, Derry, New Hampshire

October 24, 2013

Column: Pinkerton dress codes have changed with the times

Rick Holmes
Derry News

---- — I read in the newspaper that Pinkerton Academy is once again trying to decide on what their students should wear on campus. At a parent meeting Headmaster Mary Anderson tried to sell the proposed change in policy by saying that the so called Unified Dress Code does not prescribe what a student can wear; instead it would simply “narrow down the options.” Most people I suspect would describe the new student garb as being somewhere between “preppie” and “country club classic.”

The battle over teenage clothing has been going on for decades. Usually the squabble centers on the expense of “special” school clothes and the kid’s right of self expression versus the school’s need to maintain decorum and to foster an appropriate learning environment. I don’t suppose the issue of dress codes will ever be settled to everybody’s satisfaction. I really don’t have a dog in this fight but I will help frame the debate by offering a brief history of dress codes at the academy.

As least as far back as the Civil War, there seems to have been a dress code at Pinkerton. I’m unsure if the “code” was in writing but it certainly existed. Boys always wore dress shirts and neckties. The younger boys wore knickerbockers until they were about 15 years old. The change from short pants to trousers was a kind of rite-of-passage signaling the movement from childhood to being a young adult. Similarly the younger girls wore tea-length dresses which came just below their knees and wore their hair in braids or allowed it to flow loosely down their back. By about their sophomore year, the co-eds started to wear ankle length dresses and began to pin their hair high on the top of their heads. In truth, the PA kids were pretty much wearing the same style of clothes as were their parents. All men — the blacksmith, the shoe factory worker, and the street sweeper — wore ties to work and all ladies wore long dresses.

While knickerbockers and long dresses went out of fashion during the 1920s, the academy kept in place much of their ancient dress codes. Boys were still required to wear ties unless they sported a turtleneck or crew sweater. My circle of misfits in the 1960s wore V-neck sweaters in the winter. The tie they wore underneath was in truth sliced off about 3 inches below the knot. While the school’s administration thought we were wearing a full-length tie, we had the satisfaction of knowing we weren’t. Dungarees were strictly forbidden.

The boy’s shirt tail had to be tucked in and their hair couldn’t touch their collar. Sideburns could extend only to the ear lobe. In 1970, mustaches were OK but only if they were deemed to be “neat and clean.” Beards were not allowed by either students or faculty, even if they were well trimmed and free from last night’s supper.

The PA girls were required to wear dresses, skirts or culottes. From Oct. 15 to May 15 girls had to wear either socks or nylons. The young ladies could wear slacks while going to and from the school but they had to change into the approved attire before coming to homeroom. Backless dresses had been on the no-no list since at least 1940.

These time-tested clothing regulations would pass into history in the autumn of 1970 when the New Hampshire Supreme Court ruled that public schools could no longer mandate a strict dress code. (Bannister v. Paradis, 1970) Pinkerton’s administration decided to allow its student council to vote on whether or not to keep the dress code. For most it was no surprise when the kids voted to scrap the dress code. The neckties came off immediately. Soon skirts were replaced by slacks. Blue jeans quickly became the uniform of youth at the academy.

Assistant principal Brad Ek was not pleased. He told the Derry News, “School is more than book learning; it involves social development as well. Students need some degree of guidance.” After saying that, he added “but maybe I’m all wet, too.” Mr. Ek further rationalized that if the dress code had really “encumbered” the students then he should now expect to see a thousand names on the next term’s honor role. Headmaster Ivah Hackler simply said that the students “don’t look so good this week.” According to a Derry News reporter, the typical reaction by the PA students in 1970 was that having no dress code was “neat!”

The school’s clothing restrictions after 1970 was based on what the school viewed as reasonable and what they believed would pass the court’s muster. The academy defined proper school attire as having no holes or tears and “appropriately covered the body.” Girls could not wear pajamas or dresses that were too short — either on the top or on the bottom. Also on the forbidden list were dresses with spaghetti straps. Clothing could not have inappropriate words or pictures on them, practically if they referred to gangs, drugs or sex. Hats could not be worn in the buildings.

Rick Holmes is the official town historian of Derry. His office hours at the Municipal Center are Mondays from 8 a.m. to noon and Wednesdays from 4 to 7 p.m. Several of his books on local history are available at Mack’s Apples and Derry’s libraries.