Stand by for countdown. You know, to that single most significant morning coming next week for tens of thousands of students. The one that follows hours of consultations with best friends, lies from sales clerks, and myriad changes before a full-length mirror to decide what to wear on The First Day of School.
Choose carefully in this fashion season of halter tops, thin straps and wide-leg jeans.
Because, as students head back to class after Labor Day, joining the ranks of the peer and parental fashion police will be school administrators, counselors and teachers. And what to wear on campus has become ever more complicated as dress restrictions on everything from size to colors to silhouettes are being considered a matter of safety, morality and health across the country.
The standards start out the same at most Orange County schools where uniforms haven’t supplanted civilian attire--as they have at many schools from Santa Ana to San Juan Capistrano.
Students cannot wear anything that is:
* deemed unsafe, dangerous or a health hazard;
* emblazoned with offensive or obscene imagery. Words denigrating anyone’s race, ancestry, national origin, religion, gender, disability or sexual orientation can stay at home. The same goes for symbols or language involving sex, drugs, alcohol, tobacco, vandalism or violence.
* gang-related, as outlined by the school and local police.
Stay away from clothes or accessories disruptive to the learning process, including articles in the too-tight or revealing category. (Tip: If it looks like wardrobe for the “Jerry Springer Show,” pass.)
Understand that what was OK last semester might assume a diabolical meaning in the new school year. As the fashion wheels spin, the list of do’s and don’ts undergoes regular revision.
Throughout the country, the state and Orange County, school administrators meet with teachers, counselors, police officers and parents to consider trends and develop their own D&D; lists.
High atop everyone’s “don’t” list this year are excessively wide-legged pants that cover shoes and super-skinny spaghetti straps.
September heat may make it tough to forgo those cute strappy dresses or tank tops that parents shelled out big bucks for. But if a bra strap so much as peeks out, don’t be surprised if a teacher threatens detention. The same goes for exposed midriffs; bellybutton rings will have to remain under wraps until after the last bell.
Many schools are dealing with rebellious clotheshorses by forcing them into gym uniforms or offering replacements that no thrift shop would accept. Calling a parent to deliver a substitute shirt is an option--if the parent can or wants to leave work.
“I know a guy who wore really baggy pants to school, and [the administrators] made him put on pants so tight that he couldn’t kick a football,” said Colin Cartmell, who’ll be entering Los Amigos High in Fountain Valley as a freshman next week.
Hanging out on Huntington Beach’s Main Street in jeans that balloon over his sneakers, the 14-year-old says he won’t be wearing those pants to school any time soon. “Well, maybe the first week,” he reconsiders, figuring on amnesty accompanied by a warning during the first few days.
“Having to change into loaner clothes, particularly among students in the intermediate level, has to be the worst penalty,” said Elaine Carter, public information officer for Saddleback Valley Unified School District.
Brea-Olinda High School Principal Kathleen Beard has found a way to foil offenders who brazenly show up on campus wearing T-shirts splattered with messages touting controlled substances.
“We give them a T-shirt that says ‘I Say No to Drugs.’ Some kids threaten that their mom is going to call and complain [about being censored],” Beard said. “The mom does call me, and she says, ‘Thank you.’ ”
Beard and many of her colleagues blame the fashion industry. “When the retail markets are only pushing bare midriffs and oversized clothing, it makes it tough on us and the kids.”
One trend that has been growing, literally, for seasons is the ever-widening pant leg favored by fans of electronica music and picked up by the mainstream. The extremes in this style come from Los Angeles-based manufacturers Kikwear and JNCO, which boast legs up to 69 inches in circumference. Most sold are a mere 33 to 40 inches, still plenty of yardage to hide feet and, as some school officials fear, weapons.
There’s also the danger of tripping, administrators say. And they definitely don’t like it when the hems are left to fray--fad or not.
“They think it’s gangster,” huffed Los Amigos High junior Eryn Devine, 16. “It doesn’t matter what you wear. If you look at someone wrong or they don’t like you, they’re still going to go after you.”
“Even if they ban all this clothing, we’re still going to have problems with gangs and racism,” insists Eryn’s classmate, Ian MacMillan, 17.
Adds Eryn: “What we need are more counselors. Our school is overpopulated. Drugs are rampant. Those are the problems.”
A big-picture approach is necessary, according to Francene Kaplan, a youth therapist with a PhD in clinical psychology who is on the dress-code committee at Huntington Beach’s Pacific High School, where she teaches. She also counsels at the Hope Institute in Costa Mesa, a special school for troubled teens. “A kid wearing a hat to school is not a big deal compared to a kid carrying a knife.”
Flaunting apparel that’s been banned on campus or is not favored by parents is a normal process for teens seeking their identity and a measure of control in a world of adolescent chaos, Kaplan said. Arguing, self-consciousness, hypocrisy and rebellion against authority and the establishment are developmental stages in teenagers that come in varying degrees and normally find a balance as maturity sets in.
Inconsistency among county campuses over codes and enforcement convolutes the issue, Kaplan said. Cousins at different schools might experience different restrictions and consequences for wearing certain clothes. And another school might not follow through on its rules.
Parents often contribute to the problem, Kaplan said. “Often at home, ‘no’ doesn’t mean ‘no.’ Mom and Dad don’t follow through, so rules aren’t really rules. Kids can break them without consequences. So students figure dress codes are meant to be broken,” she said.
Can school administrators spark a trend like an entertainer or fashion designer might?
Definitely, said Huntington Beach High senior Dane Carlson, 17, whose oversized jeans are more old-school baggy--not so wide at the bottom, but wide enough at the top to cinch precariously low and reveal inches of plaid boxer shorts.
“Kids might be told what not to wear,” he said during a break at the mini-skate corner outside his school. “But they react by wearing it anyway.”