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Letter from Dr. Curtis
Dr. Margarita Curtis, Head of School
April 19, 2018

Dear Members of the Deerfield Community,

As promised, I write with an update on dress code. First, I want to thank everyone who shared comments with me: regardless of whether you offered criticism or support, it is always encouraging to see people stand up for their convictions. This sort of open, rational discourse is the best way to arrive at a mutually satisfying solution, and, as this month’s cultural competency skill reminds us, it is critical that we work through this conflict to a resolution.

At Deerfield, we prepare students for leadership in a rapidly changing world—but one that remains defined by a general dismissal of women as leaders, as intellectuals, and as sources of physical and mental strength. Women are routinely objectified and hyper-sexualized. This situation is pervasive, and it affects women and girls of every age, of every background, and in every role we play in society. These cultural constructs are unacceptable, and they demand change.

In terms of academic dress at Deerfield and the tendency for students—especially girls—to push the limits of our policies, it has been difficult to identify rhetoric that appropriately navigates this complex and sensitive issue. I understand how discussions of these topics can seem archaic, and while my recent communication may have been inelegant, my point remains the same. Fashion exists in a cultural context, and in that sense, all fashion choices transmit messages. I remain concerned about the incorrect assumptions others may make about you based on your choices, and I worry about the very real effects those judgments can have on your opportunities and your agency in the world.

I agree with you that it is these judgments—and not clothing choices themselves—that are morally problematic, but I do not want you to unwittingly promote society’s prejudices before serving your own aims. As women and girls at Deerfield, we must push back on, rather than participate in, the objectifying fashion that society solicits from us today. I ask that we focus on enhancing our own agency before abetting a society that often deems women unworthy of respect and equality.

I have also been hearing earnest concerns about the dress code from many members of the community who worry about equity. I think the differences between the boys’ and girls’ dress codes are plain to see, and many of you have confirmed your clear understanding of this issue. A dress code that asks boys to conform to a clear standard, but does not do so for the girls, creates the inaccurate impression that only boys deserve the benefit of higher expectations.

As a teacher, and as the first woman head in a historically male institution, I know too well the challenges that women face in being heard in today’s society. I feel an obligation to address these challenges—and my gender and my role uniquely enable me to do so. I cannot alter the girls’ dress culture at Deerfield quickly and decisively. I do not have the power to change your minds instantly. However, I am charged with the ability to adjust policies and require new behaviors, and it is my hope that, in doing so, I will empower you with increased awareness.

In this vein, I want to shift my attention—and yours—to dress code as a school policy and to academic dress in particular. Principally, this becomes a question of how we can make academic dress more equitable, and how a revised code can be structured in a way that makes it easier for both students and employees to uphold. Some requirements for a revised code include:

  • It needs to set similar expectations and provide a similar amount of choice for all students.
  • It needs to be simple, so that both students and employees can easily remember it.
  • It needs to be objective—minimizing judgments or disagreements about whether a particular garment is appropriate or not.
  • It needs to address increasing slippage in boys’ adherence to academic dress, as well as broader gaps between the rules and the reality of girls’ dress at Deerfield.
  • Lastly, as part of these revisions to the dress code, we must train ourselves, the adults on campus, in simple, safe, comfortable, and appropriate methods for upholding academic dress standards with students of any gender.

Next week, I will share my thoughts with faculty on a revised dress code. After that, I will solicit your feedback. I will speak with Student Council, and I will hold open meetings for students who wish to share their thoughts. On Family Weekend, I will ask for input from your parents and family members.  By the end of the term, I will finalize my decision and share it with the community.

These new rules for academic dress will be published in the student handbook over the summer, and they will go in effect in the fall of 2018, so that you have time to prepare. If you have any questions or comments about this process, please let me know.

I hope you will continue to share your thoughts with me.

Margarita Curtis

Head of School