Dress for Success

Last week a young woman of my acquaintance, an extremely bright, mature, and socially aware high-school student, took on the administration of her school in protest of dress code changes that would, among other things, prohibit students from wearing leggings to school. Apparently there had been some demeaning sexist comments from students and teachers alike regarding this item of clothing and the students who were wearing it. The administration’s response to those  comments and attitudes was to prohibit the students from wearing the item - rather than tackling the more difficult and disturbing behavior that prompted the comments in the first place.

This in itself isn’t surprising. It often happens that the innocent get punished due to the misbehavior of others. It ain’t fair, but it’s a sad fact of life. One worth fighting, I believe, and I’m proud of people who stand up against it - like this young woman and her friends, who were effective in their campaign, the administration agreeing to allow female students to continue wearing leggings to school. 

 This incident made me recall a similar situation from my own life. Back in the dark ages (about 1968) I mounted my own little dress code campaign. I was sowing some social justice oats of my own back then, and as the youngest-ever editor of the school paper I was having a good time wielding the Power of the Pen. 

But my issue was somewhat different: My mandate was to change the dress code to allow girls to wear pants to school. Remember, this is 1968, and the micro-mini skirt was in style. Every dress or skirt I owned at the time was at least six inches above my knees -  and I was considered a “conservative” dresser. But somehow or other, the authorities deemed it necessary for girls to wear dresses (no matter how short) in order to have the right frame of mind to learn. If we wore slacks to school, it was feared that our minds would no longer focus on education, we’d feel “too casual,” as if we were dressed for “playing outside” instead of learning. (The principal actually said those very words to me, I remember it clearly to this day over 40 years later and I think my jaw is still slightly open at the stupidity of it.)

In 1968, the news was filled with stories about women taking a stand for their “rights,” for the freedom to be taken seriously in the world outside the sphere of their home and family. For many woman, dress was a huge part of this struggle. Remember the mass “bra burning” at college campuses across the nation? Adult women were facing problems in terms of attitude about the way they looked. I had grown up seeing my mother dressed every day in cinched waist, full skirted “house dresses." Bras and girdles contorted a woman’s natural shape into one society thought most pleasing, no matter how uncomfortable. My 13-year old brain watched this all with great interest, and it seemed to me at the time that women’s clothing should not have any bearing on their intellect or their ability to achieve their professional or educational goals.

Plus, I was tired of freezing my ass off in short skirts while I waited for the bus during those cold Michigan winters.

So I started an editorial campaign to encourage a change in the dress code, at least for the winter months, using the cold and snow as leverage. I had enough support from other students and parents to finally achieve success. Girls would be allowed to wear “slacks” to school - solid dark colors only, no jeans, and no pants with “rivets” on the pockets. The rule soon filtered out to the other junior high schools, and the high school as well. The rest, as they say, is history.

These days we are debating something very similar, but also something very different. Yes, these girls were well within their rights to discuss wearing clothing that appealed to them. Aside from my personal feelings about the particular item of apparel in question, (and I have to say I think leggings are an abdominal piece of apparel) I am pleased that they were heard, and consideration given to their requests. 

What I really wish is that they didn’t want to wear those leggings in the first place.

Or the scoop necked tops that reveal embarrassing amounts of cleavage.

Or the spike-heeled shoes that make them walk like Chinese handmaidens with bound feet and will undoubtedly result in all kinds of back and knee impairments later in their lives.

I know these items are all fashionable and trendy. But I guess I’m still carrying around that 1970’s bra-burning mentality that shaped itself in my brain when I was 13, the one that tells me dressing provocatively doesn’t earn women the kind of respect we deserve. I wish women didn’t think they needed to wear tight fitting, revealing clothing in order to feel feminine or pretty or desirable. 

The term “dress for success” has some merit. I’ve been working on a project at my own company, revising the Policy and Procedures. At our office, we have a dress code too - a quite extensive one in fact (and yes, it prohibits wearing leggings to work). Many of the staff interact with attorneys, physicians, and health care professionals on a regular basis. They need to wear clothing that reflects their professionalism and authority. Maybe it’s wrong that their clothing has any bearing on their perceived ability. But like a lot of other things in life that are wrong and unfair - it does.

 I probably sound like a cranky old Granny. I don’t care. I believe what we put on our bodies should have less to do with what’s fashionable and more to do with the perception we have of ourselves and the way we want the world to perceive us. 

I suggest people (men and women alike) think in terms of “dressing for respect” - our own self-respect, and the respect we deserve from other people with whom we interact.