Chicago public high school students are doing a lot of adjusting now that they are back learning at school. They’re waking up earlier, taking the CTA to class and exchanging their sweatpants for other clothes.
But some are drawing the line at being told what not to wear.
Outside Jones College Prep High School in the South Loop on a recent day, senior Mila Mussatt said she’s been experimenting with her own style and showing up in sexy outfits.
She’s been doing it to protest calls by school administrators to “dress appropriately.” Her experiments include turning a skirt into a dress — with help from some suspenders.
“Earlier in the week, I did also wear just a bra one day, and the very next day I wore a corset with a very short skirt,” Mila added.
Being told what not to wear has angered teens at Jones and other schools, including the Chicago High School for the Arts and Lincoln Park High School. Students, mostly young women, say they feel unfairly targeted by dress codes that they say focus mainly on censoring their style and policing their bodies. Administrators say they’re trying to reduce discipline issues and help students focus on academics.
But some students aren’t buying it. In recent weeks, they’ve invited peers on social media and through word of mouth to wear their sexiest outfits to protest the dress codes.
Students at these schools have been sporting short shorts, spaghetti strap tank tops, mini skirts and more. Isabel Korte, a junior at Jones, shared a flyer urging students to wear “The most revealing clothing,” after their principal used the intercom on the first week of school to tell them to dress appropriately.
Isabel and Mila led the way. “I’ll be wearing crop tops that for sure show a lot of my stomach, that show a lot of my cleavage,” Isabel said.
Another invitation for Lincoln Park students on social media said, “Dress codes are sexist and LP is covering shoulders more than it’s enforcing mask policies.”
Each Chicago public school can set its own dress code and several have banned certain clothes, like crop tops and short shorts. Others are more general and simply ask students to dress appropriately. Jones is one of the high schools with a general dress code that doesn’t specify what’s allowed and what’s not.
A bumpy return to school
Dress codes — and the controversies that accompany them — aren’t new, of course. But after more than a year of remote learning, many students have gotten used to making their own rules.
And that’s one reason why principals are clamping down.
Some principals say dress codes can help re-instill a sense of discipline in a school, help students re-acclimate to the school culture and help teens focus on their academics. They also prevent students from wearing offensive slogans or gang colors. Some public schools go as far as having uniforms, but they are also tied to controversies around unfairly disciplining students. And while there is a pandemic going on, many principals say they have bigger issues to worry about.
During a recent school meeting, Jones principal Joseph Powers defended using the school’s intercom to urge students to dress appropriately.
“My announcements made the first week of school were done in the mildest possible terms urging students to use common sense and what is considered to be appropriate dress at school,” Powers said.
Some school leaders say they have avoided controversy around dress codes because they include students in devising them and other school rules.
“I think the key thing is to try to find an end product that best represents the interest of the whole school community while keeping in mind some non-negotiables and kind of doing that within reason,” said Devon Herrick, principal of the Ogden International High School.
The non-negotiables include language about no inappropriate logos or slogans. “We are trying to avoid borderline nudity, obviously, at the school, as any kind of institution providing a public space will do,” he said.
What’s in an outfit?
Outside Lincoln Park High School recently, some female students say they would like to see a dress code that allows girls to dress comfortably when it is hot, even if that means showing cleavage. They don’t want girls to be treated any differently than boys.
“I think males sometimes have their pants down and no one says anything,” said one student who didn’t want to be named. “Sometimes they don’t have shirts on and they don’t really get dress coded for that.”
Several students said they shouldn’t have to stop wearing short tops or mini skirts because it makes others uncomfortable or is distracting.
At Jones, Mila and Isabel say instead of being told what they should wear, they would like to see more support when students report sexual misconduct.
Isabel not only asked students to protest the dress code and wear sexy clothes, but they also asked others to show support by wearing blue, a color used for sexual assault awareness.
Some parents say there is a time and place to teach students how to dress professionally.
“You have your whole life to figure that out,” said Katy Clusen, whose daughter is a junior at Jones. “I feel like our kids deserve to be kids especially after a year of a pandemic.”
Mila and Isabel say they understand overall concerns about school safety and the idea of learning how to dress appropriately. But they are upset about the lack of clarity with their school’s dress code. They are open to changing it as long as there is student input.