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You are what you wear

Symbolic dress and the policy response of school boards

Dianne Gereluk

You are what you wear lecture by Dianne Gereluk

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For as long as anyone can remember, K-12 schools have made decisions about what constitutes appropriate dress, establishing street clothing and uniform policies as required and making accommodations for other specific personal clothing choices as necessary.

And while the topic of dress codes is not new, issues and trends in self-expression through what students opt to wear has shifted, particularly as some countries become more and more multicultural. 

"School boards regularly grapple with this issue in trying to define the parameters of what is permissible to wear in schools," explains Dianne Gereluk, Associate Professor in the Faculty of Education, and the author of Symbolic Clothing in Schools. "As a result, policies regarding symbolic clothing are inconsistent and erratic at best."

Gereluk defines "symbolic clothing" as that which is chosen to be worn consciously and deliberately to signify a part of an individual's identity, and she says that choice in attire has become a larger issue in today's schools, particularly when it comes to the debate surrounding popular and cultural dress. 

In her book, Gereluk writes on the issue of dress code policies, considering incidents in France, England, the United States and Canada, and she opens up the debate about symbolic clothing and provides underlying principles to define the boundaries of dress codes and uniform policies in schools.  
"With virtually no exception, schools have minimum dress codes in place--rules about what cannot be worn at school," she explains.  "While this is common practice across schools in many countries, what is controversial is whether and to what extent school pupils should be allowed to wear symbolic clothing. "

Gereluk expanded on this idea when she presented "What Not to Wear: Defining the Limits of social, political and religious dress in schools" on  March 13. 

 This talk, part of the Faculty of Education's Engaging New Ideas in Education speaker series,
explored the reasons cited for the banning of symbolic clothing in schools and, and Gereluk recommended principles that can serve to  assist educators and policy analysts in developing more consistent guidelines.