Catholic Education
This week's stories | Home Page
Issue Date:  March 25, 2005

Seeking the happy medium between bare midriffs and a burka


The scruffy, wrinkled look of the late ’60s came just in time for me. Those were my high-school years and it was liberating to wear tie-dyed shirts, bell-bottom jeans, and “Jesus sandals” (even though I hadn’t yet made his acquaintance).

Fast forward 15 years when I found myself a Catholic and living in an urban parish of mostly like-minded aging hippies, facing the dress code issue in our children’s grade school. Most of us believed that uniforms were a good idea, but it was difficult to reconcile our “anything goes” past with enforced conformity for our children -- a point not lost on my oldest son as he looked through my high school yearbook.

It was in conversations with him that I tried to identify the advantages of uniform dress. I found myself remembering my years before high school. When I was a younger girl, the most difficult thing about school was getting dressed in the morning. Left motherless while still in junior high, my little sister and I did not yet have the skills to manage our wardrobes. We did not know how to buy for our gawky, fast-growing bodies, nor did we have the organizational ability a good mother needs to get kids presentable and off to school on time. Somehow I came across a photograph of people in Maoist China and how I envied them their simple, pajama-like garb that looked so comfortable. To get up in the morning and not have to think about clothes! There were days when I skipped school for lack of a suitable outfit.

My grade-school sons didn’t appreciate their navy blue pants and light blue shirts as I would have at their age. Even if they didn’t know what they were missing, I did, and I was glad for them.

There are three essential elements of uniform dress: identity, utility and simplicity. These elements are not only true for Catholic schoolchildren, but also for the armed forces, Scouts, the Amish, athletes, the aforementioned Maoists, and religious people of many traditions.

Uniforms provide and encourage a distinctive identity. Some may embrace the navy pants and light blue shirts as the distinguishing mark of “our” children compared to “other” children. This is bordering on the offensive to me, but I do think it is helpful to adopt dress that distinguishes children as students.

This relates to the element of utility. As students, they should wear that which is conducive to the activity of a student -- concentrated study -- and not the dress that is associated with entertainment or sports.

Finally, to encourage simplicity of dress in today’s consumer society is radically countercultural. Our children are bombarded with the propaganda that the only authentic self-expression and estimate of self-worth are what they own, what brand name they wear, and how they look.

Part of simple dress is modesty. In a time when we are legitimately concerned about the sexual exploitation of children, we seem oblivious to the fashions foisted upon our young girls. There is something wrong with children dressing like call girls and I feel like the grandmother I am even to mention it. Yet there must be a happy medium between bare midriffs and a burka.

Dress is like a sacrament -- both forming and revealing the essential identity of the person. If we allow our children to dress immodestly while advertising expensive brand names, what are we telling them about who they are? Little commodities?

Kids will be kids and see what they can get away with. My oldest son definitely pushed the edges of that particular envelope. Do neon shoelaces violate the dress code? How about not tucking in the shirt? Or pleated pants? If girls can wear earrings, why not boys? What about hair? If girls can have long hair, why not boys? “But Sister, Jesus had long hair!”

Enforcing a dress code in such a way that clothing assumes its rightful place is an unenviable task. If it were my job (shudder), I’m not sure how I would discipline children who consistently broke the rules. For younger ones who don’t have a lot of choice about what they wear, I’d talk only with the parents. For older kids I think I’d assign a paper on the clothing industry -- one page for first time offenders, two pages for the next time, etc. I could get pretty creative in my assignments -- from the issue of child labor in overseas Nike shoe factories to the oppressive practices of the Taliban to exploring the difference between bound feet in pre-revolutionary China and pointy-toed shoes on the feet of Western women.

I can also imagine a seminar on advertising that would help children watch commercials and look at magazines with an eye toward what they are really being sold and what is being said about them in the pictures of sultry girls and bored young men.

Happily it isn’t my job and my children are now grown and dress themselves. I can afford to fantasize about parents and teachers who cooperate to create and enforce a dress code that is liberating rather than oppressive and who will help our children find that essential self inside along with the most creative and least harmful ways to express that self. More power to you!

Paige Byrne Shortal writes from her home in rural Missouri.

National Catholic Reporter, March 25, 2005

This Week's Stories | Home Page | Top of Page
Copyright  © The National Catholic Reporter Publishing  Company, 115 E. Armour Blvd., Kansas City, MO   64111
All rights reserved.
TEL:  816-531-0538     FAX:  1-816-968-2280   Send comments about this Web site to: