Who Says You Can’t Legislate Good Taste?
An adage says that nothing has the power to tell the truth about an age quite like fashion. Clothing speaks to time, place, events and values. What is fashion telling communities and parents when their public schools find it necessary to enforce a uniform dress code policy?
I’ve experienced the headline grabbing debate in two communities as they made the switch from students walking the halls wearing fashions inspired by a combination of corporate capitalism, slick advertising, peer pressure, retail availability and family circumstance, to a new fashion era where the school uniform is the new black. Now that some time has passed since students started attending class in clothing inspired by their local school board, is hindsight proving either side of the debate right? Community members that support a “uniform agenda” claim that uniforms promote school unity, develop student discipline and create an atmosphere more conducive to learning. Critics of the uniform policy say that students have their freedom to express themselves compromised and that a change of clothing will not affect academic performance. Both sides have their fair share of valid evidence and supporters, but hindsight is proving them all to be a little short-sighted.
While watching the uniform debate take place in a school that my daughter was attending, I was also working for one of America’s most beloved department store chains. Unlike the critics of school uniforms, retailers are well aware that children already dress like their peers—their consumer group peers. The entire retail clothing industry is built upon the fact that we don’t express ourselves as individuals when we shop. It would be difficult to mass produce, nationally advertise and sell huge quantities of individuality. What consumers buy is known within the industry as McFashion-clothing that is fast, disposable, easy, entertaining and largely homogeneous. To industry insiders, shoppers are expressing their lifestyle reference group whenever they make a retail purchase. Our shopping patterns are so predictable that marketers are able to guess what car you drive, which restaurants you frequent, what books or magazines you read, how much money you earn, what music you listen to and which brand names you covet. Think that you are above it all? Don’t worry. The retail industry has a consumer group for you, too.
The word “teenager” was coined by Madison Avenue in 1941 when the marketing of products to adolescents began. Like all products, children’s clothing is produced by commercial interests that don’t care about what they are creating. Fashion trends used to flow from the top down. Now, they flow from the street up. Today it is fashionable to look downtrodden, overtly sexual or downright criminal. According to Alissa Quart, the author of Branded: The Buying and selling of Teenagers, today’s teens are the victims of the contemporary luxury economy. Culturally, where and how teens shop and what they buy is the new common denominator of social discourse. There has never been a generation with more “stuff requirements” than the current generation of students because our consumption-based society is using shopping to create community. This generation lets other know who they are through what they buy and own. Back-to-school shopping isn’t new, but the amount of money being spent each year has grown tremendously making it the most important selling season of the year for retailers, after Christmas. According to Richard S. Tedlow, a Professor at the Harvard Business School and former Editor of Business History Review, the emphasis on mass consumption in American society is so pervasive that we tend to take it for granted. In his book New and Improved: The Story of Mass Marketing in America, Professor Tedlow states “mass consumption is a rare phenomenon in the history of the world”. He says “there is nothing “natural” about mass consumption. It is a cultural and social construction”. Therefore, the clothing that we choose to wear is also devised systematically and subject to a culturally agreed upon interpretation.
We are all more or less conscious of a “mysterious bonding by means of cloth that creates for human-beings an atmosphere of human uniformity” according to Paul Fussell, a professor from the University of Pennsylvania and the author of Uniforms: Why we Are What We Wear.
Whether we want to admit it to ourselves or not, we all wear a uniform. Jeans used to represent freedom from convention. They were adopted by American society as “an impudent antidote” to uniformity and now that everyone has at least one pair of jeans hanging in their closet, they have become the most important American uniform of all.
When someone says soccer mom, lawyer, college professor, skateboarder, janitor, nurse, surfer or computer programmer, certain images come to mind and clothing is a part of that image. And even renegade image labels such …