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Fashioning the School Uniform Debate

Chelsea Rousso admits that because her children must wear school uniforms, it makes her job as a parent a little simpler. But Rousso, who teaches fashion design classes at The Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale, says she is opposed to uniforms, nonetheless. Clothing choices are an important part of individual expression, she maintains, as kids find their place among peers.

“Students need outlets for expression and communicating through fashion,” Rousso says. “Personal style allows for individuality and creativity. In society, we strive to be accepted as part of a group or ‘style tribe’ and fashion allows for this unity.”

Individual expression through fashion is part of the ongoing school uniform debate, a long-standing argument that encompasses everything from basic dress codes requiring certain color shirts and bottoms to the classic plaid skirts with jackets seen on some private school students.

Dress codes can feature many different kinds of rules. In some cases, dress codes allow or ban certain styles and colors of clothing, like shirts with inappropriate messaging or colors linked to gang activity. Depending on the nature of the rules, some dress codes allow parents to buy those items at any store. Uniforms, on the other hand, are usually purchased through a third-party company specializing in school uniforms.

Opponents of school uniforms make free speech and freedom of expression arguments. The ACLU has tackled the issue over the years, filing lawsuits on behalf of students punished for violating dress codes. In 2007, the ACLU won a case in California where a middle school student was disciplined for wearing socks featuring Tigger from Winnie the Pooh. The school’s policy was intended to help combat gang activity, but the court said it was written too broadly and ordered that parents must be given the opportunity to opt out.

Those on the pro side of the school uniform debate cite several benefits. One benefit not often discussed is sustainability. For example, The Uniform Project from co-founders Eliza Starbuck and Sheena Matheiken is an ongoing showcase of how far a an individual can go with just one outfit.

Starbuck designed seven versions of the exact same little, black dress for Matheiken to wear every day for one year. She varies it greatly with the use of accessories – everything from brightly-colored tights to funky hats and boots. Daily pictures are posted on the website and the entire project has become a fundraiser for the Akanksha Foundation’s school project to fund uniforms for students living in Indian slums.

“I was raised and schooled in India where uniforms were a mandate in most public schools. Despite the imposed conformity, kids always found a way to bend the rules and flaunt a little personality,” Matheiken writes on the website. “Peaking through the sea of uniforms were the idiosyncrasies of teen style and individual flare.”

Uniforms can alleviate peer pressure, removing the need for students to compete with one another to wear the latest trends, proponents say. Fashion requires finances and uniforms can mean parents spend less money to clothe their kids for school. Uniforms may also positively influence a student’s behavior and allow them to focus more closely on their education.

“School districts, schools, and principals make their choices to use school uniforms sometimes to improve school learning to be sure every student is provided a good vehicle for success,” says Diane Cargile, President of the National Association of Elementary School Principals (NAESP).

The NAESP has no official stance in the school uniform debate because Cargile says it is a choice best left to the local education decision makers.

“Implementing school uniforms can come from wanting to make sure the students focus on the learning rather than what they are wearing every day,” she explains.

Sometimes the government even tries to get into the business of regulating clothing outside of a school setting. In April 2009, Rousso was called to testify in a court case in Palm Beach County, Florida that challenged an ordinance banning sagging pants. Young men in the community were wearing pants low enough to reveal underwear or skin, and Palm Beach County officials had passed an ordinance because they considered the trend obscene. Rousso testified against the ordinance, explaining about trends and the role of fashion in society.

“Members of society should have the freedom of expression through clothing and therefore should be able to wear whatever they choose,” she says. “Government should not regulate fashion. If rules about indecent exposure or public health concerns are the issue, then those are the rules that need to be questioned.”

Adults have a long history of criticizing the fashion choices of younger generations. So just when do children develop their own style for adults to cramp? As schools opt to implement school uniforms, students must find other ways to express their sense of style and stand out among their peers, Rousso says.

To support their sense of individual expression, Rousso encourages her children to experiment with fashion and style choices when they are outside of school. Weekends are a good opportunity to get more involved with personal fashion, she adds.

For students who want to express themselves at school within the confines of a uniform, Rousso suggests trying out different accessories, hair styles, footwear, and electronics.

“In society, students practice personal style from a very young age,” she continues. “By middle school, self-discovery and self-confidence are nurtured. A student can begin to learn that others will view them based on appearance.”

But some proponents of school uniforms see that focus on appearance as more reason to make uniforms mandatory. When every student is wearing the same set of clothes, there’s less opportunity to pick on one another’s appearances. While young people will probably always find something to ridicule about one another even when their clothing is the same, uniforms give them one less option. That can be especially important in low-income areas where some students’ families cannot afford the pricier clothing favored by the popular kids, Cargile points out.

Cargile says uniforms can lessen the resentment that students feel for one another. Those resentments could come from students’ insecurity about differing appearances in clothing or from jealousy about not having what someone else does.

“It really becomes an equalizer,” Cargile explains. “You can’t tell which students are wealthy and which might not have as much.”

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