It's fashionable these days among school administrators to think that if students dressed alike or conformed to standards of dress they would become more productive, disciplined and law-abiding citizens. Uniformity would obscure distinctions of class and status, so the thinking goes, and students would be judged not by their gold chains or Nikes but on their individual merits.
Presumably too, schools would be safer places if kids didn't wear clothes their classmates would kill for.
This week, two years after the District schools first considered voluntary uniforms, school board President R. David Hall announced that he wants to see uniforms on all city students -- a move he believes will reduce the pressure to wear expensive clothes. "And it could save lives," he said.
Currently, 31 District schools encourage uniforms, though no student is required to wear one. In nearly every news story about the merits of uniforms, local principals as well as students have hailed conformity as a way of discouraging competitive dressing. One junior high principal said her students were more punctual when they wore uniforms, inferring that they had less reason to primp and therefore be tardy.
Rarely heard amid this drumrolling is a defense of fashion -- the kind of wild, unpredictable style that belongs almost exclusively to adolescence. The American Civil Liberties Union has argued that mandating uniforms in public schools is unconstitutional, but that argument is directed primarily at First Amendment rights of self-expression. It is just as valid to look at the issue from a fashion perspective -- why we dress the way we do -- since the most important influences on popular style have come from teenagers.
The call for public school uniforms in cities such as Washington and Detroit is particularly paradoxical, given the current explosion of urban street fashion and Afrocentric styles. "Official" fashion -- the kind of clothes shown on runways and sold in department stores -- has been moving steadily toward uniformity. The navy blazer worn with a white T-shirt; the Chanel suit, or copy, accessorized with pearls; the safe black cocktail suit -- these are all uniforms. So when the freshest voice in fashion today comes from the streets -- from black dance music, club culture and style born of necessity -- you have to wonder if discouraging this youthful impulse isn't repressive. Besides, who needs another uniform?
Administrators have long been suspicious of outrageous get-ups and hairstyles, and in no other public institution is the connection between dress and morality more blatant than in schools. Girls who wore their sweaters too tight or their beehives too high in the '50s were considered loose, though the real motivation for their exaggerated style was simply fashion. Likewise, the young men who oiled their hair in the manner of Elvis Presley and swaggered in tight jeans were labeled "bad boys," potential candidates for reform school. Implicit in many of the styles of the '50s and '60s was this hint of criminality -- that nothing good could come from a person with long hair and deliberately disheveled clothes. As one British commentator said in 1971, "It was their hair, and the murder in their faces peeping out through the jungle ... hair used as a kick in the teeth, as insult and ridicule."
It almost always is easier to reject fashion than to figure out why people dress the way they do. "Since the war," wrote fashion historian Aileen Ribeiro, "society has professed itself puzzled as to the meaning of the dress of the young; they seem to feel a sense of personal affront if they cannot work out what it is all about, if indeed it means anything at all." Though occasionally frightening to look at, punks provided a useful social commentary on the early '80s; they represented a growing minority of disaffected youth whose anti-Establishment sentiments were expressed in anti-fashion -- dark clothes, shaved heads and razor-blade jewelry.
Ironically, the other dominant theme of the '80s was the preppy look, perhaps the ultimate affectation of Old Guard snobbery. To a great many adults, seeing their kids in polo shirts and madras shorts was comforting; these were accepted symbols of social conformity. But one can argue that the preppy fetish also marked the beginning of label mania, a fixation on having the "right" jacket or wristwatch that has culminated in bloodshed.
At the center of every uniform debate is the belief that expensive clothes -- the latest high-powered sneakers, for example -- create rivalries among students and occasionally lead to violence. In the worst incidents, students have been wounded or killed over status labels, but even without such threats administrators complain that trendy clothes have become a daily distraction. Students, they say, are putting too much emphasis on what they wear. So the most convenient solution is to discipline students by limiting their choices. It doesn't alter their behavior or remove the tempting article. It just keeps offensive fashion, or what is deemed offensive, out of school.
Nobody has invented a remedy for peer pressure, and those who think that designer clothes give one child an advantage over another forget that fashion, for a lot of socially disadvantaged people, has been a means for gaining acceptance. Yet lately, the usual response to gunfire in the schoolyard is to blame it on the victim's clothes, as if to say, "If he hadn't been wearing that Famous Brand he might be alive today." It's a hideous kind of reasoning, but isn't it just as banal to believe that lives can be saved with uniforms?