By Jordan Riak, March 2001

In England, under King Henry VIII, who reigned from 1509 to 1547, an elaborate set of regulations were introduced governing how everyone dressed down to the smallest details. These were called "Sumptuary Laws." The color, style and fabric content of a person's clothing signaled that person's rank in society. People who lived in England during the 16th century knew at a glance where everyone stood in the social pecking order.

Today in the United States some people want to bring back sumptuary laws--not for themselves, of course--but for students at school. They have some theories about the value of making all young people conform to clothing styles not of their own choosing. They think that if students are required to wear clothes that are a constant reminder of their subordinate status, they will be more submissive to authority. That theory doesn't hold up in practice. Dress codes are more likely to provoke resentment than promote cooperation. The only reason they worked in King Henry VIII's day is because anyone who bucked authority risked a date with the hangman. This is not the 16th century. And sumptuary laws are not the American way.

Some school administrators claim that concern about clothing is a distraction to students, and that the use of school uniforms will eliminate that distraction. Actually, concern about students' clothing is a distraction to teachers. Good teachers are too busy dealing with what goes on in students' minds to have any time or energy to waste worrying about what they are wearing. Furthermore, teachers who really know their craft are careful not to offend students' sense of justice and fair play by interfering with their right to exercise their own judgment in matters that are purely personal.

Some educators feel threatened or challenged by students who attempt to establish their personal identity by means of symbolic clothing styles, e.g., "gang colors," and they try to thwart those expressions by edict and force. But feelings and expressions of rebellion are more likely to be intensified and solidified by official opposition to them. The best way, and probably the only way, to protect young people from the lure of negative, destructive influences is by presenting positive, constructive ones attractively and in ways that clearly demonstrate their value. This takes more time, thought and skill than force, but it works. Force only works temporarily if it works at all.

Professional educators understand the cardinal rule of good management: you get respect by giving respect. Teachers who can't teach and school administrators who can't administrate tend to fall back on obedience training--something more suited to the preparation of circus animals for the ring than young people for citizenship. By keeping themselves busy monitoring other people's clothing styles and meting out punishments to dress code violators, they fool themselves into thinking they are doing something useful. They're not. They're only stirring up resentment and making school life unpleasant for all concerned.

To print your own seals like the one illustrated here, load your printer with a sheet of compatible gummed-back paper, click on the image and print.

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