Thursday, August 29, 2013

Dress me up, dress me down

For section ‘M’ of the Philippine Star, 3 October 2007.

There’s a tempest brewing in my little teapot, that quaint university sitting atop a hill where I teach. The climatic disturbance that threatens to turn into a storm is a proposed change in the dress code: the administration of the Ateneo’s Loyola Schools is considering making it more stringent. News of the impending changes spread like wildfire, and predictably students were up in arms. As I write this, the changes are still being considered and will be implemented, if they are pushed through, when the second semester begins.

The spirit of the proposed revisions might be captured thus: What is appropriate wear in a university setting? Other schools have answered the question more forcefully than my good old alma mater has. I’m told that La Salle has a long list of proscribed items, a few of which — flipflops and blouses with spaghetti straps — are rather commonplace over here in Loyola Heights. The University of Asia and the Pacific goes further and forbids shorts and sleeveless tops. (Shorts were first allowed in Ateneo when I was a student, in 1986–87.) Compared to such schools, Ateneo is quite on the liberal side of things.

One reason school authorities have given for the proposed tightening of the rules: students seem to be losing a sense of propriety in the matter of attire. Stories abound of students who go out of the campus and meet others, perhaps to conduct an interview or other school business, wearing shorts and flipflops. It has happened in my own department. One of our literature majors who graduated just this past March applied for a teaching position with us this April and arrived for his job interview in — you guessed it — shorts and flipflops. Our chairperson, needless to say, was not amused and reminded the candidate that he wasn’t at the beach. (He didn’t get the job.)

One of my own firstyear classes agrees that their generation dresses more casually than the ones before it. I got them to admit this when we discussed the idea of a dress code for churches, a matter in the news a few months ago when bishops were reported to be miffed by the too-casual wear especially of the youth. During that session the class agreed on another statement: that the church is a special place deserving special treatment. Most of the students thought these two assertions were true, yet they had a hard time conceding that church officials were right in wanting tougher rules on what the congregation should wear. (Isn’t it that the church has been, like other such spaces in our cramped lives, domesticated? Doesn’t it then become difficult to get a sense of the sacred in a place where you dress as if you were in another room of your house?)

Dress is one expression of the necessary tension between the private and the public. As students insist, they have the right to express themselves howsoever they wish. Dressing up is a purely private affair. But they forget that dressing up is an act that takes place in the context of other people. It is an act in which you acknowledge the existence of others around you and the responsibility you have to them. It is this sense of the public that has gone missing. One doesn’t show up at the embassy of a foreign country dressed for the beach, in the same way that one doesn’t show up at a friend’s wedding underdressed, unless your intention is to insult your friend. (I learned that lesson the hard way when I once went to an evening wedding in casual slacks and a button-down shirt when all the men were in barong tagalog. The bride and groom, though, did their best not to make me feel ill at ease, and I am forever grateful to them.)

Clothes are a kind of language, and to arrive in jeans and t-shirt when coat and tie are expected is akin to saying, “I don’t respect you” or “You don’t deserve better from me.” So a student who comes to class looking as if he just crawled out of bed is going to have some work to do in getting my good opinion.

Teaching the young how to dress is a way of teaching them how to behave with other people. It is a way of socialization. This is, after all, why we still insist on meeting in a common physical space (a classroom) despite the availability of technology that allows us to conduct class virtually. Students need to know how to live with others, and one place they learn to do that is the classroom. (The reason sociologist Michael Tan rues the disappearance of public parks is that these are places in which we learn to negotiate the private and public spheres of our lives.)

Don’t we tell children, when they’ve reached a certain age, that it is no longer cute to take off one’s pants at a party, that it is not all right to run around the house naked if there are guests? One must learn the art of being with others, and learning this art is a long, painstaking process. (You could argue that it never ends.) So knowing what can and can’t be worn at certain times in certain places is one way in which people demonstrate their sensitivity, or lack of it, to others.

Cultivating this sensitivity becomes even more urgent in the context of the increased sexualization of our culture, thanks to our extensive and all-too-willing exposure to American pop culture. Music videos offer us images of scantily clad women gyrating in front of a low-angle camera for our delectation. Porn actresses are achieving the celebrity status previously acquired only by mainstream movie stars. Images of models wearing less and less adorn print ads, TV commercials, billboards. (And have you noticed that the models seem to look younger and younger?) The older among us may be alarmed at this trend, but the younger generations who are born into this take it all in with blithe innocence. Hence, their sometimes risqué choice in clothes. Apparel meant to be worn at a bar in the wee hours of the morning while throwing back a shot of tequila might not be the smartest thing to wear while strolling to your next class across a crowded quadrangle in brilliant afternoon sunshine.

People in the workplace who are reading this might be amused that teenagers are agitated over the possibility of no longer being able to wear their flipflops to school. I know how you feel. I too was in the corporate world for a while. I sometimes wonder whether my students realize that when they enter the world of work, the most important ways they will have to express themselves sartorially is whether to wear a plain or striped tie, or whether to put on earrings or not. They don’t know how good they have it.

Yet despite the clear need to develop in them a stronger awareness of and sensitivity to others, one can easily imagine how matters can get out of hand. The impulse to get individuals to go along with groups can all too quickly give way to the impulse to assert control. You may think you are developing discipline when you are actually encouraging conformity. Respecting others doesn’t mean running with the herd.

When control becomes repressive, expect an equal and opposite reaction. Students I’ve had from a certain Catholic school for girls in San Juan tell me that they were not allowed to color their hair or wear it beyond a certain length. Makeup was forbidden. Which explains, one girl said, why so many of them grew their hair and colored it when they got to college. I’ve read how women in Saudi Arabia, required to veil themselves from head to toe, wear underneath this cover outfits that would make Shakira blush. Imposed with too heavy a hand, rules may only encourage the behavior they try to stamp out.

And the need to teach discipline can be just another excuse for the arbitrary exercise of power. In some schools the authorities administer a dress code on their teachers as strictly as they do the students. A uniform is good as far as it goes, but I would like to ask these school officials: If you’re going to make your teachers wear a uniform, why choose an icky color like gray or brown? After all, your students have to look at them all day. No wonder they get bored out of their skulls.

Beyond these concerns is a larger one I would like to end with: the idea of relationship. Rules aren’t formulated in a vacuum. They are fashioned in the context of a relationship between the ruler and the ruled, boss and subordinate, parent and child, teacher and student. How the rules are accepted depends greatly on what kind of relationship exists between the two unequal parties. If the subordinate views authority with suspicion or even downright hostility, he will probably meet any move to control his behavior with resentment. I can imagine students packing flipflops and skimpy shorts and tops into their knapsacks to bring them out when they leave the campus and hang out in the coffee shops along Katipunan, brandishing their defiance on their bodies on the other side of the concrete highway.

And in the end, what will have been achieved? Will the new rules make people more respectful of others, more aware of decorum, more appreciative of the rules of propriety? Or will they only foment ill will? Isn’t it true that if the relationship between rulemaker (parent, boss, teacher) and ruled (child, employee, student) is chilly, then being told how to dress up will only feel like being dressed down?