Apodaca: Trying to get some dress sense

Every year about this time, when the school session is still young, administrators, parents and students reengage in the age-old battle over what is and isn't appropriate clothing.

On school campuses, dress codes are brandished like sacred documents, and principals make declarations to parents and kids alike that they're going to take this business seriously. Moms and dads go to battle over their children's clothes, sometimes failing to notice that they aren't setting a particularly good example themselves.

Meanwhile, kids respond in a variety of ways, from grudging compliance and sullen embarrassment to outright defiance. As with many adult-imposed rules and restrictions, when it comes to choice of attire, children typically profess a profound lack of understanding as to what the big deal is all about.

Occasionally, school dress code dust-ups reflect larger societal issues. Take the recent case of an Anaheim teen who was forced by school officials to remove her National Rifle Assn. T-shirt because it depicted a firearm. The girl's parents complained that her constitutional rights had been violated, and the school ended up apologizing.

Similarly, controversies over student clothing choices have touched on topical concerns about religion, gender issues, fairness to gay and lesbian students, and other matters of equality and free expression.

Courts tend to favor the free speech argument, ever since the landmark 1969 Supreme Court decision upholding the right of students to wear black armbands protesting the Vietnam War. But there have been enough conflicting rulings and exceptions — such as when clothing is found to be disruptive or infringing on the rights of others — that confusion often prevails.

Of course, some rules are prompted by safety concerns, such as those banning gang-associated clothing. Others restrict apparel bearing words or symbols that reference drugs, violence, alcohol and sex, yet even those have been applied unevenly.

A case of taking such restrictions too far surfaced recently when students were penalized for wearing breast cancer awareness bracelets with the message "I heart boobies." A federal appeals court recently sided with the students, but its ruling left some observers scratching their heads.

The court found that "plainly lewd" expression could be banned, but "ambiguously lewd" speech in support of a cause was OK — a decision clouded with ambiguity itself.

For most of us, however, concerns over our kids' apparel don't involve political statements but rather how to rein in clothing we consider just inappropriate.

It doesn't help that dress policies are wildly inconsistent from school to school. Just last year in Oklahoma, for instance, a 5-year-old boy got in trouble for wearing a University of Michigan T-shirt in violation of a school rule against out-of-state college apparel.

Meanwhile, in neighboring Texas, media coverage followed a school's decision to allow tattoos, and on males, earrings and facial hair.

For the most part, attempts at enforcing dress codes meet with limited success — largely, I suspect, because fashion trends often outpace our ability to react. It's the old horse-out-of-the-barn problem.

Yes, arguments over the length of hemlines, depth of necklines and width of tank-top straps will probably always be with us. But time was when we would have been shocked at the sight of an exposed bra strap. Now, not so much.

Not long ago many of us were half-amused, half-horrified by boys in sagging jeans that revealed unwanted views of underwear and bottoms. Then skinny jeans took over.

Now a big worry is that girls who wear skin-tight pants and leggings are leaving nothing to the imagination.

Last fall, for instance, a Minnesota high school principal made national headlines when he sent families a letter asking that students "cover your butts up." He was particularly concerned about girls wearing leggings with short skirts, and complained that the fashion trend was a distraction for other students.

The struggle over what's appropriate for children to wear has been with us for a very long time, and I'm not sure it will ever be resolved. I wouldn't be surprised if parents in Ancient Greece argued with their kids over the cut of their togas.

It's also a tough line to hold because many parents themselves aren't exactly paragons of good taste. In Britain recently, parents have been encountering significant blowback for wearing pajamas while bringing their kids to school. Here in the United States, parents have been criticized for everything from slovenliness to overt sexiness.

Like our kids, we see our clothing and accessories as important reflections of who we are, whether we're trying to make a bold statement or just hide in the crowd. Sometimes our choices are good, sometimes they're embarrassingly bad. I've got plenty of old photos of me from the 1980s — big hair, really big shoulder pads — to keep me humble.

That's why it doesn't take a PhD in psychology to figure out that when our kids argue about free expression, what they're usually trying to do is just fit in.

So when our kids push for clothes we don't like, it's best to take a deep breath, keep a sense of humor and avoid overreacting.

That's what some relatives of mine did when their son went from one cringe-inducing look to another, from sweats-only to skate punk to his current urban hipster. They understand that, like most things, this too shall pass.

PATRICE APODACA is a former Newport-Mesa public school parent and former Los Angeles Times staff writer. She lives in Newport Beach.

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