Outrage and Rebellion Over 1970s Dress Code

3 Jan

Recently I was reminded about my days at North Bergen High School.   For many of us born in the 1950s and 1960s, going to school meant dressing up.  Girls wore dresses or skirts, boys wore nice pants, shirts and ties every day.  When you got home from school you changed from school clothes to play clothes, when we got to put on polo shirts and dungarees, they were not called jeans then.

For girls, life was a challenge when we went to the playground.  Keeping a dress in a good condition and not losing dignity was difficult.  Boys could look up our dresses.  Which, personally, I hated.   I could not wait to get home to change.

But the worst was once I got to high school.  It was a long walk, at least a mile.  Not too bad in the spring and fall, but in the winter, it was horrendous.  Walking in the snow and cold in a dress was not fun at all.   We were allowed to wear pants under our dresses, but this meant we had to get to school early and change before going to class.  No pants were allowed in school for girls.  The boys had to wear shirts and ties, where was annoying, but not as bad as a dress.


I saved my old high school newspapers, Paw Prints of November 11, 1971, and January 4, 1972, which had articles about the days of outrage and rebellion at my high school.   And I was in the midst of it, because I served on the new Student-Faculty Committee.

According to the November 11, 1971, Paw Prints, the students rebelled against the dress code!  A change had been approved by the School Board because students had been complaining about the strict dress code for a while. Girls were upset because the only changed that had been agreed on was girls wearing culottes, a sort of divided skirt; while boys no longer had to wear jackets. That was it.  The students were not accepting of these meager changes.

Although the student council president, Al, wanted to solve the problem civilly, according to the Paw Prints article, the students wanted the issue resolved.  The school board was standing firm.  The students wanted change.

Friday, October 22, 1971,  rebellion occurred. A student walkout was planned. But my memory is that it just happened.  We did not have social media then.  I remember people just having enough and wanting to protest because the adults did not listen to us!  It was a spontaneous episode.  Yes, some students had mentioned it.  But I do not think anyone thought it would really happen.

By fifth period that Friday,  about 300 students had walked out of school.   I was one of them.  Since I was on lunch break, I no problem to be honest. According to the article, parents arrived: some to tell their children to go back to classes; others to support their children’s peaceful civil disobedience.  Those of us who only left for lunch had no consequences.  Those who missed a class were given a 0 for the day.

The students’ complete rejection of the school board’s recommendations was evident.

Another rally was held that evening in Hudson County Park. At the rally, Mayor Mocco suggested that a town survey be completed to see what the community felt about the dress code. This option was accepted. The following Monday a survey of parents and residents was approved.

While we waited for the result of the survey, the school’s Student-Faculty Group, which was responsible for improving relations between students, faculty and administration, continued to meet.  We actually had discussed the dress code as well.  I say we, because I was one of the representatives on this committee.  There were nine students including the Student Council president and vice president, Al and Sue.


Two months later, the January 4, 1972, Paw Prints (exactly 46 years ago) reported the results of the survey in the school paper.  It was excellent for the students as 74 percent of the residents favored a change!!

The change was major!  Boys could wear dress shirts with or without a tie and knit polo shirts that had a collar.  Girls were now allowed to wear pants suits and dress slacks.  Specific guide lines were distributed.  The first 90 days were to iron out problems.  The biggest problem according to the article was that the girls were not following the guidelines.  The wording in Paw Prints said, “The Board has not been satisfied with student compliance with the new code and feels that many girls are breaking the limitations of the code.”   I say, “You go girls!!” The biggest problem was the definition of a ‘dress slack.’

Thus, the first rebellion and walk out at North Bergen High School ended peacefully with a win for the students.   The school quieted down and other issues were addressed by the Student Council and the School Board.

This was my first taste of rallying for a cause I believed in.   I admit as a high school junior, I was a bit nervous to walk out of school, even for lunch.  It was not something we did lightly in those days.   But I know that it gave me courage later in life to stand up for those issues I believe in!


11 Responses to “Outrage and Rebellion Over 1970s Dress Code”

  1. Mark L Westphal January 3, 2018 at 4:42 pm #

    I was inadvertently part of the walk out, I had a pass to leave school for a dental appointment at the exact moment the walkout took place. In fact as the throng was leaving one of the teachers who knew me gave me quit a look about my apparent participation and which point I held my pass up right under his nose and he laughed like hell.

    • zicharon January 3, 2018 at 6:13 pm #

      I am glad you had a pass.

  2. Luanne January 3, 2018 at 4:55 pm #

    Wonderful story! Do you remember having to kneel down to make sure your skirt touched the floor and wasn’t too short? haha

    • zicharon January 3, 2018 at 6:13 pm #

      Yes. Also we had to hold our arms straight down to see if our fingertips went beyond the bottom of the skirt!

      • Luanne January 3, 2018 at 6:49 pm #

        Yes! I forgot that part!

  3. Amy January 4, 2018 at 9:28 am #

    Boy, NJ was behind suburban NY by about three years! We rebelled in 1969 and were allowed to wear “slacks,” while boys could wear jeans! By 1970 everyone was wearing jeans to school. They’d given up the fight. And no boy ever had to wear a tie or jacket when I went to school, but girls did have to wear dresses or skirts. It always made me mad!! Great post, Ellen!

    • zicharon January 4, 2018 at 10:34 am #

      Thanks. I guess our in the suburban heaven of Hudson County, we were still compliant. But with the upheavals in the world, we finally spoke out. My understanding is this school now has a uniform.

      • Amy January 4, 2018 at 11:45 am #

        Is it a private school? I know that some city public schools require uniforms but it’s a blue shirt and khaki pants or skirt. Shirt can be a polo, but no T-shirts. But in the burbs, anything goes!

      • zicharon January 4, 2018 at 12:09 pm #

        It is a public Hugh school. And yes a similar uniform.

  4. LueAnn Reise (Morin) July 14, 2018 at 10:20 pm #

    I was also one of them that walked out. I have the photo of me marching in a line of students with petition signs, an amazing time in my life at North Bergen High Svhool

    • zicharon July 14, 2018 at 10:22 pm #

      The first time I felt that I could change the world.

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