The Dress Code by Sarah Johnson

The end of middle school had finally arrived and with it, the freedom to ditch our uniform and wear whatever we wanted for the last month of the year. The shedding of the school skirt was our most iconic rite of passage into high school. We chatted for weeks about which outfit we would wear on the first non-uniformed day. We would finally look normal, no longer broadcasting our affiliation with a prestigious all-girls school. Everyone smiled and relaxed, unbounded by the stiff blue skirt that had encircled our waists for the past four years.

The Friday before the change, the head of the middle school, Mrs. Rupert, gathered the entire 8th grade class in one room and announced that she would review the dress code with us. We looked at each other and repeated the words in whispers. There had been no mention of a dress code before. This was supposed to be our moment of freedom when we got the right to wear what we wanted.

She spat out forbidden styles: bra straps and exposed midriffs, low-cut tops and high-cut shorts, towering stilettos and flip-flops. She warned against inappropriate writing or images printed on t-shirts. Although we no longer wore the school skirt, Mrs. Rupert reminded us, we still represented our prestigious school and had to dress accordingly.

The most shocking part of the dress code was that skirts and shorts had a length limit: no shorter than the middle of your thigh. In four years, no one had measured the length of our skirts. In fact, many girls rolled their uniform’s waist band to hike the skirt up and show off their legs. Was Mrs. Rupert now going to walk around with a ruler or was it meant as an empty threat to discourage booty shorts that let our butt cheeks hang out? We all looked around the room, silently guessing who would be the first to test this rule.

Mrs. Rupert reminded us that in order to be treated like adults, we had to act responsibly. The right to ditch the uniform was a privilege and if we didn’t follow the dress code, that privilege could be taken away. She scanned the room with her bulging-eyes, daring each one of us to challenge her authority. Satisfied that no one was going to jump up with a fist in the air and shout a slogan like “power to the people,” she continued her threats. She informed us that she kept a collection of uniform skirts and school sweatshirts in her office. If anyone was caught in violation of the dress code, they would be forced to don the blue yoke of shame that was the school skirt.

Satisfied that she had scared us into compliance, Mrs. Rupert wished us a happy weekend. Her wrinkly cheeks pushed back in a smile but her eyes showed only animosity as she prepared for the battle of dress code enforcement. We no longer excitedly described our outfits for Monday morning but itemized articles of clothing that might not pass inspection. We strategized what spare clothing to keep in our lockers so we would never have to wear the dreaded skirt again. 

***

Sunday night I opened my closet and inspected my new spring clothing. There were khaki capri pants, a long blue and white floral skirt, and a pink striped dress with a matching fabric belt. No spaghetti straps or bare midriffs and no offensive words or images. I also had three pairs of shorts. I needed to know if I should expect Mrs. Rupert to chase me with a ruler so I took the shorts to my mother, a former fashion designer with extensive knowledge of clothing measurements.

I briefed her on Mrs. Rupert’s dress code threats and asked her how to define the “middle of the thigh.” Her answer was simple and mathematical: halfway between the knee and hip. I probed further, trying to cover every pitfall: what is the knee, exactly? the center of the knee cap? the top of it? And does hip mean the hip bone or the widest part of the butt as sizing charts show?

Together we took a tape measure to my hip bone and knee cap with the diligence of the scientific method I was taught at school. I put on each pair of shorts and my mother measured from hip to hem, from knee cap to hem, and from hip to knee cap, on both legs. She recorded the measurements, checking them two and three times to prevent errors. One by one, each pair of shorts measured exactly at the middle of my thigh. I tried sitting down and standing up a few times to make sure the shorts didn’t shift higher. Still, the hem of the shorts measured exactly at the middle of my thigh. I was ready to face Mrs. Rupert and her ruler.

Monday morning I opted for the safe choice and wore the capri pants. Instead of discussing our English essay or the math quiz results, the school day was one big fashion show. Girls twirled in front of each other and felt fabrics between thumbs and fingers. The array of outfits was astounding. Shorts, skirts, dresses, and pants. No one wore the dark blue color of our uniforms. It was a forbidden shade now, a reminder of the years spent wrapped up in the stiff skirt.

By the end of the week, the excitement of our wardrobes faded and our focus returned to school work, although we stayed on alert for Mrs. Rupert. She didn’t carry a ruler but when she was spotted, anyone wearing shorts that only reached their upper thigh scattered, running for cover in classrooms and the bathroom.

Friday that week, the temperature rose and I decided to try my shorts. I had seen so many bare-skinned thighs all week that I felt confident in my meticulously measured middle-of-the-thigh shorts. I wore an orange and white checked button-down shirt with short sleeves and olive green shorts. I felt free and light as I walked through the halls. It wasn’t an outfit that drew attention, just one that made me feel the promise of spring, before summer turns everything sticky with humidity. I forgot about the dress code and went about my day. Until lunch time.

I was at my locker, stashing my books before going to the cafeteria when I heard whispers and saw students scatter. Mrs. Rupert was strolling the hallway. I took my time and calmly closed my locker, assured in the measured validity of my shorts. She veered towards me and smiled in her mechanical way. 

She informed me that my shorts were too short. I informed her that I measured multiple times and they were exactly at the middle of my thigh. She repeated that they were too short. I lost my composure. I measured. What more could I say? Surely in a school that prides itself on academic exploration, measurements and data were indisputable proof that I was following the dress code. Mrs. Rupert calmly said, “Measurements don’t mean anything.” 

I thought I was going to faint. Here, the head of the middle school, a seasoned veteran of the education system, a woman in charge of instilling knowledge into young women was denying the validity of measurements. She was denying the very foundation of the school that she not only represented but was in charge of. I had wasted the last four years of science and math classes, learning to use the scientific method to gather reliable data to understand the world around us, only to be told that measurements are meaningless.  

She led me to her office where she held out a stiff blue skirt. I had no choice but to put it on. I took the skirt and trudged to the bathroom where I changed out of my shorts, still crisp and new, and wrapped the skirt around my waist once again. 

I hung my head the rest of the day and didn’t talk to anyone. My classmates stared at me, their heads tilted with pity, mumbling apologies as they passed. I counted the number of girls wearing shorts that were shorter than mine: 13. Why had I been made an example of? Why didn’t Mrs. Rupert value the measurements?

When I got home, I stuffed all my new shorts in the bottom of a drawer, ashamed of their meaningless measurements. On Saturday, I went shopping again but turned to the men’s section of the store instead. If women’s shorts weren’t respectable enough for Mrs. Rupert’s dress code, then I would wear the longest shorts I could find. All the shorts in the men’s section reached far below the middle of my thigh, some even covered my knees. I bought three pairs of men’s shorts with large pockets hanging off the sides, which drooped, pulling the fabric lower, hiding my thighs completely.

I wore those men’s shorts every day. When Mrs. Rupert stalked the hallways looking for dress code violations, I willed her to notice my shorts. She never did. Since I showed no skin above the knees, I didn’t warrant a second look. I hid in plain sight in baggy male clothing. I felt victorious in the subversive way I followed her dress code rules but Mrs. Rupert had actually won the battle by convincing me to keep my thighs safely shrouded in fabric. Spring was no longer a time to feel light and carefree, shedding layers of winter clothing. Instead, I was burdened by the weight of long shorts, hiding the shame of my thighs in men’s clothing as I sulked into my teenage years.

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