"Clothes are never a frivolity -- they always mean something." Thus spoke James Laver, a famous costume designer and interpreter of fashion. He is right, of course. Clothes always mean something, which is why The New York Times gave major attention to an issue facing many schools: "Can a Boy Wear a Skirt to School?"
The article, right on the front of the "Sunday Styles" section of the paper, announced, "When gender bends the dress code, high schools struggle to respond." The story reveals a confusion over gender that goes far beyond the dress code.
As Jan Hoffman reports, high schools generally have very specific rules about clothing these days. Boys are forbidden to wear muscle shirts and saggy pants, and girls cannot wear midriff-exposing tops or skirts that are too short. But what happens when a boy wants to wear a skirt?
"In recent years, a growing number of teenagers have been dressing to articulate - or confound - gender identity and sexual orientation," Hoffman reports. "Certainly they have been confounding school officials, whose responses have ranged from indifference to applause to bans."
This is no longer an issue limited to isolated examples. Districts across the country have reported teens who have attempted to cross the gender line in dress. Many of these cases have captured media attention, with highly publicized controversies. In other cases, the challenges have been more quiet.
The cases are, to say the least, both interesting and troubling. Boys are making news for wearing skinny jeans, makeup, wigs, and skirts. Girls are bending gender in their own way by, for example, wearing a tuxedo for the school picture or to a school event.
Jan Hoffman does a good job of setting the issue in perspective:
Dress is always code, particularly for teenagers eager to telegraph evolving identities. Each year, schools hope to quell disruption by prohibiting the latest styles that signify a gang affiliation, a sexual act or drug use.
But when officials want to discipline a student whose wardrobe expresses sexual orientation or gender variance, they must consider antidiscrimination policies, mental health factors, community standards and classroom distractions.
Well, that certainly presents a very complicated challenge. Diane Ehrensaft, an Oakland psychologist cited in the article, states the obvious: "This generation is really challenging the gender norms we grew up with. . . . A lot of youths say they won't be bound by boys having to wear this or girls wearing that. For them, gender is a creative playing field." She added that adults then "become the gender police through dress codes."
As Hoffman makes clear, these challenges to dress codes can quickly become legal skirmishes pitting students (and often their parents) against school administrators. Kay Hymowitz of the Manhattan Institute argues that this is one reason that so many schools have shifted to students wearing uniforms.
"It's hard enough to get students to concentrate on an algorithm," she reminds, "even without Jimmy sitting there in lipstick and fake eyelashes."
That sets the issue in a very clear instructional perspective. Schools are about teaching and learning, and both teachers and administrators face daunting challenges. The last thing they need is the added distraction of gender-bending teenagers on parade.
And the issues can be far more troubling than classroom distractions. Hoffman reports that some schools have faced boys wearing "pink frilly scarves" and makeup and girls trying to dress like male gang members. In Columbus, Ohio a boy wore girl's clothing but used the boys' bathroom. Jeff Grace, faculty advisor for the school's gay-straight alliance club told Hoffman, "One day I heard a student say, 'Man, there was a girl in the guy's restroom, standing up using the urinal! What's up with that?'" Another student then quipped, "That wasn't a girl. That's just Jack."
These adolescents represent the younger face of a society that is giving itself over to a confusion about gender and dress that reveals a much deeper confusion about gender, sexuality, and the limits of self-expression. The controversy also reveals an even deeper cultural and moral divide over the same issues.
Should a boy who shows up at school dressed as a girl be celebrated for self-expression and transgressing the boundaries of gender roles, or should he be seen as signaling a need for help and adult-imposed rules? The widely divergent answers to that question reveal the great worldview divide in postmodern America. This controversy cannot be isolated from the movement to normalize homosexuality, and that movement cannot be separated from an effort to remove all notions of fixed gender roles and sexual identity.
The controversy over boys wearing skirts to school is a symptom of our loss of sexual sanity and the will to preserve any reasonable and healthy understanding of gender. These teenagers are telling us something important -- we are losing our sexual sanity.
For Christians, the issue is a matter of biblical concern. The Bible reveals a concern for respecting and honoring gender as God's gift. In the Old Testament, the Law taught respect for these distinctions and roles. In the New Testament, we find similar expectations. As the Apostle Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 11: 7-15:
For a man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God, but woman is the glory of man. For man was not made from woman, but woman from man. Neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. That is why a wife ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels.Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man nor man of woman;for as woman was made from man, so man is now born of woman. And all things are from God.Judge for yourselves: is it proper for a wife to pray to God with her head uncovered?Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair it is a disgrace for him, but if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For her hair is given to her for a covering.
While addressed to the specific concerns of a church setting, this text also generalizes the point by making a specific reference to what nature teaches concerning the recognition of the difference between males and females. The Creator is honored and glorified when men and boys dress and present themselves as males and when women and girls dress and present themselves as females. Culture by culture and generation by generation the specific form of this distinction may change, but the point remains.
God made human beings to show His glory, and an essential part of that glory is the visible difference between males and females that is reflected even in the public presentation of dress. We should be able to tell the difference between a boy and a girl by the way they dress and present themselves in public.
As James Laver reminded, clothes always tell us something. This article from the "Sunday Styles" section of The New York Times tells us something as well -- something we need to hear.