Catholic High School Students Are Unrelentingly Inventive

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Photo: Cristo Rey New York High School

The theme for this year’s Met Gala, the fundraiser Anna Wintour uses to torture celebrities with networking and long-trained gowns, is “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination.” The Met’s upcoming Costume Institute exhibit will display a selection of ecclesiastical garments and accessories on loan from the Vatican, but these holy objects are not where the imaginative Catholic aesthetic is best on display.

No, it’s not in the church’s vestments, nor its tiaras. It’s not in its bejeweled miters, nor its felt flags displaying the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit that are used to decorate the altar during confirmation time. Nah-uh. Those who attended Catholic school, like I did from first to twelfth grade, know the imaginative Catholic aesthetic is on display best in the small, desperate ways that students try to augment and subvert their lame, boooring Catholic school uniforms.

I recently visited a school in flux in this regard: Cristo Rey New York High School in East Harlem. It’s a Catholic, co-ed college preparatory school with an emphasis on work-study. From freshman to senior year, the students spend one day a week in a corporate office, doing administrative tasks and beyond. The system shows the students what a real-world work environment is like, and how to act and appear professional — and that’s where the uniforms come in.

Oh, the dreaded uniforms.

This is only the second year Cristo Rey students have had uniforms. “We have what we call a pre-approved dress code,’” Adriane Castillo, managing operator of the work-study program, told me, laughing. “That’s the terminology we like to use with the students.”

Previously, the school’s dress code emphasized business-appropriate attire and offered suggestions, but didn’t mandate any garments in particular. The administrators felt that a switch to uniforms — sorry, to pre-approved dress code — would keep parent-teacher conversation focused on how the kids were growing as students and professionals, rather than whether their clothing choices fit the standards of professionalism held by the school. In the time before uniforms, the student-dubbed “old dress code” period (O.D.C.), most of the kids got their clothes from places like H&M. Now, they get their slacks, skirts, blouses, and button-ups from Flynn O’Hara.

Oh, the dreaded Flynn O’Hara.

Flynn O’Hara is a popular Catholic school-uniform retailer. As a student, my uniform also came from Flynn O’Hara — a plaid or solid gray skirt, a blouse, and a sweater-vest featuring our school’s crest. Cristo Rey’s offerings are similar, Ms. Castillo told me. “For our gentlemen, they have options in the color of slacks that they’re purchasing, and shirts.” To accessorize, she said, boys can choose whichever tie, belt, and dress shoe they want, as long as the shoe holds a shine. “For our young women, we have pre-approved dress pants, and dress skirt styles, and colors that they can choose from. They have an option of wearing a long-sleeve or a short-sleeve dress shirt,” she said, adding that female students can choose plain, solid-color tights, and black dress flats.

“It took some adjustment,” Castillo said. “I don’t want to say that our first conversation was happy — like, Oh, Ms. Castillo, yes, I see what you mean! — it took some time, it took some convincing.”

Personally, I — a much more obnoxious high schooler than those at Cristo Rey — was always looking for ways to subvert my Flynn O’Hara dress code, finding things that weren’t technically against the rules, but were not technically a part of the dress code either. Platform shoes, pins featuring the faces of various members of The Clash, ties even though ties were just for the boys (which I still believe is rude), and hair that looks dark brown under most lighting until you get out in the sun and actually it’s purple. I would get away with these technical loopholes briefly, until school administrators caught on and made them technically loopfilled.

For Cristo Rey students, that little bit of rebellion in seen mostly in shoe choice. “I think a universal gray area for our students is moccasins and Toms and those kinds of shoes,” Castillo said. “They have a difficult time understand why those aren’t professional, even though they’re flats.”

On work-study day in the school’s parish hall, the students line up before filing out to their respective jobs, boys on one side and girls on the other, for uniform check. I visited on the juniors’ work-study day — a group that only indulged in O.D.C. for one year before the switch to the pre-approved dress code.

“I like old dress code better,” a student told me excitedly and immediately — she had been told in advance of my visit and was eager to air her grievances to the press. “Yeah, I LIKE OLD DRESS CODE BETTER!!!!” a few others agreed, all of them giggling and in good spirits, despite the restrictions of new dress code. “It saves time in the morning now…” one admitted, kindly reaching for something positive to say.

Another uniform work-around rampant at my high school was the skirt roll. What you did was roll your skirt once or twice with your blouse tucked in, then pull your blouse out a little at the top and fold it over the rolled top of the skirt. This produces the optical illusion that, in fact, your shirt is tucked in right at the top of your skirt, which is certainly not rolled. It is extremely unconvincing. If I’m not mistaken, I saw this skirt-rolling technique employed by at least one student on the day I visited Cristo Rey, and I’m happy to see it lives on. (Unless any Cristo Rey disciplinarians are reading this, in which case I did not see it and in fact never did it myself.)

I asked the group of students that formed around me, mostly girls, how they personalize their uniforms. “I don’t really see my personality at all. When I’m at school I feel like I’m not myself,” one said, laughing, to the horror of Ms. Castillo. “I mean, you can match your tights with your skirt. Or your shoes with your shirt. It’s mostly just matching,” said another. The girls were dressed in skirts and blouses, mostly navy blue and, indeed, matching. One had on a hoodie with a leather biker jacket, and another matched her eyeshadow to her yellow blouse. The young man had on a hoodie, but the students clarified that, in class, that would have to be removed, so it basically doesn’t even count.

Depending on which office they worked in, the uniforms were either a positive or negative. Some had more formal work environments in which they fit right in, but others were more casual. “Sometimes I wear my sweater at work,” one young woman told the group, “and my coworkers are like, ‘You look like Harry Potter!’” What! Oh my god. Everyone was resoundingly aghast. “Nah-uh!” “What?!” “Are you serious?!” “I swear they say that,” she confirmed. “I’m like, ‘Are you serious?!’

“It would be nice to come to a compromise where we can wear our black sneakers throughout the week on school days, and only have to wear our flats on workdays,” the young woman who felt she didn’t see her personality at all offered. “That’s not bad,” another student agreed, adding, “It’s not like bright pink — black is neutral.” A good point, if I’ve ever heard one.

“So, I’m listening and I’m not responding, because I’m not the only decision-maker,” Ms. Castillo said to giggles from the group. “But you’re a voice out there,” they countered. “Oh, I’m certainly a voice, and I’m happy to support that. What I will support is if you arrange a meeting with me and [principal] Mr. Ford.” “He’s too busy!” “He’s always busy!”

Plus, they’re afraid of him. “Mr. Ford is scary,” a student told me. “He’s not actually scary,” Ms. Castillo clarified. Okay — they agreed that he’s not actually scary, “he’s just an authority figure” and “a silent killer.”

“He’s not a silent killer!”

“YES HE IS!!!!!!!” the students countered, giggling. “You never know when he’s in a room!”

“He’s just silent!” Ms. Castillo said. “He’s like the silent type. He just wants to reach your souls. He wants you to understand.”

“He’s nice, we’re just joking,” a student told me, making sure to get that on the record. Thank you, and noted.

Right before I left with Ms. Castillo, the sneaker advocate ran up to us. “I’m gonna start a petition!” she said, “So we can wear black sneakers!” (She explained that she knew she was going to be able to get a lot of signatures.) In her courage, I saw the resolve of every uniform-augmenting Catholic high school student who came before her; in her light, I saw each of the seven gifts of the Holy Spirt — wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and fear — all of which I learned from felt flags on the altar during Confirmation time.

Though Ms. Castillo couldn’t guarantee a result from her petition, she absolutely encouraged her to try.

Catholic High School Students Are Unrelentingly Inventive