The End Dress Codes Collective is looking for stories about dress code discipline in the Toronto District School Board. Browse our archive of anecdotes, and get in touch if you can add to it. Anonymous contributions are welcome, and we won’t post your story to the site if you don’t want us to.
I did a lot of self-discovery and self-esteem building in high school. Art was always my scene so I spent most of my time around the art room painting and in the music room singing in choir.
I’m an artist now. I do performances and create wearable art. The roots of this work, and of how I plan to earn my living, are in the things I put together to wear in high school. I wore various outfits: bright, dark, strange, simple. It was very important for me to experiment with personas and see what worked for me. I expressed what I felt about myself and the surrounding world through what I wore. I remember one time in art class very early on we were doing realistic self portraits and I decided to draw myself with fairy ears. My teacher made me erase them. The next day I showed up wearing ears I had crafted. That’s how I felt, so I wanted everybody else to see me that way.
I first dealt with a dress code in middle school, in grade six. I wore a tank top with spaghetti straps. My French teacher yelled at me in the hallway, in front of all the people from my class: “Put on some clothes!” It was very embarrassing. Later that day I approached her and said that I wore tank tops because it was embarrassing to get sweat marks on my shirts. She didn’t think that was a good reason. She said she needed the boys in my class to be focused.
In high school I also got coded for wearing tank tops. Once a hall monitor told me to put something on that covered my shoulders and to come back to her for approval. She said if I didn’t I would go to the office and be sent home. I didn’t have anything else with me except a coat, which was also against the dress code — we weren’t allowed to wear coats inside. So I had to pull my friend out of his class, and he gave me a long sleeved shirt. At that point it almost seemed degrading. It was causing unnecessary fear and anxiety. Why be so angry and condescending towards me over a tank top? My parents at least had a reason to be this way when I would forget to wash the dishes.
Some teachers would review the dress code with students, especially when the weather would get warmer towards the summer. They would mostly single out girls and say that they shouldn’t wear shorts that were above the fingers when you put the palm of the hand on the thigh, and that the straps on a top should be three fingers wide or more, and that undergarments should not be visible. To the boys it was mainly said to not go topless (which I never saw anyone in school ever do) and to not show undergarments as well. Teachers would sometimes make awkward jokes about how “girls who show less are more interesting to guys anyway,” or something else along those lines. I would always dread the summertime and the awkward jokes and comments during the review, plus knowing that if I really were to follow the dress code I would be sweating and uncomfortable.
Explanations for the code were not really given. But if someone asked, teachers would mainly talk about “attracting the wrong attention” or “being professional.” I did have unpleasant interactions with a few boys at my school, but not during the days I broke dress code. In fact, the worst time that I received such attention from a peer, I was in a jean jacket with every bit of my body covered except my face and hands. And as a performance artist, I now wear a lot of similar things as I did in high school. So I really was preparing to dress professionally in my own way, for what I do today.
Today I feel very liberated knowing that I can pick from my closet what I am comfortable in, and my confidence skyrocketed when I stopped having the little worried voice in the back of my head going “am I gonna get in trouble for this today?” Shopping for summer has also been fun knowing that I don’t have to bring a handy ruler with me and I will actually get to be happy in whatever clothes I bring home.
Luna is a performance artist attending OCAD University. Her goal is to merge reality and fantasy through creating sacred objects and by impersonating a fairy.