Shirt tails are the least of your worries: Is it school dress code evolution or devolution?

By Robert Kelly-goss

Albemarle Life Editor

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Sometimes it’s not so much about what to wear, as it is what not to wear. Parents are pretty savvy about what they let their kids wear to school, but just the same, schools have dress codes and they’re looking to enforce them.

“It’s more what they can’t wear,” wrote Perquimans County Schools spokewoman Brenda Lassiter in an email.

Lassiter forwarded a copy of the district’s policy in the same email, and it’s not unlike the other districts in the region.

Some of the don’ts include a ban on bedroom slippers. It seems that some kids would like to wear the big, pink, fuzzy slippers to school, but the schools disagree with that choice. They also include a ban on pajamas, except on “spirit days” that designate the wearing of pajamas to show your support for the home team.

Other don’ts include a ban on halter or tube tops, flip-flop sandals, cutoffs — apparently some schools might deem this OK as long as they’re not “Daisy Duke” short — and really short shorts or skirts.

According to the Pasquotank High School rules, skirts should be mid-thigh length or longer. They suggest that if the hem of the skirt is fingertip length or longer, the girls are OK.

Otherwise, they can be sent home to change clothes.

There are other rules that are designed to govern what school district handbooks describe as dress code infractions that would distract students from a learning environment. Crazy haircuts and hair dyes are an example here.

It seems that over the last 40 years or so, things haven’t changed too much. But it was about 40 years ago when the dye was cast for contemporary dress codes.

Kids were experiencing a new freedom in clothing they hadn’t seen prior to this period. According to Daily Advance columnist and author Bud Wright, 1970 at Northeastern High School may well have been one of the last years when dress codes were relaxed.

“I wouldn’t even call it a dress code,” recalls Wright. “You just knew what to do.”

What you did was wear “hard shoes,” no canvas sneakers. You had to wear pants with a pleat, no jeans. And your shirts had to have a collar.

“By 1970, hair had become an issue,” says Wright. “… The principal had a ruler and he would measure hair. If it hit your collar, you had to have it cut.”

But Wright had curly, stiff hair that didn’t grow down. Rather, it grew up and out. And it grew out to the point that Wright was forced to cut it despite the fact that it never hit his collar.

Wright says there were never serious conflicts over dress codes. He says the days of jeans and t-shirts were not far behind, but in 1970, things in Elizabeth City were still fairly conservative.

“It was still kind of the era when grown ups told you what to do and you did it,” says Wright.

An earlier era, however, was even more conventional, but also required no dress code, says former educator and track coach Ray Jones Jr.

“As I can remember, in the whole span that I taught, there was never a code they had to go by,” says Jones, who taught junior and senior high school grades from 1954 to 1964. “The only thing I remember is we used to get on them for was the shirttail hanging out.”

In fact, Jones says that the only act of fashion rebellion he’d experienced as an educator was the shirttail hanging out of the pants.

It was a fad, he says.

“Either tuck their shirttails in, or get a couple of licks with the paddle,” Jones said.

These days casual dress seems to be the norm for most students. However, at Elizabeth City State University, there is a movement to get students there to dress more professionally, according to university spokeswoman Kesha Williams.

Williams says that each Thursday students at the college of business on the ECSU campus are encouraged to dress professionally — ties, and other appropriate garb. She says the purpose of this is simply to prepare them for the real world of business.

Williams says the plan is to add another day of the week to the professional dress code.