Oct. 30, 2004
By Vesna Jaksic
At Brunswick School, boys wear seersucker pants, Nantucket reds and trendy Vineyard Vines ties, all permitted under its jacket-and-tie uniform policy. Greenwich Academy girls express their individuality by wearing different outerwear and leggings. And at Convent of the Sacred Heart, the oldest students take advantage of “senior privileges” by sporting such footwear as red-and-yellow sneakers.
Uniforms bring conformity to private-school attire, but many school policies leave plenty of room for personal taste. Whether it means wearing a tie depicting martinis and cigars at Brunswick, accessorizing with hair bows at GA or leaving shirt collars up at Sacred Heart, local students have found ways to study in style.
Uniforms set a standard for dress at the town’s three private high schools, but fashion still emerges in accessories, colors, designs, brands and fabrics.
At the all-boys Brunswick School, Upper School students are required to wear dress pants, belts, ties and jackets, but the uniform policy does not specify which colors. Students often sport red and yellow shirts, seersucker pants and striped blazers – a style senior J.D. Allman called the “stereotypical Fairfield County look.”
“There is certainly a lot of leeway in terms of color choices,” said Allman, 17, of Darien, who recently wore a classic navy blue blazer and a tie with American flags. “There is room for individuality.”
Brunswick’s flexibility with colors is rare, as 90 percent of private schools require uniforms in a specific color, according to the NPD Group, a Port Washington, N.Y.-based sales and marketing information provider.
As he was about to tie his tie before entering Brunswick on a recent afternoon, sophomore Nick Simmons said students exhibit so many styles that it is hard for anyone to stand out. The 15-year-old town resident wore a tie with a pattern of cigars and martini glasses, along with orange pants and a belt with nautical flags.
“A lot of kids have plaid shorts or Nantucket reds or yellow pants and blazers,” Simmons said. “Some people have really weird blazers. So many people do it that it seems less out of the ordinary.”
Brunswick’s Headmaster Thomas Philip said students wore the most unusual outfits about four years ago, when there was a trend to buy secondhand clothing in bright colors and patterns.
“They were doing everything they could to stay in dress code but clash with all these crazy colors,” he said.
Because seniors are the only ones allowed to wear Bermuda shorts, some also decide to put them on in the middle of the winter, he said. Seniors also do not have to wear sports jackets when the temperature warms to 75 degrees.
Most schools make exceptions for certain occasions. For example, Greenwich Academy students are allowed to wear jeans on Lee National Denim Day, which raises money for breast cancer research and education. On Special Feast Days, Sacred Heart students may wear pink.
On most school days, Greenwich Academy’s Upper School students wear kilts – which must be at least mid-thigh length – and shirts in white, yellow, hunter green or navy blue. But students’ clothing can vary greatly as they are allowed to wear black tights or jogging pants underneath their skirts, any type of outerwear and all shoes except for beach sandals.
“Some people wear, like, high heels and others wear running shoes so you can be comfortable or stylish,” said junior Louise Ward, 16, of Greenwich, who preferred comfort one recent day, wearing running shoes, along with a white long-sleeved shirt and black leggings underneath her kilt.
All three private high schools have “pink slips,” which the faculty can issue for dress-code violations, as well as lateness, inappropriate behavior and other infractions. Three pink slips earn students a detention before school, which means having to show up as early as 6:45 a.m.
Officials at all the schools said uniforms help level the playing field among students, create a safer environment and foster school pride. The policies only get violated occasionally, they said.
Philip estimated that three Brunswick Upper School students out of 314 in any given week serve detention due to uniform violations, most commonly for not wearing a sports jacket or for wearing a hat inside. At GA, girls sometimes sneak in pink shirts, said Sharon Dietzel, the head of the 297-student Upper School, who estimated the dress code gets violated up to three times a day.
At Sacred Heart, some students roll up waistbands or tape hems to shorten skirts, said Upper School Dean Jennifer Benson. Benson said she keeps a closet at the Catholic school with extra socks, skirts and sweaters and estimated that she uses it twice a week to help bring students up to dress code.
Sacred Heart’s Upper School students must wear black or brown shoes with their kilts and shirts, but seniors have “senior privileges,” meaning they can wear sweatshirts from the colleges they get accepted to as well as running shoes.
Senior Ursina Beerli, 17, of Greenwich, recently took advantage of her privileges by wearing red-and-yellow sneakers with a silver stripe. Ruth McCann, 16, who is also a senior, said she planned to buy high-heeled running shoes.
“My sneakers are my statement,” said the Cos Cob resident.
A current trend is to raise shirt collars and leave them standing up, McCann said. A number of students also have been accessorizing with pearl earrings and necklaces and cyclist Lance Armstrong’s “Live Strong” bracelets, she said.
McCann and a number of private school students said they liked wearing uniforms because they do not have to worry about what to put on each morning.
“I’ve been here since I was 5 and I’m so used to it,” McCann said. “When I get to college, I’ll have to learn how to dress.”
As students bare skin, public schools consider implementing dress codes
By Vesna Jaksic
During his 21 years at Greenwich High School, David Ross has seen his share of baggy pants, low-rise jeans, platform shoes and mini-skirts. But Ross, who administers the school’s social studies program, said teenage fashion fads have gotten a lot more risque in recent years.
“The student clothing has become more provocative, I can say that without a doubt,” he said. “It’s really just the constant bare-midriff look. Between that and the short skirts, there is definitely a lot less fabric.”
Greenwich High School regulates student appearance with a dress code so broad it allows students to wear a range of outfits and accessories – tank tops, ties and belly rings were among items worn in the Student Center on a recent afternoon.
The town’s only public high school has no plans to change. But a number of public schools throughout the nation, including some in Connecticut, have recently gone beyond basic dress codes and implemented strict rules or even the kind of uniform policies formerly seen only in private schools.
Public schools in Ansonia, New Haven, Stratford and Waterbury have uniform or strict dress-code policies specifying what students should and should not be wearing. While they represent a fraction of the state’s approximately 180 school districts, a growing number of school boards have been revisiting the issue of how students dress in recent years, said Vincent Mustaro, a senior staff associate for policy services at the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education, a Wethersfield-based nonprofit organization representing 90 percent of the state’s school boards.
“I think fashion clearly is becoming more daring in recent years so the amount of time that’s having to be spent on (student dress) is on the increase,” Mustaro said. “And that couples also with issues that clearly the high priority is promoting safety in schools. The Columbine (High School) shooting we had years ago has just increased the level of attention in terms of trying to keep a close watch on what could potentially contribute to a violent situation at their school.”
Proponents of strict regulations on student dress argue that it reduces theft and violence while creating a safer environment by making it easier to distinguish between students and visitors. But opponents, including the Connecticut Civil Liberties Union, have said they violate First Amendment rights to expression.
GHS’ dress code states students should “dress within reasonable limits,” so as not to jeopardize anyone’s health and safety or cause disruption; that footwear and shirts must be worn at all times, clothing should be “neat and clean” and that teachers may ask students to remove hats while in classrooms.
Former Headmistress Elaine Bessette said the school may have had a dress code years ago, but this is the first time in more than five years that it has been included in the student handbook.
“There were some parents who wanted to know (last year) if we were going to institute a dress code and pointed out that we were pretty much silent on the matter,” said Bessette, who retired in July. “Looking at all aspects, I agreed we would put something in the handbook to signal to students that they should be aware of dressing appropriately.”
Interim Headmaster Alan Capasso said clothing is an issue only several times a year, most often when students wear T-shirts with profanities printed on them. Parents only occasionally inquire about the dress code, such as during
a recent PTA meeting, Capasso said.
“I think parents historically have been concerned with the dress code,” he said. “To a large extent, it’s a generational thing . . . . But it’s not the school’s function to dictate fashion as long as it’s not disruptive to the educational process.”
In 1987, Cherry Hill Elementary, an inner-city school in Baltimore, became the first public school to adopt uniforms, according to the National Association of Elementary School Principals, or NAESP. Since then, public schools in a number of states – including Connecticut, Florida, Louisiana, Ohio, Michigan, Tennessee, and Washington – have instituted school-uniform
policies, mostly in elementary and middle schools, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
Some mandate all students wear uniforms, while others make them a voluntary option. But as of 1997, the latest year
available, only 3 percent of the nation’s public schools required students to wear uniforms, according to the federal agency.
Twenty-two states, including Connec-ticut, give local districts authority to require uniforms, according to the Education Commission of the States, a Denver-based nonprofit organization. Maryland authorizes one district to require uniforms, and Indiana, Iowa, Kansas and New Hampshire authorize local districts to establish dress codes, but do not mention uniforms in state statues. Massachusetts’ law prohibits dress codes.
In 2000, a state Superior Court decision allowed the Waterbury Public Schools to mandate uniforms in elementary and middle schools. Superintendent David Snead said the policy, which has been in place for five years, has worked well.
“It cuts down on the violent activity. It cuts down on the jealousy among students about whether or not they can afford to wear certain items or whether or not someone wants to steal a certain item from someone. It helps to create a better learning environment. It helps to create a safer environment,” he said.
In New Haven, 16 of the 47 schools have implemented uniform policies in the last decade, said Catherine Sullivan DeCarlo, the district’s spokeswoman. In Ansonia, two of the district’s four schools – one for grades three to five, the other for grades six to eight – have “dress attire” policies, which specify what students should and should not wear. Stratford Public Schools has recently created headlines because an 11-year-old girl’s mother has been challenging the school’s new dress code, which requires students at one middle school to wear tan or blue pants, skirts or shorts with white or blue collared shirts.
Most of the state’s 350 private schools have uniforms. But they remain rare at Connecticut’s 1,050 public schools, said Thomas Murphy, a spokesman for the state Department of Education.
“It is the exception,” he said, “not the rule.”