The Case for School Uniforms

In last Saturday’s New York Times, Peggy Orenstein wrote an op-ed that discussed her frustration with her daughter’s school’s dress code. Dress code enforcement usually targets the girls more than the boys and inevitably communicates unintended messages to girls about their sexuality.

Today in response to the op-ed there were a couple of letters to the editor.  One of them said that the solution is school uniforms. Here it is:

To the Editor:

The answer is school uniforms. Besides leaving nothing to battle over, a school uniform solves other issues.

It reminds kids that when they go to school, they are students, not just some kids hanging out. It displays a sense of respect for the institution of school, to the teachers and to each other. It removes obvious inequalities such as designer clothes or sneakers, which cause jealousy and resentment among students. It reduces distractions of all kinds, thereby reducing the need for teachers, parents and students to get embroiled in the trivial details of whose skirt is too short and whose pants are hanging down too low.

There can never be universal agreement about this, and that’s where uniforms come in.

When I travel to other countries and see the schoolchildren so neatly dressed in their school uniforms, it makes me smile. They look like students, not some street urchins trying to attract attention for their looks and not for their brains. And in most of the countries that have the highest achieving students, the students wear uniforms.

Hampton Bays, N.Y., June 14, 2014

I’d like to make a case for school uniforms in yeshiva high school.  First of all let me say that I don’t like the idea of school uniforms. I like the idea of students having as much freedom as you can give them. I like the idea of students and their parents responsibly adhering to the school’s dress code while expressing their own individuality through the fashion that they choose. Nevertheless I’ve begun to think that uniforms are the way to go. Why?

1. Students will always push back against a school’s dress code. It’s the nature of being a teenager. It doesn’t matter where on the modern orthodox yeshiva high school spectrum your school falls, it’s the same problem everywhere. Boys and girls each push back against the school’s expectations. I have no problem with that. That’s what teenagers are supposed to do. There is disparity though between boys and girls. When a staff member tells a boy to wear a collared shirt, or to tuck in his shirt, or to do whatever a school tells its boys to do, the offending boy  complies sometimes begrudgingly but never feeling that a staff member is challenging his self-worth, morality or  religiosity. When a staff member tells a girl that her skirt is too short or that her top is too tight or too low cut it is always interpreted as a statement about the girl’s sexuality. In the past I’ve tried to argue that it’s not about sexuality; it’s just about formality, as was argued in this blog post on the NYT website. But it’s just not true. Girls’ dress code is about sexuality. Boys’ dress code is about formality. This has to do with current fashion and the way that halacha views clothing and bodies. So no matter how sensitive, kind, respectful and loving a teacher is when instructing a girl to change her clothes, she is making a statement about the girl’s sexuality. No teacher wants to be put in that position and I don’t want to put them in that position. High school girls’ sense of body image is too personal, sensitive and explosive of an issue. The harm done enforcing a real dress code is real. And the harm in not enforcing the dress code is real too. So I’ve begun to consider the idea of a uniform as a possible solution. Again, I see the problem stemming from the girls’ position, but once proposing a uniform for one gender I’d propose it for the other too.

2. Families spend a lot of money on clothes for their high school kids. If you have uniforms the expense is reduced.

3. Kids compete with each other in the arena of fashion as almost everyone anxiously try to outdo one another. Even if they’re not trying to outdo one another, they are constantly concerned about how others in school will judge them based on their clothing. A uniform removes the anxiety.

4. Individuality should be expressed in ways that matter, like your conversation, your writing, your thoughts and the way you behave, not external things like your clothing.

When schools strictly enforce their dress code, parents and students often complain that the school is focusing on external things and missing the point by not focusing on the internal. When schools let students bend the dress code, parents and community members complain that the school is not adhering to its values. They’re both right! Can we figure out a way to have students work with their school to design a uniform that will solve the problems I outlined above while respecting a student’s self expression?


4 thoughts on “The Case for School Uniforms

  1. Here’s an argument from a girl who’s spent half her high school career in a school with uniforms and is strongly opposed:

    1. As you say, “Students will always push back against a school’s dress code. It’s the nature of being a teenager.” Uniforms certainly do nothing to change that. You’ll always get girls hiking up their skirts or not buttoning their shirts high enough, and everyone will get uncomfortable when they get yelled at. It’s the same problem as with the dress code! There’s really no difference – trust me, kids will always figure out a way to dress in a way you don’t like. You’re right, there is a problem, but having uniforms is in no way an effective solution.

    2. Okay, good point, but it seems kind of like a side point rather than the main issue.

    3. We’re a college prep school, right? It’s cute that you don’t want us to have “anxiety” about our clothes, but being able to dress ourselves is just as important in our lives as learning how to write essays or do math problems. You can’t just use uniforms to push off these issues until we have to face them in the real world. I don’t think that’s fair to us.

    4. Okay, I’m glad you feel that way. I happen to agree. It’s just that uniforms are never quite as comfortable as the clothes I pick out for myself. Since you’re in favor of expressing individuality in writing, I hope you won’t mind me expressing my opinion like this. 🙂

    In a nutshell, we are real-life people who can’t just be babied and dressed up our whole lives, and I think imposing a uniform will have a negative effect in that respect. Also, it won’t do anything solve your problems, as I explained above.

    And the solution? There is no solution, other than what you’re already doing. Maybe you can try enforcing the dress code that you’ve already instated instead of trying to come up with a new one that will be equally hard to enforce. I understand that this makes you uncomfortable, but if you aren’t happy with the situation now, I can’t think of a better way to improve it.

  2. I was actually quite concerned when I found out that my son’s Yeshivah High School did not have uniforms. At this age, the students need conformity. They don’t need to be looking at what brand the other kid is wearing, made to feel bad about himself because the parents just can’t afford the Ralph Lauren button down shirts that he wants to fit in…be cool.
    With a uniform, everybody is treated the same. It also makes getting dressed in the morning less of a hassle.
    They can express themselves outside of school. Having a uniform is a non-issue, that should be enforced.

  3. Thoughtful and insightful piece RJK! As a Dad of boys, the issues raised by dress code and uniform are clearly more sensitive to girls.

    With that said I view dress code in similar fashion (no pun intended) as other school rules. Provide the standard / rules, enforce the rule with common sense and treat the boys and girls as adults.

    In my workplace there are rules. Managers enforce these and repeat offenders suffer sensible consequences.

    Uniforms really don’t solve the issue with following rules. It just makes it easier to enforce for admin/teachers. It doesn’t move the kids toward making mature decisions and may actually hinder.

    As for the financial questions, as a Dad of boys I spend far less on clothes than girls. But a lot more on food!

    Kids will notice who has a new car, new phone, trips to exotic locals and the latest shoes. Uniforms may reduce this effect, but not significantly. It is more important for the school to focus on what is really important..the middot, the chesed, the academics, the outreach, the kibbud to the teachers and parents etc than the clothes.

  4. I see your points, and they are very well made. I wonder though about uniforms actually solving the problem of tznius – specifically with the girls. I know that in schools with uniforms, there are still issues with tznius. The girls wear the skirts hiked up a bit until they see Morah so-n-so coming; then they start pulling them down. If they get caught, they get “skirted”. They will fight the system to some extent – be it uniforms or a dress code – because, as you mentioned, that’s just what they do.

    During high school years, teens need to start being more independent; especially in a college-prep high school. We need to show them trust upfront, not distrust them automatically because they are teens (innocent until proven guilty I suppose). Then there should be consequences when dress-code rules are broken (as with any rules that are broken).

    Uniforms do not remove the problem of “who has what”. When students wear uniforms, they wonder if their uniform looks as good on them as it does on another. They wear different shoes, socks, hair accessories, hair styles, jewelry, makeup, etc. that shows “who has better”.

    You’re best bet, in my opinion, is to strictly enforce the dress code, rather than changing it to a uniform. The teens will continue to test the limits, and staff will continue to need to reprimand; but it is a learning experience, and helps our students mature into responsible young adults – we hope. 🙂

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