April 18, 2023
I’m standing at my daughter’s bedroom door, holding up a piece of silky lavender clothing. “This is such a pretty color. What pants do you wear with this top?”
She peers up from her laptop. “Mom, that’s a dress! Are you kidding me?”
There’s a lot of ruching on the sides. I try stretching the fabric to full length — it still seems like a shirt to me. I picture my daughter wearing it. I hope it is longer than I imagine.
It’s Winter Break, just after final exams in college. My daughter is sleeping late, watching TV shows on her laptop, and seeing high school friends who are home from college, as well. They all attended a private high school together and were expected to wear uniforms that adhered to a strict dress code. The silky lavender dress I’m holding is a far cry from that prescribed length because there is no way its bottom hem would fall within four inches of her knee.
Before private high school, my daughter attended public grammar and middle school, which meant we usually spent summers trekking through the mall in search of fashionable jeans, shirts, and new sneakers for the first day. But then, she switched to a private high school that required school uniforms. Dressing her would be so much easier, or so I thought.
When we went to a nearby shop to purchase her uniform skirt, I relied on the wisdom of the shop ladies to advise me about an attractive hem length that still followed the dress code on the school’s website. As my daughter stood in front of the three-way mirror, a woman adjusted her hem, showing us where she would pin it. My daughter seemed satisfied.
On the first day of high school, we drove through the gate and up the long, curving driveway. We passed welcome balloons in school colors and cheerful administrators waving to the passenger cars.
My daughter was excited and happy, eager to begin her first day of high school. She exited the car with pep in her step and a tug on the straps of her backpack, wearing the skirt we had hemmed and everything else we bought over the summer: brown loafers, a collared long-sleeved button-down shirt, and knee-high athletic socks that my daughter deemed “cool.”
We were both so happy and excited about this new stage in her life. But by the time 4:30 pm rolled around and I pulled into the pickup spot near where she’d just finished field hockey practice, her mood had significantly changed. She ran to the car, tossed her field hockey stick and backpack in the trunk, and got inside quickly. This was not the sunny mood I had expected. Her answer to my question was just as confusing.
“How was your first day?” I asked her.
“On the way home, we need to stop at the tailor to get my skirt hemmed shorter,” she replied. “No one wears their skirt this long. I had to roll mine up at the waist. It was so embarrassing!”
“But we followed the school dress code guidelines,” I protested.
She said no one else did, and that she wanted to fit in with her new classmates. So, I made a detour on our way home and went back to the uniform shop. “If you don’t follow the dress code, won’t you get in trouble by the administration?” I asked my daughter as the shop lady raised the skirt’s hem.
“Mom, it’s a thing,” my daughter told me, ending our discussion.
My daughter was right about students routinely violating the school’s dress code. It definitely was a thing. And it became an even bigger thing when a change in administration made sure the dress code was enforced.
Girls rolled their skirts up or down at the waist, depending on which administrator was in the hallway. Trying for a compromise and to honor the dress code’s emphasis on modesty, my daughter, like the other girls, started wearing black spandex shorts underneath their skirts.
“So-and-so’s been coded,” became a frequent refrain.
The administration targeted girls for violations while they merely told boys to expose their ties and iron their khaki pants.
Girls were upset. Parents were miffed. Meetings followed. The girls continued to wear their skirts short. Nothing in the dress code changed.
Today, as I stand here holding up the small piece of silky lavender fabric, and she peers over her laptop to tell me, “Mom, that’s a dress,” I realize this piece of clothing symbolizes choice and empowerment. Giving her the freedom to make choices for herself about what makes her feel good on the outside also helps her feel good on the inside. It may even give her an extra boost of confidence to make bigger decisions as she moves through life.