Students individualize school uniforms

| Wednesday, Aug. 22, 2012, 9:22 p.m.

Increasing numbers of students are wearing school uniforms, but they are breaking out of the lockstep, expressing individuality by wearing colorful tights, leggings, oversized scarves, jewelry, trendy shoes and hairstyles.

“Every year, when they come in the door, I learn …what's the new thing,” said Amy Nixon, head of the middle school at Shady Side Academy in Fox Chapel.

The academy, Winchester Thurston School and other private and public schools in the region give older students more flexibility in wearing uniforms or meeting other requirements of strict dress codes.

Shady Side's pre-kindergarten through fifth-grade students wear traditional uniforms: navy or khaki, nondenim bottoms, and white, navy or yellow collared tops. High school students can wear almost any type of nondenim bottoms and collared shirts.

Sixth- through eighth-graders occupy the middle, not only academically, but sartorially. They have worn leopard-print ballet flats, wildly colored sneakers, and even jeggings — stretchy leggings that look like skinny jeans — under skirts, Nixon said.

“We go around and around with jeggings. We have not forbidden them,” she said.

“I think they give us enough freedom, so it's not boring, but I mean we could have a little more freedom in what we wear,” said Shady Side eighth-grader Claire Holthaus, 13, of Fox Chapel. She said she would like to wear patterned clothing.

At Propel Andrew Street High School, a Munhall charter school that requires uniforms, students express their creativity on their heads, Principal Angela Allie said.

“We have a variety of hairstyles from the young boys and girls, who might dye their hair a certain color, who might wear mohawks, who might wear some very retro hairstyles that are coming back into style now,” she said.

The percentage of public schools requiring uniforms increased from 12 percent in 1999-2000 to 19 percent in 2009-10, according to the U.S. Department of Education. The percentage of principals who reported a strict dress code increased from 47 percent in 1999-2000 to 57 percent.

Advocates say uniforms or dress codes reduce disciplinary problems, and say studies show they improve academic performance. Opponents say the studies are inconclusive and uniforms stifle self-expression.

Sewickley Academy does not have a uniform, but a dress code bans jeans, flip flops and shirts with writing, said Kolia O'Connor, head of school.

“It allows our kids to have a degree of flexibility in how they dress,” he said.

Still, the dress code is strict enough to reduce distractions, said Lorraine Houston of Bradford Woods, a mother of three children whose youngest child is a junior at Sewickley Academy.

“And as many distractions as you can reduce from a young person's life and keep them on task, I think that's a good thing,” said Houston, president of the academy's Home and School Association.

Officials from single-gender schools said students seem not to be as concerned about fashion because they don't feel pressure to impress the opposite sex.

“They're not dressing to impress each other and there are no girls here, so they're not dressing to impress the girls,” said Chris Brueningsen, head master at The Kiski School, a 200-student boys' boarding school in Loyalhanna. Kiski does not have a uniform. Although students must wear jackets, ties and collared shirts, they can be any color.

Tory N. Parrish is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-380-5662 or

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