As more and more schools adopt dress codes, back-to-school shopping is often a rather dull exercise. Polo shirts. Khaki pants. Plaid skirts. As the students might say, bo-ring.
But in the great tradition of teenagers challenging authority, students at schools that require uniforms have been bending the rules a bit, showing up to class in cargo shorts, leggings and yoga pants. And some schools are not only looking the other way at the modifications, but explicitly allowing the fashion-forward items.
“At first they couldn’t accessorize, but then again, how do you tell someone what color shoes to buy? That’s ridiculous,” said Beverly J. Hutton, principal of educational services for Burlington County Institute of Technology, a public high school district in New Jersey that recently relaxed its dress code. “We said no leggings, but, you know, you can’t control that — they have leggings that look like jeans now. So we just ask them to stay within the color scheme and to abide by the code as far as modesty.”
“They’re teenagers. If you take it all away, you get rebellion,” Dr. Hutton said.
Retailers have been happily catering to the changes. For the first time this year, the Lands’ End uniform catalog is offering girls’ khakis in pencil and boot-cut silhouettes. There are also shawl-collar cardigans, fleece peacoats, leggings and yoga pants. French Toast, another large uniform company, has made its girls’ polos and blouses tighter-fitting, and has added items like a boyfriend cardigan.
“Schools really do adjust to fashion,” said Matt Buesing, school marketing coordinator at French Toast. If a girl wears a polo that’s a little form-fitting, for instance, “it may not fit their code exactly, but the administrators in the school say, ‘That’s an acceptable shirt — we should allow it.’ ”
Public schools have been attracted to student uniforms to reduce the amount of exposed flesh, limit gang colors and eliminate disparities between the label-driven and those wearing hand-me-downs. While private schools have required a dress code for decades, one of the first public school districts to do so was Long Beach, Calif., which put all its elementary and middle-school students in uniforms in 1994. By 1996, President Clinton was urging other public schools to follow Long Beach’s example, saying uniforms could “reduce violence, reduce truancy, reduce disorder and increase learning.”
In the 2009-10 school year, the most recent year measured, 18.9 percent of public schools said they required uniforms, up from 12 percent in 1999-2000, according to the Education Department. More than half have a dress code.
Lincoln Middle School in Indianapolis has started to allow leggings beneath skirts, polos in any color and camisole undershirts for girls. Ruby Luke, the extracurricular secretary-treasurer at Lincoln, said the looser policy had resulted in fewer interruptions during class, because teachers rarely have to eject students from class to change into regulation clothing. “The kids are much happier, and there are not nearly as many dress code violations,” Ms. Luke said.
Sometimes, even with looser dress codes, students rebel anyway. Briarmeadow Charter School in Houston relaxed its dress code this year to allow leggings — and Andie Alexander, in eighth grade, has already gotten into trouble over it.
“When I realized we were going to be able to wear leggings, I went and bought a bunch in wild colors — neon purple, violet, bright green, turquoise, red and yellow,” said Andie, 13.
When school started last week, Andie wore her basic polo-shirt-and-khaki-skirt uniform on Monday, added red knee socks on Tuesday, and on Wednesday, wore bright leggings beneath her navy shorts.
“My science teacher looked at my turquoise leggings and said, ‘This is not going to work,’ ” Andie said. “So I told her there is nothing in the dress code against wearing turquoise leggings.”
On Thursday, her green leggings drew the same reaction from her math teacher. Andie then went to the principal, who said that the leggings were meant to keep students warm in winter, not let them add flair on 100-degree August days. He decided to allow leggings year-round, since the dress code had not specified a season for them, though not in neon colors.
The style comes with risks, though.
“One of my friends told me the other day I was a fashion uh-oh, which I’m guessing is a negative,” Andie said.
At Martin Luther King Jr. middle school in Charlotte, N.C., administrators asked students to help create the uniforms when they were first introduced in 2006 to minimize resistance.
“If the people who are going to have to follow the rules are involved in establishing the rules, you have a lot more buy-in and a lot more cooperation than if it’s forced upon them,” said Janet Moss, an assistant principal at the school. “Of course, it was a much more popular thing for the students who created it than it was for the students who are there now.”
The original uniforms were Carolina-blue tops with khaki pants. The school has since approved new styles like Capri pants, black T-shirts under the polos, and skorts. Still, other fashion experiments remain on the do-not-wear list. “We’re not allowing them to wear flip-flops — we are asking them to refrain from those and stilettos,” said Angela Richardson, an assistant principal.
At some schools, the nods to fashion have to do with practicality, not principle.
The Jewish Academy of Orlando used to require plain khaki shorts, but then relaxed that.
“Many parents were saying they couldn’t find shorts that were not cargo,” so the school decided to allow them, said Jerri Kaye, elementary and middle school secretary at the school. “We don’t want to be so strict that we make it impossible for the parents to go shopping.”
St. John Vianney, a Catholic school in Brookfield, Wis., used to allow tights under skirts in winter, but “you’re not going to have a seventh-grader wearing tights,” said Karen Price, who has two children at the school. Girls would “come in with plaid pajama bottoms under their uniforms, saying, ‘It’s too cold.’ ” Recently, the school outlawed pajama bottoms, and instead now permits fashionable yoga pants under skirts.
Manufacturers are responding to students’ concerns with not only new fashions, but tighter-fitting clothing.
“We’ve introduced new fabrications to the basic polo made of Lycra that’s a little bit more body-conscious, more form-fitting and feminine, and the girls really, really like that,” said Charlene Alpay, vice president for marketing for French Toast. “For a long time school uniforms were very, very simple, and almost unisex,” Ms. Alpay said. Now, “people want to feel special, everyone doesn’t want to look the same.”
Yet students’ enthusiasm for updating their uniforms goes only so far. Melissa Dunlap, the principal of Martin Luther King, said when the students complained, “we talked to them about how you get something changed,” which requires writing a letter to parents, staff and administrators and a review.
“We haven’t had anyone take us up on the offer — they tend to say, ‘Uh, it sounds like a whole lot of work,’ ” she said.