Last year Torontoist posted a story about sideburns in Toronto in the 1960s. Men about town like historian Pierre Berton, boxer George Chuvalo, and Liberal MP Paul Hellyer wore them; the National Ballet of Canada kicked out a dancer because of them; coach Punch Imlach demanded that his Maple Leafs players get rid of them. (Shades of Lou Lamoriello, am I right?! Ahem. Okay, no more sports.)
And then there’s this:
During the same September that Punch Imlach ordered shaves and haircuts for his team, another hair-related controversy emerged at a Toronto high school. Wilbert Bush, the principal at Castle Frank High School (now the Rosedale Heights School of the Arts) sent 16-year-old Douglas Hamburgh home due to the length of his hair. All three major Toronto papers ran the story, complete with photos of Hamburgh, with his hair still short of his eyebrows and barely past his ears.
The initial explanation offered was that Castle Frank High School was a technical school, where students regularly used machinery, and that long hair represented a safety hazard. However, the Telegram reported that Hamburgh had already completed two years at Castle Frank with this hairstyle, and that as an arts student, he never came in contact with the technical-course machinery. A Star editorial pointed out that female students with long hair were permitted to work the machinery at the school provided that their hair was pulled back. “This looks like a clear case of petty tyranny of the sort that alienates young people from school. So long as they don’t disrupt class work or endanger themselves, students should be allowed to wear their hair any way they please.”
Over the next week, protests were organized at Castle Frank High School, dividing the student body. Over 70 students staged a protest, in which they wore jeans and slacks — also forbidden at Castle Frank — demanding the right to dress and wear their hair as they wished. In a Star article with the headline “Students in jeans threaten existence of school: Principal,” Wilfred Bush defended his decision on the basis that, as a technical school, Castle Frank had a duty to prepare its graduates for employment, and that having long hair threatened job prospects. “We go after manners and appearance,” Bush said. “If we lose the battle of hair and clothes, employers would ignore us and not hire our graduates.”
So much of this story sounds familiar! The haphazard imposition of dress code discipline; the illogical rationale provided to justify it; the student resistance; the unconvincing appeal to the job prospects of students. (Ironically, much of the rest of the Torontoist piece is devoted to hair controversies at work — at CFTO-TV, the Canadian National Railway, the Edmonton Transit System, and Dominion grocery store, for example. These employers discovered they’d hired high school graduates who had not entirely given up “the battle of hair and clothes.”)
What is slightly less familiar is the clarity with which the Star editorial diagnoses the situation. It bears requoting:
This looks like a clear case of petty tyranny of the sort that alienates young people from school. So long as they don’t disrupt class work or endanger themselves, students should be allowed to wear their hair any way they please.
Given that the source of dress code discipline — “petty tyranny” — and the effect of it — alienation from school — were so obvious in 1968, it’s hard not to wonder why we are still dealing with such controversies today.
One reason does come to mind, however. Today, the subjects of dress code controversies do not look like Douglas Hamburgh; today, the targets of dress code discipline are mostly students of colour and female-presenting students. Perhaps our culture is less inclined to defend them from tyranny.