I always wear a new dress on the first day of school. It’s a tradition dating to my earliest childhood. This year’s “back-to-school” dress is hanging in my closet now, a cheerful sight each morning that helps me count down the days until September 4. While not everyone shares my personal tradition, I suspect that many other members of the Dana Hall community (especially our students!) have been thinking about what they will wear to school on the first day and throughout the year. This summer, I’ve had those students, and their wardrobes, on my mind quite a bit. We’ve rewritten the dress code for Middle School and I’d like to take some time to explain the rationale for the changes.
But first, a story. My best friend Regan and her family spent several years living in Paris. Their daughter Paulina, a budding fashionista, eagerly picked out an outfit for her first day at her new school, only to discover that the école required all students to wear long-sleeved smocks over their clothing. Pauli protested this indignation by repeatedly unbuttoning her smock to show everyone her beautiful dress. When Regan arrived at the end of the day, the teacher firmly explained the rule and made it clear that further insubordination would not be tolerated. Mother and daughter headed home, walking silently for quite awhile before Paulina piped up: “Well, I guess shoes are more important now than ever!”
Dr. Lisa Damour, an expert in adolescent girls, says, “for most teenagers, the drive toward autonomy trumps everything else.” Indeed, Pauli’s desire to express herself through her clothing, and her attempt to flaunt the rules, are a delightful illustration of the challenges of articulating a school dress code for young women who want to make their own choices. For Dana’s Middle School students, our new language emphasizes practicality, respect, and responsibility. Also, because Dr. Damour reminds us that “young teens admire older teens and fervently wish to be like them,” the Middle School dress code now aligns more closely with the Upper School philosophy. We believe it is important to focus on empowerment, rather than prohibition. Instead of telling girls what they may not wear, our intention is to offer guidelines for making thoughtful decisions:
- Comfortable and practical clothing and footwear makes it easy to move indoors and outside on campus. It reflects the weather, the planned activities for the day, and an individual’s style.
- Clothing that demonstrates respect for self and community reflects a student’s awareness of her own dignity as well as the values of her family and school.
- Responsibility with clothing means that students take care and pride in their appearance.
Certainly there is room for interpretation here. It is my hope that the open-endedness of these guidelines will provide a starting point for conversations between young women and the adults who care for them. How does your family define what is comfortable, respectful, and responsible? How do your choices reflect your individuality? How do you respond to, or talk about, images of fashion in the media and in stores? What style appeals to your Dana student? We will be discussing these questions, as well as specific examples, during advisory meetings. Some of the prompts for our in-school discussions will come from a book that I keep on a shelf in my office. Over the past few years, I have given copies of the same book to several female friends. Women in Clothes (2014; Blue Rider Press) is a collection of essays, interviews, photographs, and reflections about style, identity, and personal choices. The book is grounded in a wide-ranging survey prepared by authors Sheila Heti, Heidi Julavits, and Leanne Shapton. Here’s a quote from the opening:
Even our most basic clothing choices can give us confidence, show the connection between our appearance and our habits of mind, express our values and our politics, bond us with our friends, and function as armor or disguise. They are the tools we use to reinvent ourselves and to transform how others see us.
As we look forward to the new school year, it will not only be our wardrobes that give us confidence and express ourselves, but the way we define ourselves in many contexts. Here’s to a great beginning!
Quotes from Lisa Damour can be found in her book Untangled: Guiding Teenage Girls Through the Seven Transitions into Childhood (2017; Ballantine).