How to make a dress code unworkable

In recent years, I have grown a little more conservative about, for instance, the question of dress in church. I do think there are limits to what people can wear when going to church, whatever the denomination, because—whether or not there is a gendered agenda behind it—there really is a long-standing social norm that the holy and the sacred (I make no distinction) requires, no demands, a certain kind of decorum. 

When it comes to universities, though, that is another story. I am often saddened that we who were not colonized by the British took up the American position that such decorous things are “undemocratic.” So things like academic dress are often an afterthought, often made badly, and often not worn. I also reject, as a kind of cultural counter-imperialism, some things that distance us from the origins of the university in terms of “our cultural norms.” For the university, a symbol of the universal, must be acknowledged as deriving part of its essential legitimacy in what anthropologists would call “myth and symbol,” which ought to be trans-cultural. It started from a system of myths and symbols which give meaning to our world, whether they are those of Christianity or that of Islam. (Al-Azhar is older than Paris, mind you.)

In principle, then, I would definitely demand some restrictions on the way we in a university must act and behave, consistent with a Christian position. Such a position can be summed up in a Pauline passage, Philippians 4:8, which ends a series of exhortations Paul makes to the saints in Philippi, and of course Matthew 25:31-46 and the whole of 1 John. Taken together, these would enable us, by virtue of Ricoeur’s “surplus of meaning,” to interpret them in such a way that it would supply us with the foundations of “the ethics of a Christian university.”

But in practice, such ideals are unworkable and difficult to apply if we are to impose them. If, for instance, a certain university decides to suddenly demand, after a long silence on the matter, a dress code, it would be immediately unpopular among many sectors. I would feel that such a proposal, as I have heard it mentioned to me, would be incomplete and inadequate simply on the grounds that it does not take advantage of a certain “power of myth,” as Joseph Campbell would put it.

So there are three things that should be done in order to make it a complete proposal:

1. The high school attached to that university, prior to adopting a uniform, had a dress code which I still feel is workable. However, the present proposal only requires this dress code, that of the collared shirt for men, of one particular faculty. I think it is unjust and unfair to impose it on one group; the rule must apply to everyone without exception.

2. The same high school also required, on certain days in the 1996-97 academic year, that students and faculty wear formal attire on some occasions. This is for me reminiscent of the rule in the great universities of Oxford and Cambridge that certain occasions require academic dress and formal “sub fusc,” which include dinners, convocations, and examinations. I would mandate that certain days of the year be so designated as “dress-up days.” On these days, all students, faculty, and staff, must wear either formal attire or a special uniform (for staff), and if possible faculty should wear academic gowns or similar attire (like the UP sablay) according to their degree when giving classes or examinations. I would nominate any major feast of importance to that university, especially those of the Blessed Virgin Mary, as such a “Red-Letter Day,” which is exactly what these days meant in the universities I mentioned.

3. Finally, in keeping with the need to recognize that there are those set apart by both church and society to perform sacred functions, I would mandate that members of the religious community operating that university, members of any religious community, and all ordained ministers and seminarians, should wear the habit appropriate to their state of life. On ordinary days, they would have to be held to a higher standard of dress than all other students, so for priests the cassock, long-sleeved barong or any formal outfit with Roman collar is a must. On red-letter days, all of those I mentioned must wear the cassock or other habit with the kind of underclothing mandated by custom for liturgical ceremonies. (Protestant pastors would have to wear a Geneva gown.)

Why would I mandate a stricter dress code than the one proposed? Well, I would like to ask anyone in that university if they really stand for what Philippians 4:8 wants us to uphold. And I would say that, in the light of our origins and values, such a radical proposal is justified.

And, of course, unworkable.

ETA: The university in question may be known to some readers, but since the proposal in question is conspicuously absent from its public portal, I’d rather keep the university’s name a “blind item.”

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