Uniforms & Dress Code—Does It Suit Us to Suit Up?

One morning while attending to my daily obligations—or check-ins, if you may, I witnessed my teacher detaining her advisee, clad in a pristine T-shirt, and recommending him to sew on a “frocket” later. 

A few weeks later, I wore a similar plain shirt and received an infraction. Frustrated, despairing, and gazing at my “Conduct” panel on the Cooper website, I suddenly woke up and realized I just had a heart-wrenching nightmare of violating my school’s dress code.

Although I consider myself someone with a good grasp on Cooper policy, I occasionally find myself pondering the possibility of a different Cooper, where the often confusing regulations of the dress code are reduced to a single constraint: a green-and-white uniform. Since the rude awakening, both literal and metaphorical, I began to question whether or not this vision could exist beyond my imagination. 

Nearly 20% of schools in the United States require students to wear uniforms. Being an independent, college preparatory school, Cooper’s circumstances are not surprising from a statistical standpoint. The pushback against uniforms is undoubtedly based in the attitudes of the community.

The Upper School Handbook asserts that it intends to “maintain consistency in dress, minimize the importance of ‘dress competition’ and introduce students to the idea of dressing appropriately for college and career settings.”

A system with uniforms attains these objectives in a more strict manner. Its appeal partly lies in its sweeping eclipse over the limitations of a dress code. The vast array of fashion choices allowed by a relatively loose dress code creates infinitely many possibilities for rule breaks. Mrs. Machnizh, a social science teacher with a rich international teaching background, shares that throughout her career, she has believed that “uniforms were a good thing because they make life easier for students and teachers, because then nobody’s running around being the dress code police.”

Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication, and Ms. Concienne of the English Department concurs. “As an adult human,” she claims, “I love [uniforms] because I would like them, because I don’t want to think about what I have to wear.”

The teachers acknowledge how the dilemma of uniforms is marked by a conflict of interest. “For the youth, I think, you know, what a time to be an individual.” Ms. Concienne adopts the reverse perspective unhesitatingly. “Seems like a bummer, unless you’re not into fashion, in which case… it’s fine.”

It is a given that uniforms have the potential to bolster Cooper’s policies. However, this stringency may not seamlessly integrate into the school environment. Clothing can physically manifest the characteristic unity of the community, yet it would interfere with the school’s accommodation to each individual. 

“I have mixed feelings on school uniforms.” says Katelyn Eveland, a student in the Class of 2024. Her ambivalence is a mentality held by many students. “I think that somebody should be able to wear what they feel like they’re comfortable wearing, but also I think that uniforms are probably a better way to keep dress codes in conduct so people aren’t wearing offensive pieces of clothing or something that isn’t very proper for our school attire.”

Abby Ryan had researched the intricacies of these school policies as part of an English project. She points out practical disparities: “Uniforms can be financial burdens and will not always fit, and there is still punishment for simply being unable to wear them, and being dress coded for these reasons happens, statistically, more often to people of color and LGBTQ students,” Ryan adds.

Generally, she believes in the efficacy and fairness of more lenient dress codes, such that schools are not “using them as an excuse against female students, because [saying] their clothing is ‘distracting the boys’ only takes away from their class time, implying their education is less important.” To her, it does not mean they should not exist—only that they should never function to discriminate against genders, ethnicities, or sexualities.

The question of uniforms and the back-and-forth conversation the query begets will continue to be discussed in the community. Nevertheless, consensus can be found at the foundations of the idea. “I understand the need for a dress code, because I think some students may need some help making wiser choices with their clothing, with what they choose to wear to school,” Mrs. Machnizh finishes with a chuckle. Whether or not uniforms are seriously considered, there are few qualms about the validity of the current system, a product of consistent refinement through the years.

Through the plethora of possibilities and social polarities, it remains clear that Cooper and its leaders are above all committed to maintaining a comfortable world within the campus. After all, our dynamic and diverse body of students and staff are what constitute our community; our values can surely be expressed through attire, even within the constraints of the dress code. Its guidelines construct a civilized and well-ordered environment that still distinguishes Cooper from other schools without the need of specific uniforms, but sometimes just a shirt with a sewn-on “frocket.”