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?


wysgal said...

When I was in Ateneo I did think people dressed inappropriately ... but I am appalled to read that the students are immature enough to think they can get away with flipflops and tank tops. I remember Fr Dacanay would ban shorts, and one time a classmate ended up swapping pants with one of his friends so he could attend class. =)

exie abola said...

Hi wysgal.

What batch are you?

I don't know if it's immaturity. Flipflops are everywhere these days. And tank tops have been around a long time, at least since 1999 when I first started teaching in the college. Didn't think much of them then, until they became skimpier.

That't Fr Dacanay for ya. Maybe I should do something like that. But then, it's usually very warm in the afternoons when I teach.

Thanks for dropping by. I'll check out your blog too.

Ailee Through the Looking Glass said...

I frequently serve as a panelist for SOM project defenses, and it frustrates me how kids these days can't seem to grasp the concept of "business attire" anymore. I remember one group of boys who showed up in long sleeves without ties, and a girl who tried to pass off a tank top as "appropriate" to their topic (a study of the business operations of a bar/club).

Whenever the younger generations of Ateneans complain to me about the dress code issue, I tell them to bear in mind that in the real world beyond Loyola Heights, there are also rules we must all abide by whether we like them or not. In the future they might be employed by companies that won't allow open-toed shoes or cartoon ties or multiple ear piercings or certain colors of nail polish. Would they raise a ruckus about their bosses curtailing their "freedom of expression"? I think not.

I'm all in favor of the Ateneo dress code if only for the off-chance it might force the students to grow up a little. And perhaps spend less on those ridiculously overpriced flipflops.

Ailee Through the Looking Glass said...

Oh, and if that Catholic school for girls in San Juan you're referring to is the same place where I used to teach, then allow me to state for the record that hair length was not regulated, but skirt length certainly was. :p

Anonymous said...

Dress codes are always a sensitive subject especially when the school is trying to take some liberties back (which is weird bec. isn't ateneo known for its arts degree? ) I, personally, never understood dress code for school that dictated the banning of actual specific pieces of clothing because of the in betweens of fashion. You ban open toe shoes but what if someone wears those crocs-- they're closed shoes but they do have holes in them. Ban sleeveless shirts but what if a student wears a shirt and it's cap sleeves are made out of lace. You ban shorts and someone argues that what she's wearing are comfy capris. Is that much of an improvement? The more rational rule would be "As long as I don't see anything unsightly when 1. a breeze comes 2. you bend down 3. you squat." I truly believe that people should wear whatever they want until the situation calls for otherwise. Regular classes don't call for 'otherwise' personally because wearing something in accordance to dress code doesn't ensure that i'm retaining what's being taught. It just makes sure that I'm not as comfortable as I want to be. That goes for teachers as well. Wearing a power suit everyday doesn't make you the best teacher ever. At the same time, asking people to care on how they look to other people is disqualifying their own opinions about their own beings- which is another problem all together. let me explain where I'm coming from. I finished my business degree elsewhere in the world and the way we dressed was largely dictated by the weather or mood. I distinctly remember having a goth kid in my class. The end of year is coming when it's papers season and someone comes in wearing pajamas. Some of my teachers even wore graphic tees and a blazer over it. But it was also common knowledge that when it came down to presentation time, you've got to be in business attire-- meaning a suit with a formal blouse -- it needn't be the collared button down because once again, fashion has changed and so has perception. We didn't need to be told about wearing the suit. It's just what you do. So I think what should be done instead is to 1. sit students down and explain what's expected at situations like interviews, formal presentations, special occasions etc. because obviously the lines have blurred-- i.e. when it says office attire it normally means____, when you go to an interview it means ___. and 2. keep an open mind because it's far too easy to stereotype esp, i find, in manila society.

btw, I finished high school in manila and I got along with the uniform rule because I never had to think which top/ bottom to wear I should wear today. :D

filipina42 said...

I happened upon your article in the online edition of the Philippine Star. I was wondering if I could link to this article and quote part of it at my blog.
I've made a few comments about the proposed Silliman University dress code and this would make for a good follow-up post.

exie abola said...

filipina42: Yes to the link and quote. No problem. The PhilStar archive doesn't last long, though, so you may want to link to this post instead (which is fine with me).

What's going on at Silliman?

filipina42 said...

Will link to here pero acknowledge philstar also.

Silliman is giving serious consideration to a dress code prohibiting certain types clothes/footwear, to be implemented next school year. I hear the word "uniform" coming up more often but nothing is final yet.

Also in the works: Restrictions on PDA (Public Displays of Affection)!!

You can read my post on this

Thanks a lot for sharing your work!

filipina42 said...

My post
referring to your article is up and links back to here.
Thanks again!

MONster, MD said...

I am from UP and as you would know, UP never had a dress code. I used to go to school in shorts and sandals in my senior year (we're doing a lot of lab and field work that time...I was a biology major then), so I guess it was okay. But then, I am looking back on those days in college and I really appreciate being able to dress comfortably in school. Moreover, it deconstructs the 'sosyal' and the 'jologs' in the classroom...allowing more interaction and exchange of ideas. (I swear I had this notion in college that sosyal always have the upper hand in class...they look nice for one).

Here in the US, I accompanied my friend in one of the universities in LA (he's a lit professor in gender and queer studies). Apparently, the schools has no dress code and everyone is in shorts, sandals and some even looks fresh from the bed. Well, for me, it made me realize that its the brain not the dress that matters in college.

And oh, I would love to go back to that time where you can wear shorts all day in the sticky summer weather. You can go about your day without closed shoes to restrict your toes. Gosh. When real life sets in, life imposes its own dress code.

I am happy I had lived 4 years in such fabric liberty.

P.S. Sir, is there any way I can email you? RE: ateneo's lit curriculum? Thanks

exie abola said...

Hi, "monster."

True about allowing the folks from various classes to mingle more easily, but it won't necessarily happen. Casual wear can be expensive, too. You can spend thousands to look like a bum. (No names, please.)

Nice to know what it's like in American schools. And yes, weather should be an important consideration, which is why I don't get the obsession in this country with whether your toes show or not. You can wear very elegant sandals fit for a ball gown and show your toes in all their glory. I never would; I'd show my toes only on pain of death. (And oh, I'd never wear a dress either, unless you paid me a whole lotta money.)

Ailee: I agree with your point that students will have to conform to corporate ways of dress soon enough, but I don't think we examine this attitude toward what is acceptable in the workplace. I find that sometimes dress codes are just one more way companies breed conformity, in both body and mind.

But that's just me. I've had enough wearing ties and polo barongs. Happy to be teaching in jeans.

Oh, and one more thought. I suspect that many dress codes have more to say about what women can and can't wear, which leads me to believe such codes are another indication of our desire to tame women and keep them under control. But again, that's just me.