American private schools trace most of their uniform and dress codes to their British public school roots. The formal starched collars and tails worn by Eton College boys are world-famous, but they are hardly typical of a normal school uniform these days. Much more common is the ubiquitous blazer, white shirt, school tie, gray pants and black shoes. A tunic and blouse is pretty much standard for girls.
The Difference Between Uniforms and Dress Codes
What is the difference between a uniform and dress code?
The very word uniform suggests the raison d'etre for 'unis' as the private school crowd calls them. Uniformity or sameness implies all sorts of positive things such as expectations, adherence to a standard and the sublimation of self-expression and wealth. It also conjures up negative notions such as a militaristic community and the rigidity of thinking which one attaches to people in uniform.
On the other hand, a dress code is an attempt to create conformity as opposed to uniformity. For many students, a blue blazer, white shirt and khakis amounts to a uniform. From an adult point of view a dress code merely enforces a standard of dress which is considered acceptable by those in charge.
Why Do Schools Have Uniforms and Dress Codes?
As far as I can tell, schools implemented uniforms and dress codes for practical and social reasons. Practically speaking, a standardized uniform allows a child to get by with a minimum of clothing. You have your every day wear and then a Sunday best outfit for more formal occasions.
A uniform is a marvelous equalizer of social status. It matters not whether you are the Earl of Snowdon or John Smith, son of the local green grocer, when you don that uniform. Everybody looks the same. Uniformity rules.
Now, you and I know that students in any age have their ways of getting around dress code requirements. The slacks have a way of becoming a bit more baggy than the school regulations intended. The shirts tend to hang out below the over-size jacket. Skirts seem to shrink overnight. So, dress codes and uniforms are like anything else: the spirit as well as the letter of the law must be adhered to. Not an easy task.
Do uniforms improve test scores and enhance discipline?
I think it was Long Beach Unified School District back in the '90s which instituted a dress code policy for its students. Proponents of the policy claimed that the dress code created a climate for education which led to improved test scores and better discipline. But, I ask you, how do you quantify such claims? They might be true. But there is no way of proving it.
The reality is that private schools create a climate for learning more consistently than public schools do. Uniforms and dress codes are just one part of the formula for success. The real secret to success is consistently enforcing rules and regulations. Hold students accountable and you will see results.
What About Teachers' Dress Codes?
I will admit to being old-fashioned. I miss a jacket, shirt and tie dress code. Nowadays 'business casual' is de rigeur. To me it makes no sense to ask students to dress semi-formally with jacket and tie, skirt and blouse and then have their teachers appear without jacket and tie. (My exception to that rule would be teaching in the tropics. I have taught in the Bahamas. Open collars and untucked shirts are a necessity in a non-air conditioned classroom.) Aren't we sending mixed messages by requiring one dress code for students and another for teachers?