So it has come to this.
A Houston high school has notified families that it’s implementing a dress code — for the adults. Apparently parents have been lax about their sartorial choices, and the James Madison High School principal has had enough. In a letter dated April 9, she informed families that, as their child’s first teacher, they needed to set an example of respectable behavior and their attire was part of the example-setting.
“We are preparing your child for a prosperous future,” wrote Principal Carlotta Outley Brown. “We want them to know what is appropriate and what is not appropriate for any setting they may be in.”
Among the clothing items banned: pajamas of any kind, sagging pants, men wearing undershirts, leggings that are “not covered from the front or the back,” Daisy Dukes (ultra-short shorts), hair rollers and a satin cap or head bonnet. Reading the list you get an idea of how some parents were showing up on campus, and their ensembles definitely were not helping create what the principal deemed a “professional education environment.”
I get it. I really, really get it. I’m sometimes appalled at the get-ups I’ve spotted on school campuses, and it’s not students who are the culprits. Actually students, lassoed in by uniforms and strict dress codes, tend to comply. Parents, on the other hand, show up as if they’re headed to the bathroom for their morning shower — or worse, to the neighborhood bar at midnight. I’ve seen parents wearing dresses so short that the merest movement gives everyone an eyeful.
Teacher friends have recounted stories about fathers showing up shirtless and mothers attending meetings or school functions with their butt-cheeks hanging out of the back of denim shorts. And while I’m all in favor of casual Friday and inclusivity that permits self-expression, there is a time and place for everything, including what we wear and how we wear it.
Yet the James Madison High principal’s much-needed edict has sparked a flurry of condemnation, including accusations of sexism, elitism and racism. The school is 58 percent Hispanic and 40 percent black, with three-quarters of students qualifying for free and reduced-price lunch. The principal is African-American.
A community activist running for Houston City Council tweeted: “Most of the parents likely cannot afford to comply with this dress code.” Say what? You can afford pajama pants but not jeans, Daisy Dukes but not regular shorts? Oh, please.
And the president of the Houston Federation of Teachers told CNN some parts of the code were “a little classist.” Now that’s pretty provincial. The mother I saw in a minuscule dress was in an upper middle-income neighborhood where houses sell for a big chunk of change and where the elementary school boasts of its academic achievements on state standardized tests.
Granted, there’s a fine line between making rules about what is proper attire on campus and enforcing regulations that discriminate against particular groups. Our country has a long and troubled history of policing women’s bodies — hair included — by imposing certain bans that target minority women. In that vein, some critics have taken aim at Madison High’s rule against satin caps and head bonnets, which are often used by black women. But tweaking the policy is a better solution than dismissing it altogether.
Schools should focus on academic achievement, yes, and one way of doing this is by setting standards that demand attention to appearance. You can rail against this however much you want, but reality is unavoidable: Appearances matter. Clothes do make the man (or woman). And it’s better for students to learn this early on than suffer embarrassment later, in a workplace where the stakes are much, much higher.
Ana Veciana-Suarez writes about family and social issues. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit her website anavecianasuarez.com. Follow @AnaVeciana.