School dress codes are no new thing. Most of us grew up having to adhere to one. But as 2016’s Pretoria High School for Girls protest against the school’s ban on cornrows, dreads and braids showed, dress codes aren’t all they’re cracked up to be.
Are we teaching students to familiarise themselves with dressing for the workplace? Look around: how many people do you know who still go to work in a collared shirt and a tie?
What about freedom of speech and expression, a key part of our post-apartheid constitution? It seems odd that we say everyone has the right to express themselves, yet we deny our children this right as part of their education experience. We try to celebrate different body types, hair types, skin types – yet we demand that our students dress the same, regardless of what looks good on them, what they are comfortable in, or how they would naturally style themselves.
As children and young adults strive to develop a sense of self, we prescribe the exact opposite: a dress code that tries to make everyone look the same. Are our dress codes culturally inclusive? What about the wearing of religious symbols or a hijab? Girls’ High is not an anomaly when it comes to dress codes – schools across the country fail to be culturally inclusive in one way or another.
There’s also a great deal of sexism involved in dress codes. Skirts are decreed for girls, and rules exist about them being a certain length. Are we teaching girls that the way they dress is the problem behind abuse and rape, rather than teaching boys to control themselves regardless of a girl’s skirt length? Also, dress codes are by definition restrictive, making it difficult for gender-fluid students to feel included or accepted.
In a country that could do with greater tolerance, greater inclusivity and greater acceptance of others, let’s start with growing these attitudes in our schools. And let’s do away with enforced dress codes.
Just a few years ago, the girls at my high school erupted in dissatisfaction about the unflattering shirts we had to wear as part of our uniform. At the time, form-fitting tops were all the rage – and so someone in the school body designed a new ‘summer’ shirt that would be more flattering on the girls’ figures.
The shirt, although cute, was impractical, and defeated the point of dress codes. You see, school dress codes are not supposed to be flattering or fashion-forward: they’re supposed to democratise the classroom, and to remove the pressures of style, expensive brands and image that already weigh so heavily on students. School dress codes create a sense of equality: it’s hard to tell whether someone comes from poverty or from money when you’re all wearing the same thing, and that’s important. It’s part of teaching children not to develop the bigoted, face-value judgments our society desperately needs to overcome. It teaches students to befriend someone for their character, not their appearance. In a way, the uniformity of a dress code serves to unite those who adhere to it.
There’s also a sense of pride and camaraderie that comes with a dress code: a sense of belonging to a school or a house or a sports team. And that can be seriously powerful!
Of course, it’s important to review the codes that reassert a culture of whiteness (especially at former Model C schools). But a review doesn’t mean a total repeal or rejection. We all watched with embarrassment last year as 13-year-old Grade 8 girls at Pretoria High School for Girls were forced to publicly protest school rules that weren’t considerate of the way in which
black girls’ hair grows out of their head. It’s important to acknowledge and make room for diversity without making learners feel like they are breaking the rules.
But it’s certainly possible to create dress codes that can achieve this while promoting equality in the classroom.
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