What Dress Codes Taught Me About Growing Up

What Dress Codes Taught Me About Growing Up

Life is full of arbitrary rules, and part of being an adult is learning to live within them.
Bre Payton
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Last week, the Missouri Legislature proposed implementing a dress code for their interns in order to keep lawmakers  from getting “distracted.” The idea was initially proposed in response to the resignation of House Speaker John Diehl, who was caught sending an intern suggestive texts.

While cracking down on intern’s attire certainly seems to be a sick form of victim blaming in this case, dress codes in general aren’t all bad. Every year when school starts up again, we can count on hearing outrage and over-the-top drama surrounding school dress codes. In the past, schools have photoshopped girl’s outfits to appear more modest in yearbook photos or forced them to wear over-sized t-shirts, and everyone collectively loses their minds.

As fun as it is to gang up on prudish school administrators, I’m going to defend the merits of dress codes, and what I learned from them.

In The Real World, You Have To Wear Pants

I went to a very conservative liberal arts college, where yoga pants were banned. If a male security officer happened to see you in a spaghetti-strapped tank top during their nightly dorm curfew checks, it was almost like getting caught in the nude.

Real men cover their legs and endure the discomforts of office attire for the greater good.

During weekdays, we had to wear business attire from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. For those who were allowed to dress like schlubs in class, like my friend Phillip Wegmann, I’ll put this in laymen’s terms: this means you have to dress like you own the place.

If you thought rolling out of bed five minutes before class and pulling sweat pants on was difficult, try putting on panty hoes and a pencil skirt in the dark, then sprinting to class in high-heeled shoes. In January, this means tripping on iced-over pavement, while wishing that you had remembered to pick up the one pair of “business pants” you own from the dry-cleaners.

These difficulties however, taught us all a lesson: in the real world you have to wear pants. Like my colleague Rich Cromwell pointed out, real men cover their legs and endure the discomforts of office attire for the greater good.

Being An Adult Means Following Arbitrary Rules

As much as I hated being chased by RA’s with tape measures to check that my skirt was indeed within an inch of my knee, I now own half a dozen skirts Nancy Reagan would approve of. Hemline battles and bra-strap wars with the dean’s office taught me that life is full of arbitrary rules, and part of being an adult is learning to live within them.

True freedom isn’t a freedom from external limitations, or dress codes, rather it is a condition of the soul.

During my sophomore year, I remember one day in particular when I had been admonished for a new cream skirt just before class. That day, we happened to be discussing Whittaker Chambers’ excellent book, Witness. Maybe I was reaching a bit to make myself feel better about having to change out of my new duds, but something in Chambers’ words on freedom and liberty struck me that day.

True freedom isn’t a freedom from external limitations, or dress codes, rather it is a condition of the soul, he writes:

Freedom is a need of the soul and nothing else. It is in striving toward God that the soul strives continually after a condition of freedom. God alone is the inciter and guarantor of freedom. He is the only guarantor. External freedom is only an aspect of interior freedom. Religion and freedom are indivisible. Without freedom the soul dies. Without the soul there is no justification for freedom.

Maybe it was sophomoric of me to apply Chambers’ words to my cream skirt predicament, but realizing that a dress code wasn’t infringing upon my ability to pursue true freedom struck a chord with me that day.

Sucking It Up And Following The Rules Was Worth It

When rules and limitations infringe upon our ability to strive after God, then we are no longer free. In my case, being told to dress a certain way was not impeding upon my quest for truth and liberty in my studies. By adhering to campus dress codes, I didn’t lose any freedom. I gained a valuable lesson in responsibility.

If changing out of that skirt was the price I had to pay to discuss Chambers’ story of grit and heroism in class that day, I would make the same decision again.

I also learned to pick my battles carefully. Sure I lost some of the ability to chose what I wanted to wear. But because I followed the rules, I gained the opportunity to better understand man’s purpose, and my own.

If changing out of that skirt was the price I had to pay to discuss Chambers’ story of grit and heroism in class that day, I would make the same decision again. What is the purpose of education and work, if not to find freedom and fulfillment in our service to God? How then would a dress code infringe upon this end? Perhaps if we refocused our energies spent chasing micro-aggressors and misogynistic dress code enforcers, and instead fought for things like religious liberty, we would be a freer society indeed.

In retrospect, sticking to a dress code taught me that there is virtue in following the rules. I wasn’t deprived of the opportunity to prove myself an adult because there were standards forcing me to dress appropriately. In fact, it took responsibility to properly submit to standards that I could not change, a valuable lesson I’ve taken with me into adulthood.

Bre Payton was a staff writer at The Federalist.
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