The Education Edition

The Making Of.

Susannah Emerson


I had a version of The Education Edition nearly ready to go in September 2016. I was going to make a collared sweatshirt, only the collar was going to be put on backwards, so that it opened just beneath the base of the skull. The idea was that the piece would technically adhere to enough traditional dress codes to serve as a very small middle finger to the man since the collar would be put on backwards & sweatshirts generally aren't dress code appropriate attire. I wanted to be light, flippant, and very serious.*

*I planned to cover the ways that dress codes oppress, colonize, and humiliate. I planned to talk about how if a dress code's aim is really egalitarian, the uniform does an infinitely better job at sameness. Most of all, I wanted to talk about how dress codes affect middle and high school-aged girls. How through policing the clothing of 12 year olds, we teach them that they are sexualized long before they themselves have become sexual. They are told not to wear leggings or spaghetti straps or to bare midriff, cleavage, thigh. Often, the enforcers of these rules are male teachers and administrators who are two, three, four times the girls' age. Often the rules forbid looks or shapes that are nothing more than the hazards of putting the female body in clothes. 

These rules tell girls that their bodies are wrong. There are girls who are tall enough that any skirt could be "too short”; girls who have ample enough breasts that no shirt will make them look smaller; girls with hair that won't lie flat; girls with thighs or butts or middles that jiggle no matter what they wear. Dress codes expect these girls to relax their hair, take their clothes to the tailor, wear layer upon supportive layer. They force girls to invest their time and money into controlling their "indecencies." It's an enormous imposition, and it's senseless that we relate any of this to decency.

The indecency is in the mind of the beholder. These girls cannot see themselves when they walk through the hallways. Many are innocent enough to walk only for themselves, without the knowledge that to the world their walk, their appearance, their stature, their clothing is not theirs. It is spectacle. It is political. Many do not know that just by walking they attract the sexual attention of predominantly male classmates, parents, administrators, custodians. Many do not know that an exposed bra strap or a short skirt could signify easy access, and many who do know, know only in the abstract. They know only that they imitate powerful, successful women - older siblings, models, pop stars. They dress themselves to get a piece of the social capital they can see but do not understand. They only know that they too want to be desired and admired. They do not know how much misogyny and hatred is wrapped up in the desire and admiration that many of these same women find.

This is the seed of one argument for dress codes: girls need to be taught was is and isn't appropriate. To proponents, I see your point. (Though, it's worthwhile to investigate who originally decided what is and isn't appropriate for the school or workplace. Was it not men of means and power?) But must it be the girls who adjust? To use the familiar language, must we insist on corrupting the innocent? What exactly is the problem with their naïveté? I'm not sure, but I do know that our solution has been to bend the girls. This is a problem. They are taught that it is their responsibility to keep boys from getting distracted. This is a problem, especially seeing as enough of these girls are too young for this reasoning to make any sense to them.

However, these dress-code pieces, both written and sweatshirt, never got put together because I was unprepared for the hazards of outsourcing production, and still dealing with some mishaps related to The Shorter & Longer Tees.  However, by the time the sweatshirts themselves were scrapped, I had already put together content I cared about, and I had already solicited the help of contributors who I am determined not to disappoint. (Three pieces in the current iteration of The Education Edition date back to that time: The Happiest Student in America, The Dream School, and The ABCs of My Literary Education.)


So I was sitting on a theme for the edition, and needed to find a product that would fit inside its scope, when I shipped myself a batch of Shorter & Longer Tees from my warehouse. I had planned to inspect and then distribute these tees amongst boutiques interested in carrying The Keep Collection, but all of the shirts sent to me had botched necklines. I issued a warehouse-wide inspection and learned that all remaining t-shirt inventory was "defective" (i.e. not what I had designed, i.e. didn't meet my standards, i.e. there was no way I was going to charge people money for them). What to do? Eventually, the obvious answer dawned on me: repurpose the dud shirts for The Education Edition. I had some hundred shirts sent to my living room, and after a few rounds of experimentation, I hand cut "anti-collars" into the partial dud shirts (i.e., shirts with a serviceable, symmetrical collar),  ripped off the collars of the total duds, and patted myself on the back for preserving the spirit of "futile iconoclasm" that sparked the original, if unborn, reverse-collared sweatshirts.

Some think to take a stance against dress codes is to split hairs. I disagree. I am so passionately anti-dress code in part because of they propagate the prejudicial hierarchy of privilege, and yet, it's not only a privilege to spend any time thinking about dress codes at all - let alone be writing about them for a readership - but it's also a privilege to be able to thwart a dress code in safety. My hips are narrow; my chest is flat-ish; my skin is white; I spend money on new clothes, and I am well enough groomed, so dress codes care a little less about controlling me. I do not look "unruly," and I am presumed to be already tamed.

To reverse, rip-off, or cut-out a collar is to make an angsty, slightly-punk-but-barely statement about the oppressive nature of dress codes. The stakes are not high for me, nor were they for my father. As a teenager, my dad wore a yellow Lacoste polo that his parents had given him until it faded, at which point he ripped off both the alligator patch and the stiff collar, so that there remained an unfaded yellow alligator shape on the chest of the shirt and a frayed neckline where the collar used to be. Like me, my dad made statements for his causes and some were too benign to be understood, let alone cause controversy. Like me, sometimes his primary cause was self-differentiation.

I was the kind of kid who used to think dad's righteousness and doctored shirts were the epitome of cool. I wore this particular de-collared, yellow shirt throughout high school and college (I had & have a thing for my dad's clothes, clearly). Eventually, I began to think of this shirt as the epitome of cool in the worst way. It brandished both a protective status marker (the shadow of the Lacoste alligator, standing in for money or privilege or the power of the institution) and the holier-than, over-it attitude of suburban rebellion. You have to harness some kind of power to access "cool."

If for a moment we were to pretend that the imposition of a dress code was the world's greatest horror, or even just a topic of consideration for anyone but the luckiest few, ripping a collar off a shirt would still be a questionably effective form of protest. After all, one would need to have owned a collared shirt in the first place, and wouldn't a fishnet bodysuit or a tank top be a greater departure from the offending status quo?

I'm slightly more forgiving of my dad's yellow shirt now, and I would have to be, to make and sell The AntiCollared Tee and The DeCollared Tee, or to have thought up the unborn sweatshirt in the first place. I'm okay with the fact that my idea to talk about dress codes vis à vis a sweatshirt is totally stupid. It's obviously useless, and it's obviously in line with the annoying habit that the fashion industry has of mistaking adopting a look for championing a cause (see the safety pin phenomenon, post-Trump's election). But then again, we do use clothes as mouthpieces all the time. Plus, I have real problems with dress codes. And then also, I had a lot of imperfectly collared shirts on hand that I didn't want to go into a landfill!

I might roll my eyes at my father for editing his t-shirt in order to demonstrate that he was not the type to wear Lacoste, wearing Lacoste all the while. I also recognize the impulse. I, from the many places in the world where I sit, have both spurned and admired my father and myself for our ambivalence towards dress codes and most other things. I have criticized myself for thinking up this sweatshirt concept in the first place, and then criticized myself for changing direction

Here is The Education Edition, and it, like its shirts, is full of loose ends, caveats and statements I might someday disagree with. I am leaving it be because I believe that if education leads to anything, it leads to multitudes, to ambivalence, to being both.