Akron Public Schools didn’t skirt the issue while enforcing a student dress code in 1963.
The skirt was the issue.
Girls’ clothing had to be “of sensible length” with a hemline near mid-knee.
Fifty years ago, local schools took extra measures to ensure that proper attire was being worn. If a skirt or dress appeared to be too short, schoolgirls could be sent to the principal’s office for a yardstick test.
“Scarcely a week goes by now without a report from some school principal on some girls wearing too short dresses or tight sweaters or too sexy clothes,” Sumner Vanica, superintendent of pupil personnel at the Akron Board of Education, lamented to the Beacon Journal in 1963.
According to the board’s revised Administrative Handbook of Policies and Procedures, adopted under Superintendent Martin Essex, principals were responsible “for evaluating the dress, grooming and personal appearance of students” and for taking “necessary disciplinary action, including suspension” when youths failed to meet “generally acceptable standards.”
Local educators thought improper attire or outrageous hairstyles would disrupt classrooms and impede the board’s philosophical goals of instilling in all pupils:
• Ethical behavior based on a sense of moral and spiritual values.
• Acceptance of individual responsibility for being a good citizen.
To meet such goals, children needed a classroom atmosphere that was physically and psychologically conducive to good behavior, the board maintained.
That went for both sexes. Boys were expected to wear neat shirts and belted, pressed, good-fitting trousers. If their hair grew too bushy or was slicked back into a devilish ducktail, a trip to the barbershop was recommended.
Vanica estimated that only 5 percent of the student population was in flagrant violation of the dress code and refused to wear acceptable clothing to school.
“They are the showoffs who want to attract attention,” he said. “There’s another 5 percent who follow along. But I’d say 90 percent of all pupils present no problems.”
Flipping their wigs
The school district had recently weathered a fad in which girls wore wigs to school. Offending students were sent to the principal’s office, where their wigs were confiscated, placed in marked envelopes and held until after class.
The wig fad ended almost as quickly as it began. William D. Pitts, principal of Thornton Junior High School, reported a more nefarious trend developing in 1963.
“Now the problem is dyed hair,” he told the Beacon Journal. “Girls give themselves home beauty treatments and some of the dyed hair is a terrible thing to behold. I’ve had to call the parents and send the girls home to wash their hair.”
Edgar H. Simonson, assistant superintendent of Summit County schools, reported similar problems with pupils in outlying areas 50 years ago.
“We believe students with bizarre clothing and haircuts should be sent home,” he said. “We also have a rule prohibiting wearing blue jeans to school. Occasionally, we find students who are trying to get away with wearing them in order to be heroes in starting a new trend.”
Girls weren’t allowed to wear pants to school. Boys weren’t allowed to wear T-shirts or short pants. Such attire was utterly inconceivable in the classroom.
Schools occasionally reminded students about proper clothing in morning announcements over the public address system. Well-dressed teachers served as an inspiration.
Vanica, a 1928 graduate of North High School, had grown up in the district, worked as a biology and chemistry teacher and counselor at Garfield and served as principal at Perkins Junior High School, so he had a fairly good concept of wholesome attire in the classroom.
Despite what students believed, principals were not “old fuddy-duddies,” he said.
In fact, he planned to propose that student councils, not principals, make the decisions on what was proper to wear to school.
“I’m sure we will find the students are more strict with themselves in most cases than their teachers,” he said. “That’s the way it has worked out in other cities where student councils prescribe the proper dress.”
Until then, students would be sent to the principal’s office or sent home to change.
“There is a mistaken notion that discipline is the same thing as punishment,” Vanica said. “It is not. Discipline comes from a Latin word ‘to teach.’ The best discipline is the kind which teaches, not the kind which hurts.”
Educators did not know they were on the cusp of a new era. A few months later, the assassination of President John F. Kennedy shattered America’s innocence.
Societal upheavals and generational conflicts were just around the corner in the turbulent 1960s, changing fashions and hairstyles — along with just about everything else.
Hair grew longer and dresses got shorter. School districts rewrote their dress codes.
Things that were forbidden gradually became acceptable.
In a tie-dye era of Vietnam War protests and hippie happenings, Sumner Vanica stepped down as Akron’s superintendent of pupil personnel in August 1970.
He was 61 when he retired to a quiet, 40-acre estate near Dover where he would never again have to serve as an arbiter of style.
“There are just as many fine kids as ever,” he admitted shortly before leaving Akron.
Even if they needed haircuts and sensible clothes.
Copy editor Mark J. Price is author of The Rest Is History: True Tales From Akron’s Vibrant Past, a book from the University of Akron Press. He can be reached at 330-996-3850 or firstname.lastname@example.org.