Forgotten Dress Code Revealed

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By Joe Friesen

The evidence of school’s return was everywhere this week as hallways overflowed with the teeming hordes of the double cohort. Shuffling through the absurdly re-named Podium building in their finest back-to-school fashions, the new students made subtle but significant statements about themselves through their choice of clothing. And they were all in gross violation of Ryerson’s official dress code.

Dress codes are in vogue at the moment. A number of Toronto high schools have instituted them, and no less an authority than the minister of education has argued that uniform dress makes for a better educational environment. Formality is thought to encourage serious endeavour and differences in social class and cultural sophistication are not as pronounced when everyone is similarly attired. But surely Ryerson, an institution of higher learning and alleged bastion of free thought, would have no trouble discarding an anachronistic dress code?

Alas, no. The code was instituted in 1954 by administrators who felt Ryerson needed to boost its public image.

The polytechnic, as it was then, aspired to be seen as more than a common school for mechanics. “The adult population,” said principal Howard Kerr, “will know that their children are not only going to a good course, but they are going to be taught something about deportment.”

Kerr’s code called for men to wear a shirt and tie to class. Those who refused to obey were threatened with having ‘non-conformist’ stamped on their permanent records. In those days the ratio of men to women at Ryerson was 3.5 to 1, so there were no regulations governing women’s dress. A 1968 memo, however, reveals that “extreme mini dresses” and “high boots (in the classroom)” were forbidden.

“DISCRETION comes instinctively to many people,” it said, “while others attain the ART through education.” Students even liked the regulations for a time. A student union president wrote to the principal in 1962, saying the student body was extremely proud of its reputation for having the “best dressed campus in Canada.” It lamented that some of their number chose not to adhere to the regulations and asked the administration “to enforce this dress regulation a little more strictly.”

According to Ryerson’s official histories, the dress code worked. Graduates found several jobs waiting for them after convocation. Former registrar M.C. Finley said “the dress regulations did more to raise the prestige of Ryerson in the eyes of the public and the parents than anything else we had done to date.”

Eventually the spirit of the 1960s caught up with the dress code. A 1967 student referendum rejected further sartorial regulation, but the administration wouldn’t budge, afraid, in the words of one professor, that “students will come to school looking like a bunch of bums.” Undeterred, the students held another vote six months later, with similar results.

It was thought the dress code was overturned in a 1969 meeting of academic council, but there is no evidence the subject was ever discussed or voted upon.

The truth is, the dress code was never given its day in court. It simply disappeared from the Ryerson calendar without due process, thereby avoiding a potentially messy debate.

Enjoy your fashion freedom while you can Ryerson, it could be revoked at any moment.

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