At T. C. Williams High School, bizarre fashion phenomena unfold every day. Privileged kids who live in elegant homes often seem oblivious about what they wear. Lovely girls will some days come in looking like bag ladies: scruffy jeans ripped at the knees, moth-eaten sweaters, baggy sports coats their dads wore 20 years ago, torn shoes often exposing a bare toe or two. Other days it may be the classic look: stockings, flats, tailored skirts and blouses. Sometimes pure convenience rules, as when girls on the crew team rush to school straight from their 5:15 morning workouts on the Potomac wearing old sweat pants ($12 variety), a T-shirt and soggy sneakers.
The indifference, even hostility, that many of these kids display to the demands of traditional fashion reached its apex last weekend at the annual homecoming celebration. Some of the more intellectual seniors who despise homecoming and all its trappings managed to get one of their own elected homecoming king. Riding in the traditional parade, the barefooted Salo who hasn't shaved since August, set new standards for the event. His hair was in a raggedy ponytail tied in a green bandana and topped with a Burger King crown. In his green flowered shirt, red paisley tie and yellow brocade sportcoat, Matt looked like a cross between a '50s used-car salesman, a '60s radical and an '80s street person. While the traditional preppies and some teachers fumed that the dignity of the occasion was being destroyed, large numbers of students and graduates turned up to cheer their anti-hero king.
I find the eclectic taste and the dressing down of upper-class kids amusing. For all I know, it may even help defuse some potentially destructive teen-age rebellion. And since most of our 18 National Merit Semi-finalists and other top students are of the eclectic, dressed-down school of fashion, I would be foolish to wish for a change in their dress.
Yet there is another fashion phenomenon at T. C. Williams that is enormously disturbing. Black students who live in government-subsidized housing and whose families are so destitute that the children get free lunches and school books are spending astounding amounts of money "to look good." It is not uncommon for these kids -- especially the young men -- to come to school wearing over $700 in clothing and accessories. All it takes is a typical combination of the fashions that are currently "in" with the children of poverty: Timberland Boots ($159.95); a FILA sweatsuit ($199); an MCM Bag ($157) and a leather jacket ($250 for the cheaper brands). The truly trendy break the thousand-dollar mark with gold necklaces ($200 and up) and the ultimate necessity, E. K. sunglasses covered in one's choice of snake, lizard or ostrich skin and retailing from $85 to $300.
Many of my black students are appalled by the situation. As one girl very familiar with the scene puts it: "A lot of guys are hustling drugs to buy all these clothes. Most of the girls work long hours after school to keep up with the latest fashions, but some sleep with the drug dealers so they'll buy them things. It's a real status thing now to have a boyfriend who sells drugs. It's all so pathetic. None of them care about school at all."
If I thought that making the students at T. C. Williams wear uniforms would help change some of our kids' attitude toward school work or money or drugs or their futures, I'd start a campaign for uniforms tomorrow and then let the objections of my affluent students be damned.
Unfortunately, the catastrophic results of poverty will never be remedied by such simplistic solutions on the part of the schools. Only when we in the schools, aided by the rest of society, help these kids see that they have a future worth working and planning for will they have the confidence to start dressing down and pulling themselves up. -- Patrick Welsh teaches English at T. C. Williams High School in Alexandria.