Dress Codes and Common Courtesies

Editor’s note: Mr. Michael J. Connolly grew up in Essex, MA and is now a professor of history in Indiana. Mr. Connolly is a regular contributor to Imaginative Conservative as well.

His piece was a very timely submission, as I have evolved too with civility and how to reinforce it here. As I enter my fourth year with the site, I have developed a vision for civility here and on the FB group that simply does not allow anymore for personal references unless they are positive. If you can’t make your point without insulting the person you are making your point to, well, then, you can’t make your point. Connolly notes in his piece that his alma mater, St. John’s Prep, has not relaxed their dress code but has in fact, in the period since his graduation, “tightened” it. I hope to have done the same tightening with regard to civility and respect and inclusion here at Ivy-Style.

In the autumn of 1985, I began my first semester at St. John’s Prep in Massachusetts, a private Catholic school on Boston’s North Shore.  We were known as “Preppies” in those days and attending St. John’s carried tremendous social cachet.  Upon hearing you attended the Prep, some would raise their eyebrows and say, “That’s a wonderful school,” while others would reply with bitter sarcasm, “Oh, the Prep, aren’t you fancy.”  God, how I relished that reaction.  Yet, the transition from public school to the Prep was not an easy one.  You left behind childhood friends, most of whom you never saw again, and entered a Lord of the Flies sorting ritual, with strangers becoming friends (or not) and forming new cliques.  Sociology dissertations could be written on the ordeal.

When my mother dropped me off on the first day, I left the car with a lump in my throat with little sense of where to go.  In Xavier Hall, whose magnificent 1911 spire towers over campus and symbolizes the school, lost freshmen like me wandered the hallways anxiously searching for their first period classrooms.  Our daze united us, while the more experienced upper-classmen marched the corridors with precision.  At least, it should have united us.  For I was a fourteen-year-old apart.  On my feet, I wore sneakers.

In those days, St. John’s had a basic but strict dress code – shirts with collars, no jeans, and no sneakers – enforced by the “Dean of Discipline,” a title later softened to the anodyne “Dean of Students.”  I wandered the first-floor (I recall the moment vividly) and coming at me was the Dean.  He made no eye contact but was instead (with arms clasped behind his back) glaring at my feet.  I didn’t understand at first.  “What are those?” he asked me firmly.   Then, as we say in New England, “Light dawns on Marblehead” and I looked down in horror.  In our nervous hurry to prepare me for Day One, my parents and I forgot the sneakers edict.  Shirt and pants accorded with the dress code, but not the shoes.  I must have turned purple with embarrassment and he mercifully directed me to change my ways for tomorrow.  It was a mistake I never repeated.

The Prep dress code once required students to wear jacket and tie but was dropped in 1975 for the shirt and shoe policy I experienced.  The liberalized code allowed for a wide diversity of expression from the sublime to the preppie super spectacular.  Most of us donned the informal Ivy look of striped and solid Oxford button-downs and khaki pants, tied together with London Fog jackets and crew neck sweaters.  We must have floated Sebago, Sperry, and Dexter upon oceans of profits, as it seemed everyone wore boat shoes even in winter.  We were a Sebago family and I wore through a pair every year.  A select few embraced the Reagan Era preppie zeitgeist with gusto.  I recall seeing a classmate in the library with Kelly green pants, pink polo, and navy-blue sweater around his neck, tied together with Bass Weejuns (no socks, of course).  The memory still sears my retinas thirty-eight years later.

Some rebelled against the code.  The open insurrectionists attempted black jeans or even an occasional collarless shirt, but the teachers reported them and the Dean hauled an unfortunate few to his office for a “talking to” that often ended in tears.  The more sophisticated objectors wore leather jackets or fixed their hair like Flock of Seagulls or in a mohawk, providing an odd contrast with their other attire.  All this was tolerated, if scorned.  Curiously, the secular male teachers (the older Xaverian Brothers wore black cassocks) who rounded up code scofflaws seldom set memorable stylistic examples.  They mainly wore workmanlike blue and brown suits, white shirts with standard straight ties, perhaps a blue blazer or two.

Sometimes, school events necessitated a jacket and tie – or more accurately, this was “expected.”  When I participated in “Mock Trial” exercises, I naïvely didn’t understand these expectations and arrived in a maroon-stripped OCBD and matching 1980s square-ended maroon knit tie.  Everyone else wore the “Uniform” of blue blazer, white or blue OCBD with red tie, khakis, and leather shoes.  I recall the pitying look on my teacher’s face upon witnessing my outfit, holding back comments lest he offend.  Upon discovery, however, my mother was appalled (embarrassed might be more accurate) and at our next trial meeting I arrived in uniform like my classmates.

The dress code jolt faded with time and how we dressed became second-nature.  Most students didn’t need to be told anymore, a result the school intended.  You wore boat shoes or loafers and an OCBD, even on weekends away from school and out came the Uniform for more formal occasions without a second thought.  It’s what you did.  We developed the unconscious habits of dress that remain with us today.  Preparatory school prepared us academically for college but also personally in how we presented ourselves to the world.

The late P. M. Forni in Choosing Civility wrote how good manners signal a basic awareness of other people’s existence: “Courtesy, politeness, manners, and civility are all, in essence, forms of awareness.  Being civil means being constantly aware of others and weaving restraint, respect, and consideration into the very fabric of this awareness.  Civility is a form of goodness; it is a gracious goodness.”  As a kind of civility, our Ivy-infused school dress code forced us to reassess the meaning of “self-expression,” orienting it away from a narcissistic “doing as one likes” to a thoughtful consideration of situation, obligation, and the presence of others.  The key word here is “restraint,” not in squelching self-expression but maturely balancing social expectations with the self.  “The unruly, the brazen, and the reckless give self-expression a bad name,” Forni warned.  “Going through life under the sway of unchecked impulses may count as self-expression, but it is irresponsible self-indulgence – and painful collisions are sure to ensue.”  The Prep taught us to discipline ourselves in study and in dress, and the Uniform became the outward symbol of a disciplined and mature mind.

Flipping through the current St. John’s Prep student handbook, I’m delighted to see the school tightened its dress code since my time.  As much as high learning expectations promote “mutual respect and personal growth” in students, the handbook states, a dress code also “shows a measure of commitment to the community and builds a sense of common mission.”  Shirts must be solid or striped OCBDs or solid polos, always tucked in and buttoned, and pants must be of solid color and in good repair.  Hoodies are forbidden.  Black or brown leather shoes and socks are required.  Hair must be trimmed neatly, in its natural color, and never touch the collar.  Shirt and ties are always worn at formal school occasions.  From photos I’ve seen of recent students in their blue and white school ties, the Prep struck the right balance between self-expression and self-control.

In a fit of nostalgia, I picked up a pair of old Sebago Docksiders recently and the simple act of seeing them on my feet triggered a wave of memories.  Walking across the leafy Prep campus on New England autumn days, squeaking through the hallways after a rain, chatting with friends about our college plans in the green grass of Spring senior year.  Alas, my feet now hurt.  Much like home, I guess you can’t go back to school again.

  • Michael J. Connolly

20 Comments on "Dress Codes and Common Courtesies"

  1. As I like to say, “Ivy Style is the most civil corner of the internet.”

    In a country that appears to be growing more rude, coarse, uncouth, loud, cantankerous, and obnoxious by the day, one is reassured by the quiet, comfortable, soft-shouldered elegance that ivy affords.

  2. the passenger | July 31, 2023 at 9:45 am |

    A lot of this echoes my own high school experience. Mine was a boys’ Catholic high school in Rhode Island, and I entered as a freshman in the fall of 1977. At the time we were required to wear jackets, collared shirts, and ties; jeans and sneakers were prohibited.

    Prep/Ivy hadn’t really entered the mainstream, so the students’ dress ran a gamut, and while some students wore dress shirts and were more overtly coordinated in their everyday appearance, others were more loose, wearing plaid Western-style shirts and the same solid navy or black tie every day (which they kept in their lockers, and sometimes it was a clip-on).

    At the time, seniors attended classes on a separate campus, and oddly we were allowed to wear sneakers, so in the fall of 1980 many of us had a general appearance not entirely unlike photos of new wave bands of the period.

  3. Brian Luscombe | July 31, 2023 at 10:14 am |

    Well written and an enjoyable read!

  4. Old School | July 31, 2023 at 10:37 am |

    “I recall seeing a classmate in the library with Kelly green pants, pink polo, and navy-blue sweater around his neck, tied together with Bass Weejuns (no socks, of course). The memory still sears my retinas thirty-eight years later.”

    That last sentence sums up so much.

  5. Charlottesville | July 31, 2023 at 10:46 am |

    Thank you, Dr. Connolly, for your well written and evocative post. The lessons learned at school can indeed form lifetime habits, for good or ill depending on the school. Thankfully much of the slovenliness I acquired in high school was undone in subsequent years at W&L and elsewhere. I am glad to hear that St. John’s Prep is holding the line on civility in matters of gentlemanly dress as well as comportment.

  6. elder prep | July 31, 2023 at 4:23 pm |

    Your writing created pictures of a civilized world that I hope will produce many generations of well-dressed men. Thank you.

  7. Michael Powell | July 31, 2023 at 5:47 pm |

    (…unconscious habits of dress that remain with us today…)
    I started wearing blue button down shirts (that’s what we called them in the 50s) when I was 12 years old. I’ve got 8 of them in my closet right now. I went to an all-boys Catholic high school – a shirt and tie every day. I don’t own a single short-sleeve shirt today; and I’ll wear only an oxford without a tie. In high school, we wore crepe soled shoes – they made less noise in the halls, and didn’t scuff up the floors. Except for dress shoes, I still wear crepe soles (Clarks desert boots) today. In college, some guys were wearing khakis and boat shoes. I started wearing khakis then; I got my first pair of Sperrys last year. Unconscious habits of dress.

  8. Great post! One of the gems that keep us navigating back to this splendid corner of the web.

  9. @JB – Can you please help my last comment out of moderation? Thank you.


  10. NaturalShoulder | July 31, 2023 at 10:30 pm |

    I very much enjoyed Dr. Connolly’s remembrances and lessons from high school as doing so brought forth fond memories. I attended an all male Catholic high school starting in 1983 and graduated as the last all male class. We had a similar dress code to Dr. Connolly’s school and persuing old yearbooks and pictures indicated that coat and tie were required in years past. Hard to believe is was 36 years ago that I started.

  11. Bob Newell | August 1, 2023 at 1:28 am |

    I attended La Salle College High School in Wyndmoor PA from 1979-83. Collared shirt, no jeans (we cheated with cord jeans), no sneakers. I was a city kid and immediately noticed that the more well-off boys with summer homes at the Jersey shore wore Lacoste polos or OCBDs, Docksides or Weejuns. By the second half of freshman year that was my “uniform”. At 58 the button downs and polos stayed but most days I am in New Balance Running shoes.

  12. James Borkowski | August 1, 2023 at 9:11 am |

    Excellent article. I attended an all-boys Catholic school on Staten Island, New York. Dress code (in the cold months) required pants which held a crease; collared shirt, tie, and a blazer. Of course, some stretched the boundaries (polo shirt with a tie), but the dress code set a tone of respect. It also leveled the playing field between the rich kids and everyone else.
    As Byron Tully’s book teaches, it does not take much to look like a million bucks.

  13. There is a lot here upon which to consider.

    As far as schools go, RC is more Trad while Reformed is more Ivy? Prep is both/and, either/or? What might Hebrew or Greek schools have looked like in the heyday? Among society at large, are we witnessing a repaganization?

  14. There is a lot here upon which to consider.

    As far as schools go, RC is more Trad while Reformed is more Ivy? Prep is both/and, either/or? What might Hebrew or Greek schools have looked like in the heyday? Among society at large, are we now, after 1967 witnessing a repaganization?

  15. whiskeydent | August 1, 2023 at 1:58 pm |

    I’m not sure the 14-year-old me would have lasted a week at St. Johns. Oh, I said yes sir/no ma’am to all adults (still do at 64) and had impeccable table manners. Heck, I even knew how to do a formal table setting.

    But I had a smart mouth. And a potty mouth that included and still includes all the oaths that my dad, a retired Air Force colonel, called upon frequently. I drove teachers nuts with my decidedly uncivil antics and I’m sure the Dean of Discipline would’ve sent me home permanently.

    Of course I became a political consultant.

  16. Gregory Carrara | August 1, 2023 at 5:23 pm |

    I attended LaSalle Academy and graduated in ‘82…Levi’s cords, boat shoes, or penny loafers, oxford shirt, v-neck sweater and tie…I still wear the same often, except replaced the boat shoes with chukkas or something similar, contemplating some cool brown wingtips.

  17. MacMcConnell | August 4, 2023 at 2:37 pm |

    I to was a son of an Air Force colonel. I learned good manners at home and growing up in the South. I also still say sir/ma’am at 71. I never called my in-laws by their first names.

    In my family the sooner one learned good manners you graduated from the children’s table to the dinning room.

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