Punahou students Sam Soldner and Anna Boydian, both incoming freshmen, disagree with Punahou School's dress code, which will be mandatory this fall.

Punahou’s push for modest
attire bares emotions

Some students pan a high school
dress code requiring a particular
style of skirts and shirts


Tuesday, July 19, 2005

» Anna Boyadjian is an incoming freshman at Punahou School. A photo caption on Page A6 in some editions yesterday misspelled her last name as Boydian.

The Honolulu Star-Bulletin strives to make its news report fair and accurate. If you have a question or comment about news coverage, call Editor Frank Bridgewater at 529-4791 or email him at corrections@starbulletin.com.

Sam Soldner attends pricey Punahou School, so it might come as no great surprise that she usually shops for back-to-school clothing at Abercrombie & Fitch, Hollister and other upscale clothing retailers.

But under a new policy, the school now wants her to choose from a modest list of low-key attire sold out of a company located in a hardware building in industrial Mapunapuna.

The soon-to-be-freshman is not happy about it.

"The options they gave us are disgusting. It's really dumb that we have to do this just because some people take advantage of the dress code," Soldner said after emerging from summer school in short shorts and a form-fitting top that will be taboo this fall.

The new policy, which applies to grades 9-12 and was detailed in a pamphlet sent to parents recently, is aimed at shielding the student body from a "highly sexualized popular culture" that has infiltrated the Manoa campus via the bare midriffs and other suggestive styles exhibited by some Punahou girls.

More and more schools across Hawaii, both public and private, are grappling with the same issue as the likes of Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera have pushed the female fashion envelope. Many now have rigid dress policies or outright uniforms.

But that prospect has touched a particular nerve at Punahou, where the ability to express one's individualism -- often via tony brand-name fashions -- is seen by some as an inalienable right.

"That was one of the most difficult aspects: how to balance a celebration of the individual with a sensible policy," said Laurel Bowers Husain, the school's director of development and communications.

To that end, Punahou is toeing a line between dress code and school uniform.

The Custom Co., a Mapunapuna apparel firm that provides custom-designed clothing for 21 different local schools, will produce a "Punahou Schoolwear" line, an assortment of plain polo shirts and T-shirts.

Students can wear other Punahou-affiliated shirts such as athletic-team attire, provided they are not modified, and their own pants or shorts as long as they are knee-length or longer and free of tears and other disrepair.

No skirts or dresses are allowed other than a model provided by the Custom Co.

The issue has been the most talked about on Punahou's campus during the past year, parents and students say.

Even some Punahou students opposed to any sort of dress rules agree that styles were getting too suggestive.

"Some girls were getting away with murder, like showing off their butt cracks and stuff," said Grace Son, a senior this fall who served on a committee of parents, students and faculty set up to handle the issue.

"It's gross. I don't need to see that," said Son.

But she and others complain that most of the student body is being punished for the transgressions of a few and that the new policy undercuts what makes Punahou special: a liberal, collegial community of independent-minded students.

"This goes against all that. It's like they want to transform us into robots," said Son's classmate Laura Berssenbrugge.

Husain said the school needed to replace an older policy that was too open to interpretation. The school tried to enforce that policy in the past but ran into resistance.

"Our policy before was pretty subjective. We realized it had to be more objective to make it enforceable," she said.

Though not an official uniform, Punahou's policy goes further than the likes of nearby rival Iolani, whose dress code outlaws T-shirts and requires a special pass for rubber slippers but lets students provide their own clothing and allows the display of nonschool logos.

"We think allowing them to have different choices to wear does allow them to express themselves. We just ask that they do it within reason," said Tate Brown, Iolani's dean of students.

The issue at Punahou will now be enforcement, said Punahou parent Laurel Schuster, who opposes a "blanket policy" that punishes all students.

"This won't solve the problem. There will always be people who bend the rules, who hike up their skirt or their shirt," she said. "The key will be enforcement, and that will involve more backbone on the school's part than we've seen."

However, the fact that any of this is even an issue is a good sign, said Berssenbrugge.

"I guess if this is the biggest thing that we can find wrong, then it means Punahou is doing a really good job all around," she said.

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