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Roger Barbee: Clothes make the wo(man)


By Roger Barbee

My memory dates the pants to the spring of 1958. If that time is not exact, it is close enough, and I would have been 12.

Somehow and for some reason, my mother had scraped together enough money to take her six children to the Belk's department store in Charlotte, the big town near where we lived. I don't remember what clothing my siblings got, but I still can see the Chinese red calypso pants that I chose and how I wore them every day, it seems, for weeks. One vivid memory is of wearing them in our neighbor's yard one warm evening. I don't know why, but reason that I used any excuse to prance about in my flashy, gaudy pants. Another part of that memory is my mother saying nothing about my choice of wardrobe purchased by her hard-earned money hemming washcloths in the cotton mill.

Much of my professional life has been centered around the topic of a dress code. Every school that I have worked in has had a dress code, and as a teacher and administrator I took part in the yearly discussions concerning student dress.

In my experience, some of the most heated teacher meetings to be found will have "the dress code" as part of the agenda. Wrestling, the sport I coach, has strict rules concerning head and facial hair, which is needed for obvious reasons. Yet, I remember an era when a wrestler had to keep his hair short in order to compete. Thankfully, the rule now allows a wrestler to use a hair cover for his or her long hair. Yes, dress codes are everywhere. This week I received a summons to appear for jury duty and on the summons is listed two items not to wear, and "professional casual" is mentioned as the dress most acceptable.

I understand and appreciate and approve of dress codes. In fact, our wrestling team has a dress code for away matches. In order to go to another school for a meet, a wrestler has to wear a collared shirt and pants with no rips, holes, or tears. I don't want a team that arrives at another school looking like a bunch of waifs. This dress code is important because people at other locations do not know us, and I believe our first impression matters. So, when we travel we dress a bit differently than when we are home.

This past Friday, as I was directing students in setting out mats for a tournament, several of them were wearing bluejeans with holes and rips. Each time I see this dress, I ask the wearer if she or he paid additionally for the holes and rips, or was the distressing of the pants done at home. Always, the answer is, "I bought them like this." And in my memory, I recall how as a student in high school, I never wore torn or ripped clothes to school. As a younger boy, we used iron-on patches to cover holes in the knees of our jeans that were caused by rough play or time spent shooting marbles or leg wrestling. Never would we have worn any clothing that was torn. However, the fashion today, at every school I go to, seems to be ripped and torn jeans for many students.

Today, as I look at our students walking about in their paid for torn jeans, I wonder if it matters in the long run. For me, I would rather die than wear torn clothing in public. Perhaps that is a hold over from days of being poor and not having many clothes and wanting every item of clothing I wore to be "looking sharp." I remember the first Gant shirt that I purchased from Haney and Holbrooks, the chosen clothing store in our small town. It was an Oxford blue shirt, and I was so proud wearing it to school hoping that a particular girl saw me wearing it.

It is with these memories that I have to admit that if I were 15 today my jeans would have tears and holes because like every teenager today, I would want to fit in and be like all the others, but different, too. Like most fads, torn jeans will pass, I think, but regardless, we adults need to have honest memories of our youth. Chinese red calypso pants and all.

Roger Barbee is a retired educator who lives in Edinburg with his wife Mary Ann, four dogs and five cats. Email him at redhill@shentel.net.


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