Students may dislike uniforms, but understand purpose
Teachers and parents at Oregon Catholic schools support uniforms enthusiastically. Not surprisingly, students are more ambiguous.
But even disgruntled young uniform-wearers recognize that apparel rules create equality and give the message that some things are more important than fashion.
Staff at many Catholic schools notice that more students are tardy on free dress days. Merrit Holbub, principal of St. John Fisher in Southwest Portland, laughs as she imagines students trying on various outfits at the clock ticks.
Uniforms just make life simpler for students and parents alike, Holbub says. St. John Fisher's regulation is simple: white polo shirts with blue or plaid skirts or blue pants. Asked if the boys might some day be allowed to wear plaid pants, Holbub demurs, not sure she wants primary schoolers to look like tiny used car salesmen from the 1950s.
Uniforms, Holbub says, prevent a kind of clothing caste system. Unlike Hollister shirts or skinny jeans, uniforms are affordable. There's even an exchange at which parents can pick up used uniforms.
"Uniforms can be a nice equalizer, at least in regard to finances," Holbub explains. "They also put the emphasis on why we're here — curriculum and students — not what so-and-so is wearing."
For an initial uniform violation — shirt too tight, skirt to high, waist too low, etc. — St. John Fisher students get a warning. If flaunting continues, parents are notified and consequences ensue.
Holbub and other principals know that, before and after school, uniformed students are walking ambassadors, witnesses and advertisements. Uniforms add that special responsibility and students are reminded of it.
Sacred Heart School in Medford gives students options and combinations: Khaki or navy blue pants, skirts, skorts or shorts with red, white or blue polo shirts.
"Uniforms are easier for parents," says Chris Sinclair, front office secretary at Sacred Heart for 12 years. "They are happy with uniforms."
Sinclair notices that students are more distracted on free dress days. There are still rules — no halter tops, short skirts or dangling pants that show a boy's boxers. But even then, free dress can be chaotic. It's when first graders wear tutus and older girls pull out dazzling sparkly tops that blind classmates. For a time, boots were forbidden for free dress at Sacred Heart, but students and parents inveighed and the prohibition was lifted.
"I'm ready to get out of the uniform," says Alissa Larson, an eighth grader at Sacred Heart. Having abided by the rules since kindergarten, Larson speaks for most of her friends when she says that uniforms can repress individual expression. And for athletes like her, they feel restrictive during recess and PE.
Larson herself sticks by the rules, but notices that other students push the boundaries. She admits that uniforms can prevent some students from being picked on. But were she a principal, she would go for a liberal dress code instead, unless clothing became a cause for bullying.
Mason Tallman, a Sacred Heart seventh grader, would make the same choice were he in charge of a school. He'd allow students to wear all kinds of pants, including jeans.
But Tallman does not buy the point about personal expression. Clothes are just not that powerful or important, he says. He takes a practical point of view and even understands the value of uniforms. Tallman came to Sacred Heart in sixth grade from a public school and witnessed students being bullied for what they wore. He himself was tormented because he prefers pants to shorts. A serious bike accident left scars on his knee.
Tallman also recognizes the witness value of uniforms. One day after school, he went shopping. A set of young parents saw his uniform and inquired about Sacred Heart. The boy responded positively and the parents determined to consider the school for their own children.
St. Paul School in Eugene has a dress code, but no uniforms. As far as principal Kelli Braud knows, the school has never had uniforms in its more than 50 years. The topic comes up from time to time, and parents are evenly split.
The St. Paul code, spelled out in almost two pages of the school handbook, requires collared shirts, solid colored sweatshirts without printed material except the school logo and waistlines above hip level that cover underclothes completely. Skirts can rise no more than three inches above the knee and shorts can't go below the knee. Jeans are OK at St. Paul, but tattoos are not.
St. Andrew Nativity, a middle school in Northeast Portland, has brought back more formal uniforms, hoping to give students a sense of the high importance of education. Girls wear dark blue pants or skirts with modest white blouses. Boys wear dark pants, white shirts and ties.
Ties cause the most grumbling at first. But, by the end of sixth grade, boys tend to like them.
Mike Chambers, principal of St. Andrew Nativity, explains the rationale behind uniforms: "We tell them, 'This is your job now and you need to dress professionally. Consider it preparation for the world after school.' Uniforms also have an equalizing effect. Kids who can't afford the good stuff don't stick out."
Leah Sparkman, an eighth grader at St. Andrew Nativity, likes the uniform for that very reason.
"There is no rich or poor when it comes to clothes here," says Sparkman, who was won over after being skeptical. "You are not paying attention to what people are wearing, you are paying attention to your education."
Clarice Keating Of the Catholic Sentinel
Since the early days of universities, scholars have worn uniform clothing. But unlike school uniforms today – the khaki pants, blazers and plaid jumpers — the first youngsters to wear uniforms were orphans who attended charity schools in England, where attire was plain and dark, a mark of humility. The pleated plaids seen in many students’ uniforms today originate from the tartan kilts of the Scottish, eventually associated with British aristocracy and military.
It wasn’t until the 1960s that uniforms became the norm in American Catholic schools, which some educators believe equalize social classes and foster a studious environment. These days, uniforms programs are common in private and parochial schools, and even in a portion of independent and public schools.
Despite sometimes-outrageous fashion trends in this country, school uniform styles have remained mostly untouched – something that is purposeful, according to Thomas Shipley, president of Dennis Uniforms in Portland. That way, students can wear the uniforms year after year, and even pass them down to younger siblings.
“For kids, the idea is comfort and freedom and decency,” said Shipley, whose grandfather bought the business in the 1920s. “We’re not a fashion house.”
Pleats are also less likely to show wrinkles and stains, an important factor for kids’ clothes, he added.
Dennis Uniform converted to a school uniform manufacturer after World War II, and since then students at elite schools all over the country have been walking into their classrooms wearing clothes made in Portland. Despite the focus on consistency, designers at Dennis do make small modifications to patterns so they stay fresh and modern.
To stay competitive, the uniform company does listen to and respond to customers’ requests. But unlike most clothing companies, they have to please multiple customers with different agendas: parents, students and the school administrators who create uniform policies.
Currently, Dennis is dropping waistlines so pants and skirts sit on the natural waist. They’ve also designed a modern pant for boys, and soon girls, without pleats.
Trends are also different regionally. For instance, in the Southeastern states, schools want crisper fabrics than those in other parts of the country. Once, uniforms were made of wool. That has changed. Over the years, the clothes have been constructed from a variety of acrylic fibers, like Orlon, but now everything is polyester. Unlike their grandparents’ polyesters, students’ fabric today is soft to the touch.
A rebirth in demand for products made in the U.S. by small independent companies has been a boon for Dennis, which has manufactured its products in a factory under the Hawthorne Bridge in Portland for more than 60 years.