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Goodbye to the Catholic school skirt

Think you can still spot a Catholic school girl by her rolled-up skirt? Many school administrators are giving up the fight over skirt lengths — either by issuing a traditional jumper or eliminating the argument with uniform pants, depending on what part of the country they're in.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Think you can still spot a Catholic school girl by her rolled-up skirt?

Many school administrators are giving up the fight over skirt lengths — either by issuing a traditional jumper or eliminating the argument with uniform pants, depending on what part of the country they're in.

The stereotypical Catholic school uniform — plaid skirts, stiff dress pants and ties — is still the standard in the Northeast. But elsewhere in the country, it's getting a little more comfortable. Hoodies, for example, have replaced sweaters in many schools.

Maintaining a uniform, even a relaxed one, helps keep discipline, administrators say. Students aren't really complaining, since they always know what to wear in the morning.

"I feel so much more free when I wear my uniform," says Caroline Swaller, a 16-year-old junior at Rosati-Kain High School in St. Louis. "I come to school on equal terms with everyone else."

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Tradition and ‘American Bandstand’High school students in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia are wearing almost the same uniforms their parents wore to school — and on national television.

"We were so enthralled with watching the 'American Bandstand' kids," says Lorraine Rice, president of Conwell-Egan Catholic High School in Bucks County, Pa., recalling the years when Dick Clark filmed the dance show in Philadelphia.

"They would show up in Peter Pan blouses and skirts, and we made our moms go out and buy them. Then I moved here, and I found out it was the West Catholic (High School) uniforms."

Conwell-Egan's uniforms harken back to that more modest era. The school recently switched back from a skirt to a jumper for its girls' uniform, and from a polo shirt to a button-down shirt and tie for boys.

"We found the girls were rolling the skirts up and it was not at all modest," Rice says. "We found the dress code was too casual and too relaxed, and we wanted to be more formal."

The length of the navy blue jumper has changed at John W. Hallahan Catholic Girls' High School in Philadelphia — but not much else. It's still worn with a Peter Pan-collar shirt, knee socks and saddle shoes.

"Our biggest concern is that they're going to stop making the saddle shoes, not that the students will want to stop wearing them," says Nan Gallagher, school president.

Khaki comfort
The uniform at Rosati-Kain High School in St. Louis sounds simple: a polo shirt with a khaki or plaid skirt or khaki pants. But the school's 400 girls still have a lot of options for comfort.

The polo shirt is available in five colors, and there's a sleeveless option for warm weather. The khaki skirt and pants can come from any store in any style, so long as they meet the color and length requirements.

The girls lobbied for a plaid skirt after the movie "The Princess Diaries" came out in 2001, principal Sister Joan Andert says. But even when they wanted a dressier skirt, they wanted more comfortable shoes, Andert says. The girls now have the option of wearing Birkenstocks and athletic shoes with their uniforms.

Most high schools in the Archdiocese of St. Louis allow students to wear sneakers and other casual attire, says archdiocese spokeswoman Sue Brown.

"Parents don't want to go buy their little ones something they'll wear only to school. We try to be sensitive to price issues for parents," Brown says.

Miami niceMiami students are definitely not at the beach, but they're not wearing skirts, either. Officials at Our Lady of Lourdes Academy in Miami began phasing out the skirt four years ago in favor of pants or walking shorts paired with tucked-in shirts and penny loafers.

Image: Catholic School Uniforms
Victoria Alvarez

"Our top priority is comfort," says 17-year-old senior Alexa Lopez. "We like our pants a little bit baggy. Sometimes the administration complains that our pants drag."

The flat-front, navy blue pants may not be trendy, but at least they're flattering, other girls say.

"They look a lot like Dickie work pants," says 17-year-old senior Annie Sullivan. "The pockets are very flattering, in the front. They don't protrude on the side of your body, not like they would on the hips."

Students express their individuality with bracelets, book bags and even pins on their ID lanyards.

Lopez decorates her lanyard with "pins for my participation in student council and the school newspaper, a pin from Disney World (which I love to visit as often as possible), and pins of my dream university, Columbia University, and the University of Miami, which I will be attending next year."

St. Brendan High School in Miami also did away with uniform skirts and gave up demanding both boys and girls to tuck in their shirts.

"We did away with skirts, because the skirts would shrink as the year went on," says Brother Felix Elardo, the principal who oversees St. Brendan's 1,200 students. "We had a battle with keeping the shirts inside, so we got shirts to be designed to be worn inside or outside the slacks."

What uniform?An Archdiocese of Portland, Ore., spokesman said, "What uniforms?" when asked about the uniform policy for its high schools. Its principals have focused on other aspects of school life, but the attitude isn't exactly laid-back.

The mantra at De La Salle North Catholic High School could be "dress for success." Each of the school's 250 students works one day a week at a corporate internship that requires business-appropriate attire. Administrators demand business attire for regular class days, too. That means shirts and ties and shined shoes for boys, and collared blouses with either a skirt or pants for girls.

"If you come to school, you will see a school full of these young people who look like they're going to work in downtown Portland," says Tim Hennessy, the school's vice president of development.

The school maintains a closet of office wear for students who forget, or try to defy, the dress code.

"They test it to see, are we really serious about this?" Hennessy says. "They come into school with the shirt unbuttoned at the top and tie loosened, and they're not allowed in the school until they're done up right."

Central Catholic High School has a more relaxed dress code, with some restrictions on piercings, the length of skirts and shorts and how tattered jeans can be. Officials say they'd like to standardize the dress code with a pair of khakis and a polo shirt, but face a fight from students and parents who prize their individualism.

"The biggest problem is V-neck shirts," says Aron Homberg, dean of students. "We have a clavicle rule — the shirt has to come up to the collarbone."