An essay on how, nine years later, I’ve finally processed my high school’s dress code. Here’s what I’ve learned about my personal style since then. ✨
Here’s what my high school did teach me about dress code:
- Skirts must touch the knee. This is where your knee is located.
- These are tights. These are leggings. NEITHER are trousers. THESE are trousers.
- This is denim. It is FORBIDDEN.
- This is your midriff. Do not expose it.
- Boys must wear collared shirts. Girls don’t need to wear collared shirts. Girls have it so much easier.
- If you’re good, we’ll have a Dress Down day, and these restrictions will be lifted as a reward.
- You should be grateful we don’t have uniforms.
Dress Code was stressful for me because I so badly wanted to follow it.
I’m the perfect candidate: I love to dress up. I prefer a more formal, modest style. To an uncool degree, I adore following the rules – if only I can understand them.
At the time it was nearly impossible to find skirts that hit the knee. This was the era in which Mean Girls style was un-ironic. The shorter the skirt the better, the lower the waist the cooler. The message my school’s dress code sent was: ‘We’re better than unruly public schools, and more progressive than stuffy private schools with uniforms’. It also implied that what we truly wanted and couldn’t have were short skirts – a treat for special occasions only. I was so confused.
I wanted to follow the dress code, so I crafted a solution – I layered my skirt with a second one underneath, like a petticoat, the waist pulled down enough to hit the knee. Uncomfortable, but better than wearing trousers. I couldn’t explain it then, but I was finally returning to feminine clothing after years of dressing like a boy. The options were baggy trousers, or form-fitting ones. I preferred to risk it with a skirt.
One morning in ninth grade I made an assembly announcement for my book club. Afterwards, a teacher of mine from middle school approached me. I hadn’t seen her in a year and was happy to talk to her, probably about my book club. ‘Alexandra,’ she said [for that is my name], ‘Your skirt is way, way above the knee.’ My memory of this moment is etched with her glare, worthy of Lily van der Woodsen, letting her disapproval settle before turning to leave. In retrospect I wonder if she was trying to warn me – she didn’t punish me, and was maybe tipping me off to save me from a stricter teacher. Either way, it felt like a reprimand, and I was wounded for the rest of the day.
It has taken me years to understand what I want to wear, and where to find it.
High School was the height of my style exploration, in both fit and expression. Now I know the quirks of my body’s dimensions, even though ‘my size’ is usually in stock: I’m average height, with long legs and a short torso. I have wide shoulders. I’m a 32D, not a 34B. I have a round tummy and a small waist. My feet aren’t wide, but my toes are.
I’m most comfortable in full midi skirts and wide leg trousers. I now know where to purchase these garments in the sea of rising hemlines. In fact, in my wardrobe as it is now, all but my one pair of shorts are dress code-approved.
It never occurred to me to ask why we had a dress code.
My head was clouded over with judgement and fear. Looking back, I think my school and I shared a belief in dressing for the occasion.
I think the dress code is intended to set a tone of formality. It’s there to encourage us to show up for learning, and to respect one another by dressing as part of a collective. Maybe the lack of uniform was a celebration of individuality.
The pilot of Brooklyn 99 explains dress code better than four years of high school ever did. Jake spends the episode resisting Captain Holt’s rule to wear a tie until he realises: ‘We’re a team, and the tie is a part of that team’s uniform.’ My school dismissed the word ‘uniform’ like a dirty word, but most of the student body were athletes. I think they would have understood the sentiment.
Despite the difficulty I faced in following their rules, I was dressing to be part of the team.
Couldn’t they see I wore my music notes dress for the first day of Chamber Singers?
Couldn’t they see that I had dressed up for my book club announcement? Brocade tights, ribbon in hair, and a classic belt to delineate library chic?
Here’s what I wish I could have articulated as a teenager:
My skirt is above the knee because I can’t find skirts long enough, so I have to pull this one down as a petticoat and didn’t want it to fall off while I was onstage.
Why is there a rule about skirt length? Having a conversation about this will strengthen our shared principles. Call-out leads to confusion and hurt.
I want to dress respectfully. If you find my style disrespectful, please help me understand why.
I only recently learned that I don’t have to dress like a boy to be taken seriously, and these rules make it hard to embody that lesson.
I’m exploring my individuality, not in rebellion, but to bring my unique strengths to the team.
And while we’re chatting? These rules are sexist and condescending. I prefer to cover up, but you’re implying that there is something wrong with my peers who want to reveal more skin. The rules cause gender division, and imply slut-shaming. Oh and if our science department is so strong, why the constant reminders of where our knees are located?
I went on to attend the only university in the world with a dress code for sitting exams.
It was clear and traditional, and only complained about because of its association with academic stress. For tutorials, no one told me how to dress, but I paid special attention anyway: a blazer over my tutu dress, or a vibrant cardigan. It said, this is who I am: bold, but studious. American individual coming through, but she’s so happy to be here — just look at that totally serious blazer!
At its best, a dress code is an opportunity to play within safe boundaries.
A dress code, when communicated clearly, saves you from embarrassment and diminishes worry about what to wear. My favourite dress code is at Sketch, in London: Art smart. Simple, and inspired.
At university, I joined the Mountaineering Club. I signed up at the end of my first year, eager to integrate with the group. On my first night at the gym, the members were kind enough invite me to their annual black tie dinner the following week.
The dress code was Black Tie (Climber’s Interpretation). My guess was that ‘interpretation’ meant ‘Probably not camping clothes, but you do you.’
Just in case, I took the brief literally.
I showed up in a velvet grey dress, and fashioned a statement necklace out of a carabiner — Climber’s interpretation of black tie. It was my safeguard against shyness, my way of showing up to celebrate the sport. I may be the newest member of the group, but the piece of metal around my neck symbolises what we share.
My take on ‘Climber’s Interpretation’ became a tradition and a trend. I created a hat out of rope, and draped a sleeping bag over my ballgown like a dramatic princess cape. My fellow climbers showed up to the next dinner wearing handmade ‘gearrings’ and maillon cufflinks. As for its origins, the dress code was probably passed down through the years, and suggested by the dinner venue. I doubt anyone thought too much about it. In a club full of scientists, I was happy to represent the arts with a wink of how dress codes can be fun and meaningful.
I do have one hopeful dressing up memory from high school.
I was on campus one weekend for a ‘visiting colleges’ workshop. No dress code on Saturdays, so I could go all out. I matched my Harry Potter Alliance tee with a skirt cinched at the waist, rather than yanked down to hit the knee. I topped off the look with an illegal beret, and tartan rainboots – just for fun. My classmates were in jeans and sweats.
‘What should we wear to visit colleges?’ One of them asked. The teacher gave some suggestions, paused, and with the slightest glance at me, added, ‘Unless you have a personal style you enjoy. Then feel free to make your own decisions.’ For just a moment, in these two sentences, I felt understood.
Until the next chapter,
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