By Maja Cannavo (Photos courtesy of MPH)
It’s a warm spring day, and MPH students have welcomed the change in weather with shorts, skirts and dresses in a rainbow of colors and styles. Upper Schoolers walk to class chatting and laughing. But anyone who’s left a little too much of their legs or shoulders exposed is also watching for Dean of Students Alex Leclercq, who could be lurking around the corner with his red notebook, lying in wait for the next out-of-dress-code student.
Through April of this year, Leclercq had cited students for 53 dress code violations. Two years ago, he recorded 101. But despite students’ perceptions, Leclercq doesn’t enjoy playing the clothing police.
“Quite frankly, the idea of telling people what to wear,” Leclercq said, “is antithetic to what kind of person I am. I sometimes feel like a Taliban who’s conquered the land and decided to impose a dress code on the people in that land, and I hate being in that position.”
Even so, Leclercq acknowledges that the MPH dress code is an important part of the school’s identity. While today’s standards are much more relaxed than those of the past and some miss the days of neckties and dress shoes, the code’s current expectations reflect the school’s values of promoting individuality and freedom of expression in a welcoming atmosphere. This is reflected not only in the more causal expectations but also in the enforcement policy that Leclercq said affords students respect, as does the open invitation for students to have a say in their own rules.
“I’m not sure the dress code contributes to MPH’s identity so much as reflects it,” Head of School Jim Dunaway said in an email. “The school is relatively casual and supports individuality, and I think you can see that in the dress code. MPH is a place that not only tolerates differences, but actively supports them.”
Although students tend to complain about the dress code, some also acknowledge its positive effect.
“I appreciate the level of class that it gives to the students,” junior Lisa Morocco said. “And when you look at the student population here compared to other student populations, it makes us stand out, I think, in a positive light.”
The current MPH dress code is far removed from the school’s original one, which was similar to that of Christian Brothers Academy. CBA’s dress code allows dress pants, knee-length skirts, oxford shirts, polos (in the fall and spring only) and sweaters; it prohibits sneakers and sandals, among other items.
When Donna Meehan started teaching math at MPH in 1984, Middle and Upper School boys had to wear ties or turtlenecks, and girls in those grades had to wear stockings or socks. Pants had to be dress pants worn with belts; boys had to wear dress shoes and socks as well. Sometimes when the weather was warm, the Dean of Students would declare a “No-Tie Day,” allowing boys to take off their ties and girls to take off their stockings or socks. Today, the dress code has far fewer restrictions. Ties and belts are no longer mandatory, nor are socks or stockings.
Sneakers are allowed, as are all pants except jeans, leggings, yoga pants, pajama pants, sweatpants and athletic pants. Changes to the dress code have occurred gradually; important changes last came during the 2013-2014 school year, when the school abolished the requirement that skirts and shorts reach students’ knees. Now the dress codes states that clothes must cover shoulders, thighs, stomach and chest.
Thanks to a petition by then-senior Hannah Lukow, the dress code also became gender- neutral that year, meaning that its rules became the same for boys and girls. Most notably, boys were no longer required to wear collared shirts. However, all shirts must have a “finished neckline” if they do not have a collar. The meaning of “finished neckline” has become a topic of contention and confusion among students.
Another controversial aspect of the dress code is its ban on hoodies. Students often wear them to keep warm, and junior Andrew Park believes they should be allowed. “No hoodies makes no sense,” he said. The current dress code reflects, to some degree, today’s cultural expectations. Leclercq said the professional world is shifting toward a more relaxed standard of dress; he expects school dress codes to follow suit.
But what are the implications of a relatively relaxed dress code on students’ behavior and performance? The 1991-1992 MPH Palladium, a condensed handbook for students, stated, “At MPH we expect students to be well dressed because we see a high correlation between behavior and dress.”
Such a statement is no longer written in the Palladium; however, history teacher Edward Curtis, who started at MPH in 1992, agrees that it is important to dress well. Curtis, who wears a tie to work every day, said he would be open to a stricter dress code.
“I think that the clothes you wear tend to reflect your attitude and approach towards your daily work, and dressing according to a certain standard improves your work and your attitude,” he said.
Dunaway views dress similarly.
“We send strong messages with our clothing; there is a reason one doesn’t wear shorts and a T-shirt to a job interview or a funeral,” he said via email. “There is an element of self-respect and regard for others in the way we dress.”
Experts disagree on the impact of dress codes. While some believe dressing up aids performance, others argue that dress codes can create a stuffy environment that hinders success.
MPH allows students to dress down for AP and final exams in the interest of comfort. The third Wednesday of each month is also a dress-down day, a policy similar to casual Fridays in the professional world, and students can dress down on Fridays if they wear MPH attire.
Regardless of the research, Leclercq said the dress code helps students transition to the expectations of the workplace and fosters a sense of togetherness.
“The dress code is not about individuality; it’s about community,” he said. “Although we have a dress code that, in my opinion, promotes a certain level of individual expression, it’s also a rule, or a set of standards, that we all share in common, and it’s one expression of our being together as a community.”
And although the dress code can present a hassle for students, some say that it has a positive effect on the school. Even senior Madison Brang, who said she breaks the dress code once or twice a week by wearing leggings or torn pants, acknowledges its benefits.
“I am glad I go to a place where I am surrounded by people who are dressed fashionably, along with myself,” Brang said via email. “It’s not like I’m [breaking the dress code] to rebel or make a statement; leggings are just really comfortable and easy to wear with anything.”
Despite the dress code’s advantages, some faculty agree that it is, and should be, far down on the school’s list of priorities. “The focus ought to be on academic work and what you’re doing to make yourself the best you you can be,” Curtis said. “A school that focuses very, very strictly on dress code and never talks about ideas is not a school that I think we want to go to or work at.”
Leclercq also said that enforcement should not infringe upon students’ dignity. “I mean, to a great extent, membership in the MPH community is a chance for young people to experience a certain level of freedom … and I think it’s important that you do get a chance to experience this freedom, even if you’re going to break small standards like the dress code from time to time,” he said.
Accordingly, consequences for dresscode violations are fairly mild. Students receive a verbal warning and an email to parents for their first two violations each school year. A third violation results in the loss of free blocks or lunch duty.
“I once had to do lunch duty for a week, which was not fun,” Brang said via email.
By contrast, Christian Brothers Academy has a strict dress-code violation policy. CBA’s Parent-Student Handbook states that students breaking the dress code may not attend class until they are in dress code. Teachers may give them zeros on any work, including tests or quizzes, they miss.
Regardless of the enforcement policy, Dunaway believes it is impossible to eliminate violations altogether.
“What I have seen is that whatever the dress code, strict or lenient, students test the limits,” he said in an email. “That’s just the nature of being an adolescent, I think.”
However, Meehan values consistent enforcement of the dress code.
“I think it’s not fair to the other students who follow the dress code,” she said. “They’re being part of it, buying in, and doing the right thing, so I think it’s important for people to realize that.”
Although some students and faculty agree that enforcement has become more relaxed in recent years, Leclercq maintains that he eased up only last year due to the stress of MPH’s financial crisis, logging only 23 violations for the year. However, he admits that it is difficult to spot all violations.
Perhaps the most prominent dress-code violation came during last year’s financial crisis, when two students dyed their hair blue and pink, respectively, to protest the loss of their scholarships. The MPH dress code prohibits unnaturally colored hair as well as facial and body piercings. Leclercq sees the dress code as a work in progress. Students can petition him for changes but rarely have; Lukow was the last student to do so.
“I’m very disappointed,” Leclercq said. “I was hoping for more changes to the dress code. I mean, the dress code is intended to evolve with fashion, right?”
Leclercq said that changes should be left up to the students and that even jeans could be allowed should a student compose a valid, logical argument.
“I think students are more on the edge of fashion than any of the adults in the building,” he said, “and so I think that push needs to come from them.”