This is not the opinion piece that I had originally written for this issue. It has been a great privilege over the last four years to be able to share my views with the community through opinion pieces in the Scroll, and I had planned to use this final opportunity to do something non-controversial. In that opinion piece, entitled “Hey, Board of Trustees, Let’s Be Friends,” I encouraged Deerfield students and trustees to forge closer relationships as we work toward common goals.
But all of my thoughts changed when the Board announced the new dress code, which exacerbates the very problems it claims to fix. We strive for professionalism at the Scroll, but I’m sorry — it’s a gold mine for criticisms that would take far more words than I have actually been allotted. I’ll just mention the low-hanging fruit — the very low-hanging fruit.
First, rather than listen to the approximately 90% of faculty who voiced support for an all-gender dress code earlier this year, the Board doubled-down on its requirement that boys wear a tie, thus ensuring that the gendered framework of the current dress code would live on. Consider the implications for gender non-conforming students: A teacher may find themselves in a position of having to decide whether a student they believe identifies as male is simply out of dress code because they lack a tie or, rather, is actually gender non-conforming. Establishing a connection between dress and gender ignores the fact that gender expression is fluid.
Second, it’s not dignifying for all genders to have to wear a piece of clothing that is traditionally considered “masculine.” Such a framework insinuates that the “male standard” for dress is what should be most respected, and that girls should aspire to meet that stereotypical, inherently sexist standard. When Deerfield first became co-ed, Deerfield faculty consciously decided that girls should not have to wear blazers because girls are not here to emulate the boys but rather to assert their own identities as Deerfield students in their own right. How is it possible that this community was more progressive in 1989 than it is today?
Third, this dress code further disadvantages lower-income students. The new dress code presents a financial barrier that is not easily fixed by the school’s apparent willingness to provide funds for blazers next year. While most male suit jackets are relatively identical regardless of price, the fit and style of women’s clothing are far more dependent on price. Additionally, in our society, the expected variety in a girl’s wardrobe will likewise demand a variety (in fit and color) of blazers. Unless the Deerfield trustees intend to send a check for $1,000 to every family on financial aid, families will need to self-identify as needing additional support on top of their financial aid award. This is awkward and embarrassing and only serves to make lower-income students feel unwelcome.
Finally, when a school chooses to move toward greater formality in a world that is increasingly less formal, we have to ask what type of student we will attract and what type of student will run in the other direction. The only students we will attract are those that are already comfortable with wealth and formality. Why choose a dress code that forces conformity and distances anyone who might bring a unique perspective to our community? At a time when most of the world, including the colleges that Deerfield students aspire to, is increasingly honoring individuality, Deerfield appears tone-deaf as it leans even further in the direction of collective uniformity.
I’ve been debating the nuances of a formal dress code here, but this really begs the question of why we need a formal dress code in the first place. Many will say that it’s our “tradition,” but why do we need to adhere to tradition? Tradition is ever-changing and should not constrain Deerfield’s potential to finally enter the 21st century. Coeducation used to be counter to Deerfield’s “tradition,” but I hope we all agree that it was the right call. Times are changing, and formal dress codes no longer make sense in the context of a society where acceptable dress is more nuanced and fluid than ever before.
The standard argument is that Deerfield’s dress code prepares students for the “real world,” but the truth is that it doesn’t teach me how to dress to be a surgeon or a Silicon Valley CEO (hello Mark Zuckerberg’s T-shirt collection). Plus, if there were even a kernel of truth to this argument, colleges would have dress codes and our female faculty members would be expected to wear a blazer as well.
Other schools are keeping up with the 21st century and changing their dress codes to reflect more fluid trends in clothing styles. You either keep up with the times or get left in the dust, and Deerfield is getting left in the dust in its stubborn adherence to outdated traditions that are illogical in the context of modern society.
We can debate dress code and tradition all day and come up with no good solution. But more importantly, why is the Board even involved in a discussion about dress code? Why can’t we rely on our highly educated and experienced faculty and administration (who in many cases have been associated with Deerfield for longer than the trustees have been) to make decisions that affect a community they are intimately involved with on a day-to-day basis? Why do the trustees feel the need to insert themselves into issues far more reasonably entrusted to the faculty?
To Dr. Austin: I have immense respect you. I gave you your first tour of Deerfield’s campus last summer. I was rooting for you to be chosen as Deerfield’s new Head of School. You are perfect for Deerfield, and I wish you every success in your new role. But my hope is that Deerfield girls won’t make this easy on you because the Board is sending Deerfield in the wrong direction. Had this been the dress code when I applied, I’m not sure I ever would have felt welcome on this campus.
To Deerfield Girls: As Dylan Thomas wrote, “Do not go gentle into that good night.”