Updating the dress code for the Kendallville Public Library’s staff was one of the items on the Kendallville Public Library’s agenda Tuesday night. Director Kate Mullins said the library’s dress code hadn’t been changed “in a long time.”
Google “the history of dress codes” and you’ll get many articles on how dress codes have been used to enforce cultural, religious or societal norms for women — as determined by men in power. Dress codes have long been aimed at women to regulate their appearance and keep them in their place.
Google “the history of dress codes for men” and you get style guides that tell men what garment to wear for what occasion, what “black tie” and “white tie” means, and what kind of shirt and pants constitute “business casual.”
It’s a lot of interesting reading about how dress — clothes and grooming — have intersected with and mirrored changes in the culture, society and the workplace.
The library board’s discussion flashed me back to my first encounter with dress codes in the third grade. It was a rural school, so boys were allowed to wear jeans and a shirt with a collar. Girls, though, were required to wear dresses and skirts, no exceptions, so we had to play kickball and softball in a dress, play on the equipment in a dress and in the winter, try to keep our bare legs warm.
Back then, all school administrators were men. Our principal was a tough guy, so he required all students to go out for recess in the winter, no matter how cold it was. There are wind chill guidelines now for schools to follow, but back then, the term “wind chill” hadn’t been invented.
The principal was a 25-cent dictator in his educational kingdom.
Temperatures hovered near zero every day, but rather than relent on his rules, he offered an alternative to complaining parents.
Girls could wear pants under their dresses for recess but had to take them off before going back to class.
Only a man would think this was a good idea.
There is no good way to stand in the hall by your coat hook or your locker and take off the pants under your dress with any measure of dignity. How is this solution better than just wearing pants to school?
It wasn’t better. It was rigidly dumb, even in my third-grade mind. A few decades have passed, and I still think it was dumb.
Such double standards are the reason why sisterhood forms early for girls. We girls took turns shielding each other from the boys’ curious eyes while we took off our pants in the hall. It was the beginning of learning to protect ourselves as women.
When we got to high school, we organized and petitioned the school administration for the right to wear dress pants and pantsuits to school. Jeans were a bridge too far, even though the boys could wear them.
Four years later, everybody was wearing jeans when I did my student teaching at my former high school.
There are some good reasons to establish a dress code — prohibiting profanity and encouraging decency are two. Common sense isn’t a given anymore, if it ever was, so you can’t assume that grown adults will know what looks good on them and make choices that are appropriate for the time and place.
That said, dress codes still place more responsibility and restrictions on women. Workplaces need to tread carefully, mindful of the increasing awareness of equality, so that women are treated fairly.
How that shakes out depends on what decade the employer is mentally living in. Is it the 1950s, when women wore skirts and high heels in the office, the 1980s, when the power suit ruled, or the present, where leggings are ubiquitous?
The library board is right to take a look at its long-established dress code and encourage its staff, a majority of whom are women, to weigh in. It’s a good time to build equality into an already-stellar community asset.