed much. Now, as then, uniforms make my skin crawl, and I abhor dress codes. It's not so much about the mystical ability to "express myself" through my clothes as it is about control. The way I see it, dressing is an extension of body autonomy, and I don't want someone else telling me what parts of my body need to be covered, by what, etc. It irritates me in employment situations (which are, mostly, voluntary) and it enrages me in schools (which are, mostly, not).

I spent much of high school pressing the dress code issue. My high school did not have a particularly stringent code, but certain things (midriff tops, shorts or skirts that were too short, spaghetti strap tanks, hats, etc.) were not allowed. I wore all of them at one time or another. It wasn't about being sexxxxeeee, or about showing off my body. It was about testing boundaries. It was about exercising my own autonomy, and seeing how far I could push.

Interestingly, when I moved to college, where there was no dress code (literally none, we had naked students at Reed), I started caring a lot less about my clothes. I had my own uniform, of a sort--baggy cargo pants or BDUs, a t-shirt, a hoodie. I did a few wild things with my hair, pierced my navel (not allowed in high school), got my first tattoo (also not allowed), but basically, I kept myself covered up and didn't think much about it. As an adult, working in professional environments, I wear clothing that is, by and large, appropriate. I do wear sleeveless shirts and dresses, which some people find inappropriate (particularly because it shoes my upper arm tattoo), but none of my employers have had any problem with this, so I guess it's fine. Having the freedom to dress the way I see fit hasn't turned me into some kind of monster. If anything, it's let to me chilling out about the whole situation.

Dress codes and uniforms, in most cases, are about control. They generally come about through dictates rather than community processes, coming down from a superior as rules for inferiors. This is the case in schools, in places of employment, and in prisons. I object to this kind of control. I buck against this kind of control, and I think a lot of people do. And moreover, I think we should, particularly women. Because in truth, there's not much difference between someone with power over you telling you to cover it up and telling you to take it off. Either way, someone who is not you is exercising control over your body decisions, and I think it's right to fight that.

My basic premises are as follows:

1. People should be left to dress as they see appropriate, with the exception of dress codes needed for safety reasons and uniforms needed for identification purposes (i.e. police officers, fire fighters, etc.);
2. If left to their own devices, people will generally dress in a way that is deemed "appropriate" for whatever their position/station is;
3. If left to their own devices and not dressing "appropriately," people generally aren't hurting anyone or anything anyway.

I honestly don't understand what is so hard about that. It seems to me that uniforms and dress codes are just unnecessary rules in nearly all cases, and I don't see any point to restricting people unnecessarily. The so-called benefits of dress codes seem mostly invented to me (safer? less distracting? less classist? really? are you sure?), and the drawbacks are much larger than people realize.


A few things:

Kids are in a learning phase - understanding themselves, the world around them, and require guidance, RULES, and understanding. Better than a dress code is regular discussions about what it means to "express yourself" via your fashion statements and what "appropriate" really means. I found it fascinating that you choose the word appropriate to describe the way you dress at work, yet shun dress codes, since the dress codes are all about defining appropriate.

Work -
In many employment situations, the customer sets the standard. Not many people are likely to drop $60,000 on a car from someone with tatoos on their face and assless chaps. The business needs the customer to exist, so they deem that inappropriate for work based on what the customer's expectations are.

There are also dress codes in the work place that relate to saftey that I agree with.

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October 2012

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