A Houston high school has just issued a dress code that points out the importance of maintaining standards. In this case, the standard was minimal, and the intention was reasonable. The irrational reaction to it tells us much about the reasons that our society is steadily becoming more disordered.
What made this dress code different was that it was not for students; it was for parents.
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Enforcing the Appropriate
Carlotta Outley Brown, the principal of James Madison High School in Houston, Texas, noticed that an increasing number of parents came to school inappropriately dressed to the point that it caused disruptions. She decided that she needed to require appropriate dress from students’ parents. On April 9, 2019, she sent parents a letter informing parents that certain items of apparel would not be acceptable if parents visit the school. Her list includes:
- Satin cap, shower caps, or bonnets
- Hair rollers
- “Leggings that are showing your bottom and where your body is not covered from the front or the back”
- Sagging pants
- Men wearing undershirts
- Very short shorts, often called “Daisy Dukes”1
Every item on that list is reasonable. After all, the students are not allowed to wear these same items. However, the public reactions to Principal Brown’s letter show that reason is as rare as respect.
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This appears to be the first time that a school in the United States has tried to implement such a code. In January 2019, Tennessee legislator Antonio Parkinson introduced a bill to create a similar code throughout the state, but that proposal has not been debated or passed by the legislature.
The Deterioration of Dignity
Until the late sixties, school dress codes were well understood and reasonably uniform. Boys were to wear buttoned shirts with collars and dress slacks. Girls were to wear blouses that covered their shoulders and chests along with skirts with a hemline below the knee. Both sexes were to wear leather shoes with low heels.
This simple code protected the dignity of all students and facilitate learning. Appropriate dress was an important factor in maintaining decorum and discipline. The school was a place of academic work, not recreation.
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During the sixties and seventies, dignity, restraint, and modesty became unpopular concepts. Those who attempted to uphold standards were described in Marxist terms as those who tried to impose their bourgeois values on the rest of society.
Jeans and tee-shirts became (and remain) the unofficial uniform in schools. They are often more expensive than the “dress clothes” they replaced. They also suppressed the individuality they claimed to promote. Indeed, everyone looks like everyone else.
The students of the sixties are now in society and have brought their “style” into the workplace. The concept of dressing with dignity in school, work, and other public places has come to be viewed as a relic of the past.
No Good Turn Goes Unpunished
As Principal Brown in Houston discovered, those who attempt to restore even the lowest standard of dress will meet with resistance.
The news media coverage unanimously condemned the principal. Consider these typical headlines, “Houston high school’s new dress code takes aim at parents” (AP) and “A Houston school’s dress code for parents teaches kids sexism, elitism and intolerance, not respect” (NBC).
An Associated Press report quoted Zeph Capo, president of the Houston Federation of Teachers, who used the terms “classist” and “belittling” to describe the codes relating to women’s hair. “I’m sorry, this principal may have plenty of money and time to go to the hairdresser weekly and have her stuff done. Who are you to judge others who may not have the same opportunities that you do? Having a wrap on your head is not offensive. It should not be controversial.”
This situation also allowed local politicians to weigh in. Ashton P. Woods, a candidate for Houston City Council, vented his opinions on Twitter. “This is ELITISM and RESPECTABILITY POLITICS. She should be fired. Most of the parents likely cannot afford to comply with this dress code. This is not 1984.”
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Both Mr. Capo and Mr. Woods turn to the debate into a class struggle issue. They imply that the principal’s actions are based on the ruling class oppressing the lower in classes.
Both objections are easy to debunk. The new dress code does not require that a person’s hair be freshly coiffed – it just says that it is not to be covered. Reasonable people can agree or disagree, but the social class has nothing to do with it. Covering the body also is not a matter of class struggle since modest clothing is generally no more expensive than immodest clothes. In fact, modern fashions, including ripped clothing, are often much more costly than normal clothes.
The objecting statement was made to appeal to emotions. As such, they fit into the postmodern narrative of a society that is classist, racist, elitist, or whatever adjective is in vogue.
The War on Rules
The real objection is the presence of any rules at all. One catchphrase of the revolution of the sixties was, “It is forbidden to forbid.” The “do your own thing” ethos also still rings in the postmodern mind. The spirit that insists that there is nothing wrong with wearing pajamas when visiting a school is the same postmodern spirit that says that there is no reality – but only “social constructs” that are accepted as reality. Any rules made by a society that reflects objective reality can be easily rejected as “your truth” which is opposed to “my truth.”
The great concern about the parental dress code of a high school in Houston is its attack on rules. A world without rules is anarchy.
1. Adapted from https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/education/2019/04/23/houston-texas-school-dress-code-parents/3556044002/