PAssages – 1970s – Unfair High School Dress Code for Girls

Tech Yearbook inside cover 1971

by Joan Champ

As long as there have been school dress codes, students have rebelled against them. I was part of a group of young female students who challenged my high school’s dress code back in the early 1970s. Back then, girls attending Prince Albert Technical High School (now Carlton Comprehensive), were not allowed to wear pants, trousers, jeans, or slacks of any kind to school. It was dresses or skirts and blouses only.

In those days when miniskirts were all the rage – and the shorter, the better – the whole no-pants rule was, quite frankly, absurd. Miniskirts, which had first appeared in the 1960s thanks to British designer Mary Quant, had, by the early 1970s, reached all-time popularity. It is amazing our parents let us out of our houses in the mornings, our skirts were so short. I remember on at least one occasion wearing one of my mother’s blouses as a dress to school. So, the whole no-pants dress code for girls made little sense. School administrators might have considered us much more presentable – and or at least less distracting – if we had been allowed to wear pants.

If we had lived in California or somewhere warm, the no-pants rule would have been easier to deal with. But at PA Tech, smack-dab in the middle of the frozen north, no matter how cold it was outside, girls were expected to show up for class wearing dresses or skirts. This led to awkward situations. Because many of us walked to school, we would wear pants under our skirts to fend off frostbite, then rush to the washrooms to change before heading to class. When girls went outside onto the “smokers’ step” – we were allowed to smoke at school in designated areas – they often came back into the school building with half-frozen legs. Pantyhose and tights did little to protect exposed legs from the bitter cold.

So, in the late fall of 1969, I joined a group of girls who took on the administration over its rule that said girls could only wear skirts and dresses to school and never pants. As I was a new girl at Tech and only in Grade 10 at the time, I don’t know how the plan was hatched to fight the dress code. I imagine that a few of the older girls met secretly to decide on the day of action. Word was then spread through whispers in the hallways (this was long before cell phones and social media) that all the girls, as a unified group, were going to wear pants to school on the specified day. At that time, “pants” meant a pantsuit or a matching jacket-and-slacks outfit. We weren’t asking to wear jeans to school – even though the boys could wear jeans.

I will never forget how nervous I felt going to school in pants instead of a dress on the day of the protest. Even more memorable was the sense of empowerment I felt when I showed up and saw lots of other girls wearing pants. Solidarity! Of course, we were all promptly sent home by the school administrators to change our clothes. On January 16, 1970 in the “Teen Talk” section of the Prince Albert Daily Herald, Tech’s column stated that for the past several weeks there had been meetings between the school staff members and student representatives about the question of girls wearing slacks to school. “The [students’] proposition was refused,” the student columnist wrote, “and the girls will continue to wear dresses.”

The following year, there was another dress-code protest at Tech, but again to no avail. It wasn’t until my final year of high school – 1971-1972 – that girls could finally wear pants to school. Of course, we still wore short skirts, but it was nice to finally have more wardrobe options – especially in the winter! It wasn’t until a few years later that girls were allowed to wear jeans to school, while all along boys had been wearing jeans.