The Dress Code at My Kids' School Changed My Own Wardrobe–and Got Me Thinking


When my kids started attending a school with a dress code, I didn’t expect my own clothes to change as well.
The dress code at the kids’ new school read simply: “No clothes with words or cartoons on them.” I thought I knew why—something about avoiding unnecessary distractions in the classroom. Fair enough, I thought to myself: I want a classroom where my kids can learn.
So I got right to work. Out went all the camp shirts with the names of the camps on them, out went the matching Purple Cow ice cream store t-shirts, and good-bye to Hello Kitty imploring us to bike more often. Out went my son’s cheesy Star Wars shirt that I despised and the one with the cartoon of a motorcycle with wings on it that I had always thought was kind of cute.
I was left with stripes and solids. My kids didn’t seem to notice. When I dropped them off at school the next day I scanned the other kids’ clothes. I felt curiously refreshed being in a room without words or cartoons on clothes—something you wouldn’t have noticed unless it was pointed out to you, but once you did, it felt as restful to the eyes as quiet is to the ears after the baby stops crying.
So that night I dug deeper into their dresser drawers. I pulled out my daughter’s Dora the Explorer socks and my son’s Bob the Builder underpants.
As I sorted I wondered: Is a child promoting a camp or a company or a TV show truly an expression of individual choice? And whose choice if so? I’d read that kids as young as four and five years old are drawn to book, TV and cartoon characters on their clothes, and that by the time children are between the ages of six to eight, almost half have some say into which clothing gets bought.
The marketers call that “pester power” and they advise manufacturers to integrate “characters, symbols and images appealing to children” into clothes for little kids, according to the Mintel’s Oxygen reports. But isn’t this a chicken-and-egg thing—that’s what kids are drawn to because that’s what’s available? Maybe I mean chicken nugget and egg thing, since logos and characters and symbols are like fast food—they’re ubiquitous.
I think of myself as a really careful mom. I work hard to resist materialism and instill values in my kids. But my pile of branded and cartoon-embellished clothes that I was sorting was about to topple over! What part had I played in encouraging my kids to become billboards with arms and legs?
A few weeks later I went shopping for a winter jacket. I found a really nice white one on sale with the company name and logo on both the front and the back. That logo! Why couldn’t my wardrobe be more like that of my kids? Why did I have to pay the coat company for the privilege of promoting them both coming and going? Could I choose to do what my kids were being made to do—opt out of promoting brands on their bodies?
I took out a bottle of White-Out and began painting. First I got rid of part of the first word so the coat read “No Face.” That made me smile. Then I whited over the word “face” so it read simply “No.” I put on the jacket and admired myself in the mirror.
But then I remembered the calm, text-free classroom where I’d dropped my kids off that morning. I took the jacket off, dipped the brush back into the White-Out and painted over the last letters.
I wore the jacket like that for one day. It kept me warm. It looked stylish. But then the White-Out flaked off, and the logo…came back.