There are no two ways around it. Most people, before they get to New Haven, have preconceived images of Yale — the gothic architecture, the verdant courtyards, the towering spires, the impressive libraries.
There are also, of course, images of the people. F. Scott Fitzgerald expressed it well in This Side of Paradise with Amory Blaine’s observation “[I imagine all Yale men as wearing big blue sweaters].” If not sweater-wearing football players, visions of tweed-jacketed pipe smokers and blazer patch-wearing polo players certainly fit the bill. But for any freshman who arrived wide-eyed in New Haven expecting students out of Stover at Yale, the disappointment must have been shocking indeed.
It’s also surprising. Considering Yale’s reputation as an elite university with a community of intelligent leaders-in-training, one can only wonder why students don’t look the part of the Virgil-toting intellectual. The sad truth is that while Yalies may be receiving a fine academic education, many graduate completely lacking in the social education college should provide. If Yale is supposed to produce leaders, it is of the essence that her students acquire the necessary manners and etiquette effective leadership requires. Perhaps one of the most important areas of etiquette is attire, and it is an area where Yale has clearly failed to instruct her students properly.
Take, for example, any of the anecdotes with which we are all familiar. Who has not sat in a seminar with a brilliant professor, only to look over and behold a student clad in warm-up pants, a tank top and flip-flops? Who has not attended a lecture by a prominent history scholar, only to peer over a sea of baseball caps? Who hasn’t seen the same baseball caps turned backwards and worn with impunity at supper in the dining halls? Maybe you’ve seen them next to the girl who shows up for meals (and classes) in her pajama bottoms and bunny slippers.
The careless informality with which students attire themselves for important activities points to one solution: Yale needs a dress code.
Think about it. Yale is an academic community composed of some of the world’s brightest, most accomplished and most prestigious scholars. Students have the amazing good fortune to walk down the street and sit in classes and in dining halls with esteemed foreign policy advisors, leading literary critics and famed scientists and artists in their midst. But when these figures take the time and effort to share their knowledge with us, how do we show our respect? By dressing for the occasion? Hardly; we go to class looking like bums, as if attending seminar were just as important as going to the mall. In fact, most Yalies put more effort into their appearance before going to Toad’s than they do before going to class.
It’s a fact of life that the more important the event, the more formal the dress it requires. And what’s more important at Yale than learning, both in class and in the interactions with fellow students? If Yale doesn’t train students to attire themselves appropriately for these events, who else will? Yalies will enter the “real world” with no conception of what events merit nicer attire than t-shirt and jeans. As such, Yale should implement a dress code not only for aesthetic reasons (though think of the impression it would make on campus tours), but primarily out of the need to produce fully-educated graduates, and to impart a sense of seriousness and importance to the most central activities of the college.
The rules would be simple: jacket and tie (equivalent for women) for classes and dinners in the dining hall. In their rooms and in their “free time,” at breakfast and at extracurricular activities, the choice of attire would belong to students — though hopefully the increased formality of other events would spill over into the “optional” areas of Yale life. If this seems unduly strict or uncharacteristic of Yale, keep in mind that Yale had a jacket-and-tie dress code for many years, and that some prep schools still have similar dress codes and are fine educational institutions with happy students and vibrant, diverse campuses. If high-schoolers can do it, can’t we?
Clearly, the transition would take time, and for the vast majority of Yalies (and a few faculty members), it would require a concerted effort. I love my jeans and Birkenstocks as much as the next person, and I’m the first to admit that changing over to a new dress code wouldn’t be easy. But the effort would be worth it. Students would feel a greater seriousness of purpose in their academics and social interactions. Yale would be a nobler and more attractive place. Faculty would feel a greater appreciation for their time and efforts, because students would show with their attire the increased importance they attached to their classes. Perhaps most importantly, Yale would benefit from an increased atmosphere of respect. Dressing appropriately (i.e., taking one’s hat off indoors) is, at its core, a sign of respect — not only for the people with whom one associates, but also for oneself. Civility — often so sadly absent from campus interactions — would flourish.
An overly idealized vision? Perhaps. But there’s no doubt that implementing a dress code would benefit and improve Yale — for faculty, administrators and students alike. And of course there’s the admissions office — what prospective student wouldn’t want to attend Yale when they saw that the stereotypical images of tweed-jacketed men carrying a pipe in one hand and Horace in the other were true?
Meghan Clyne is a senior in Branford College.