Boomers Had Strict School Dress Codes

This time of year, Mister Boomer recalls the daily dread he felt as the Labor Day holiday weekend approached. It meant one thing: summer was over and school was about to begin.  Another dreaded part of every impending school year was the mandatory back-to-school shopping venture. As growing boomers, clothing from the year before often would no longer fit. For many boomers, including Mister B, school clothes were different than casual clothes. School dress codes had a great deal to say about that.

Mister Boomer and his siblings went to parochial school. Therefore, girls were required to wear uniforms, and boys wore dress pants, dress shoes, dress shirts and ties. Styles and fit were strictly enforced. Girls could not have a skirt hem land more than one inch above their knees, and it was often checked with a ruler at the school entrance. Boys were allowed the leeway of a bow tie or clip-on neck tie, but in Mister B’s early days, the shirt had to be white, light blue or pale yellow. Girls had two styles of collar that was allowed on their blouses, and had to wear plaid jumpers or skirts and black patent leather shoes with a single strap over the instep — known as a Mary Jane. Boys were required to wear leather dress shoes with laces. That was all that was allowed.

Mister B’s public school neighbors had rules that were a bit more relaxed in that they did not require boys to wear ties, but their shirts were required to have a collar. It was preferred that girls wore skirts and blouses or dresses, though by the mid-1960s, pants were allowed.

As the rebel images of James Dean and Marlon Brando popularized dungarees in movies of the 1950s, kids wanted to embrace the fashion. There were protests, mild and polite by today’s standards, by students from coast to coast. Still, for several years, the students lost the argument. Long before dungarees became known as blue jeans, dress codes explicitly forbade them for both boys and girls. As loafer shoes and penny loafers became a trend, they were banned by many school districts.

The sixties changed everything, man. Many point to The Beatles for popularizing longer hair for boys, from the moment they landed in the U.S. with their “moptop” hairdos. In Mister Boomer’s observation, though, there was a sea change in 1967 after the Summer of Love. Take a look at audiences at rock concerts before that time and after, and you’ll see a marked difference in the way boys and girls dressed. Before 1967, you’d see kids dressed like they were going to school. This is quite a contrast when you view early videos of Elvis, Chuck Berry, the Rolling Stones or The Beatles, for example. However, after 1967, there were Bohemian and Eastern influences that helped to create what we now know as the clich√© of sixties fashions.

Before the mid-sixties, a great many school districts did not feel there was a reason to have written guidelines on hair. Boomer boys and girls tested their patience by adopting every trend that came along, and that necessitated a reaction to “keep the kids in line.” There were all sorts of seemingly random rules designed to limit everything from girls’ bangs and hair height to boys’ sideburns and overall hair length.

In the last half of the 1960s, school dress codes slowly began to loosen. In public schools, most school districts allowed “clean” blue jeans, and bans of loafers quietly disappeared. The styles of the day slowly brought athletic shoes into the casual realm as the ’60s became the ’70s.

By most historical accounts, the confluence of culture and modernized education methods of the 1960s altered the way dress codes were viewed. The era of Civil Rights brought about in some small measure an understanding that dress codes could be culturally biased, and it was a time when the concept of “students’ rights” was being discussed. For boomers who were in school at the beginning and end of the 1960s, there was a huge difference in what school clothes their parents were shopping for as the new school year approached.

Take a look at the way kids are dressed when they head to school today, and it appears to old Mister Boomer, there are no rules governing dress whatsoever. Mister B recalls many students in his day either altering their look once they left the house (girls rolling the waistband of their skirt to make it shorter, for example), or literally changing clothes when they left the house and again before walking into school. These fashion rebels were definitely mild compared to the beyond-casual presentations of today’s kids.

Whether boomers welcome or lament these relaxed school dress codes, today’s kids have boomers to thank for their sartorial freedom. Boomers blazed the trail over three decades to set the stage for today’s casual class-wear.

What memories of school dress codes do you have, boomers?

Boomers Wore Bell Bottoms AND Flares

As we continue to debate the great questions of the Universe (Is a hot dog really a sandwich? comes to mind), the decades-old debate of bell bottoms vs. flares continues. Through his research on the subject, Mister Boomer has discovered that even in the boomer years, the two terms could be used interchangeably. However, as in the barbecue vs. grilled semantic battle, there are key differences. What those differences are depends on your source.

For the purposes of this pop culture reminiscence, bell bottoms differ from flares in the fit and cut. Both featured separate styles for men and women. Both featured a hip-hugging fit, but flares generally displayed a physical flare of the pant beginning at the knee or mid-calf. Bell bottoms could also begin their bell-shaped flare at the knee (hence the confusion). The difference from flares is, again generally speaking, over time as the sixties became the seventies, bell bottom styles expanded to tremendous lower pant widths that encompassed the shoes entirely.

Most people know the origin of bell bottoms began as the naval uniform of American and British sailors in the early 19th century. The shape was said to be easier for rolling up to the knee if work required, and if wet, could stay further away from the sailor’s body. Exactly how they were introduced and embraced by a growing boomer generation remains in dispute. Some sources point to the habit of boomers shopping at Army-Navy surplus stores in the early 1960s, where the pants were available. Other sources point to London, where a young man had his mother alter his ill-fitting jeans to give him more room in the hip. The story says she inserted an extra panel of material that caused the flare of the pants down the leg. When fashion designers on Kings Road got wind of a growing trend among the younger set to alter their pants in this manner, they jumped at the chance to co-opt it for their own. Either way, most sources credit the music scene as instrumental in the wholesale adoption of bell bottoms and flares.

Certainly by 1968, photos showing the Beatles, Rolling Stones and Jimi Hendrix sporting flared trousers were common. By the time Woodstock happened in August of 1969, it was practically the uniform of musicians. The audience at the festival also sported the style, but it was not universal. The height of the popularity of bell bottoms and flares would not occur until the 1970s. Many credit Sonny and Cher’s TV show, which began in 1971, as the tipping point for public acceptability of the style. By the mid-70s, it was the only style available for men in retail stores, even in dress pants. The size of the flare is what differentiated businesswear from more casual.

Mister Boomer has told the story of his first pair of bell bottom pants in an earlier post (Looking for Fun and Feelin’ Groovy). For the purpose of his historical decorum, at this particular juncture he prefers to remember his pants as flares and not bells. He continued wearing them throughout the 1970s, along with his peers. However, Mister B never wanted to venture into the realm of pant legs so wide they would completely cover his shoes. It wasn’t until the early 1980s when the last of his flared pants found their way into donation bags for charitable organizations.

How about you, boomers? Did you wear bell bottoms or were they flares?