Leslie Ginsparg Klein is the academic dean of Women’s Institute of Torah Seminary – Maalot Baltimore.
My daughter, an elementary school student, started wearing a uniform this year. As a parent, I’m thrilled. Uniforms mean less laundry, less time spent picking out clothes, and less fighting over why tutus are not an appropriate clothing choice in the dead of winter. My daughter is happy to wear a uniform as well. For her it marks the transition from being a little girl to a big girl. She loves her uniform, for now. I can’t help but wonder if she’ll grow to resent it. I remember myself, as a high school student, hating my uniform. I found the scratchy sweaters and polyester pleated skirts chafing, both literally and figuratively. Those sentiments seemed to have only increased over time. The news is full of reports of students protesting and even suing their schools over dress codes.
In my just-published JHCY article, “No Candy Store, No Pizza Shops, No Maxi-Skirts, No Makeup’: Socializing Orthodox Jewish Girls Through Schooling,” I discuss the way that uniforms and dress codes have been used to socialize Orthodox Jewish girls into appropriate gender roles. The dress codes conform to a combination of the traditional Jewish laws of modesty and social conception of what constitutes appropriate dress. Orthodox girls’ schools require girls to wear skirts and dresses (no pants) that cover the knees, sleeves that cover the elbows, and necklines that don’t dip below the collarbone. Students are expected to adhere to these standards both inside and outside of school. School leaders use uniforms and dress codes to enforce the dress and behaviors that are expected in their community.
However, school leaders have acknowledged that uniforms and dress codes can have an educational downside. An administrator at an Orthodox girls’ high school admitted to me that while rules succeeded in creating an environment where all students adhered to the religious community’s standards of modesty, school leaders forfeited an opportunity to engage with students on the issue and educate them on the reasons for and ideology behind dressing modestly.
Orthodox girls’ schools are not unique in using dress codes and uniforms to socialize students. These rules are a way for any public or private school leader to inform students of appropriate dress and behavior, and to exhibit social and cultural control. For example, when school leaders forbid students from wearing gang colors, they are declaring violent behavior socially inappropriate. In this case, dress codes are designed to preclude students from importing street rivalries into the school building, thereby allowing teachers and administrators to retain control of the school environment. Similarly, other clothing is restricted because school leaders perceive it as too informal for the school environment, or too sexually provocative.
Whether in Jewish or secular schools, dress code rules tend to have a strong gendered component. Within the Orthodox Jewish world, dress code policies are tightly intertwined with the laws of modesty, which are generally directed toward women. Similarly, dress codes issued by public and private schools, although seemingly directed towards both boys and girls, generally only focus on girls’ dress. For example, a California junior high school in 1982 restricted students from wearing tube tops, bikini tops and short skirts. Dress codes in the 1990s, although again presented as gender neutral, began targeting boys’ dress as well. School designed these regulations to prevent the gang-related clothing typically worn by males. This gendered element is oftentimes the source of student protest. More recently, students have protested that these gender specific rules are discriminatory against transgendered students and are inconsiderate of more fluid conceptions of gender.
These protests don’t typically take place in Orthodox girls’ schools. The parent body is a self-selecting population which generally supports the schools in socializing students into community norms. Though students have complained about increasingly strict dress codes, they generally choose to remain within the boundaries of the community. But as the Orthodox community becomes increasingly influenced by general American society, protests against dress codes and the accompanying gender socialization may become more common.