Why This Senior Will Break Commencement Dress Code (And Why You Can Too)

Cecelia Messbauer, Copy Editor

Over my four years at this school, during which I’ve established an editorial presence as a concerned freshman and as an unofficial columnist for The Magnet, there is only one issue I’ve been compelled to address twice. As the day of my graduation approaches, I return to this issue once again, to give the community (both the powers that be and everyone else), a fair explanation as to why I will decline to wear an “ankle length white dress” as a “female gendered student” in favor of a plain black graduation cap and gown, the kind of which is customary attire for public high school commencement ceremonies across the United States.

In my previous editorials criticizing our commencement dress code, I’ve argued that the “ankle length white dress” needlessly imbues a celebration of academic achievement with historically charged aesthetics that call up associations to the ceremonial trappings of the institution of marriage and very much embody the strict gender roles in the era from which our tradition originates. I’ve also raised the point that our conspicuous gender divisions place an undue burden on transgender and nonbinary students to find improvised compromises between conforming themselves to a highly gendered image or singling themselves out for something that has nothing to do with the diploma they are about to receive. I wholeheartedly stand by those arguments, but today I want to place our policy in the context of class, and how the institution-specific gendered dress codes of MacDuffie and other private schools are complicit in an culture that fosters elitist presumptions of the superiority of private education as a justification for the class barriers to education that private schools so often reinforce.

In other words, ankle length white dresses, in addition to (and perhaps because of) consistently being marketed as wedding dresses, are, on balance, extraordinarily expensive (Google’s first listing for “ankle length white dress,” lightinthebox.com, starts things off at $79.99).  Due in part to the labyrinth of style options, finding even a semi-affordable fit is an exhausting process. “Male gendered students” can find their blue blazers’ similarly expensive, though the relative standardization of men’s fashion simplifies the process somewhat. With a dress code like this, the cost-inefficiency and misogyny of the clothing industry poisons the run-up to graduation with a completely avoidable source of extra stress. The absurdity of the situation becomes even more apparent when one takes a cursory glance at options for conventional graduation gowns and instantly finds a website selling them for $30 in whatever color a school could possibly want to force its students to wear (of course, there’s a valid argument that schools should provide such graduation attire for free, but that’s a bridge we can cross when come to it).

So why do we still stick to our tradition? The only concrete argument that the community has publicly or privately heard against the use of caps and gowns is that, technically, they’re supposed to be for college degrees. Of course, the regalia of college graduation is distinguished by the hood corresponding the degree being conferred, which high school graduation sets do not include. Even if the argument was true, however, the number of U.S. high schools that use these sets seem to indicate that such exclusivity has been successfully phased out of any practical reality. It is noteworthy, then, that many institutions who do not use such a system are private institutions. In this context, the idea that MacDuffie traditions take precedence even in the most universal of all high school ceremonies is defended only by the assumption that we are structurally superior as a private school, or, even worse, by an unspoken insinuation that public schools only use caps and gowns because their students might not get to wear them later.

This self-aggrandizing elitism without regard to larger social forces would always be out of place in a community whose motto is Veritas, but it is especially troubling given the current climate of education policy. Betsy Devos became US Secretary of Education following a career built on gutting public schools and redistributing vital resources to subsidize wealthy students attending private, for-profit schools much like MacDuffie, in structure if not in mission. Private schools certainly have an obligation to provide the best educational product possible in order to justify their tuition, and we at MacDuffie have experienced the potential benefits of such schools first hand, particularly with our mixed community of boarding and day students. But private schools have their own weaknesses as well (our long-term struggle with racial and economic diversity among day students being a key example), and any educational discourse that casts private schools as institutionally superior to public schools is extremely dangerous.

While all of this may seem abstract, it is essential for any school that seeks to foster “intellectual habits of mind” to apply its own standards to itself and examine its traditions in historical, social, and political contexts. Given the nature of the educational mandate in the United States and the concurrent vulnerability of education as a public right, MacDuffie would do well to not seek to distinguish itself from public schools in the traditions that accompany the universal ceremony of graduation. At commencement more than any other time, it is vital to remember that we are a high school, just like any other, before we are the MacDuffie Community, est. 1890.

With these intersecting factors in mind, I cannot in good conscience represent myself at this year’s commencement with the attire of the status quo. It is my hope that this temporary disruption of aesthetic cohesion will move the conversation forward, and that current and future discussions around changes to the policy will bring us to a more reasonable place. In the meantime, I encourage anyone else who may be uncomfortable with the impositions of this dress code to do whatever is right by themselves as high school graduates. You will not be alone.