By Ken Trainor
Why are OPRF High School's graduation dresses so important to people? (And why is there never a controversy among the guys?)
The latest dress debate resulted from the fact that fashion prodigy Tavi Gevinson wore a short skirt at graduation. Some claimed — incorrectly — that she was the only one. Our photographer, who pays attention to such details (don't take that the wrong way) and who has no dog in this fight, reported seeing several other short skirts but didn't take any photos of them because it never occurred to him something like this would be a controversy. That shows how level-headed he is, and it's probably how most of you feel about it, too. But for our online obstinates, this is extremely important.
According to the Web comments, Tavi was the only one who skirted the rules, so to speak, so she must have received special consideration, being famous already (in certain circles) at a young age and also the daughter of Steve Gevinson, District 200 board member, who delivered the most dangerous and divisive speech in the history of commencement ceremonies (in their ever-so-humble opinion).
But as you can see from the accompanying photos, not only was Tavi not the only grad to wear a short dress, this wasn't even the first year it happened (which may disappoint our fashion trendsetter). The photos, left and right, are from last year's graduation ceremony.
Neither is this the first controversy involving graduation dresses. Back in 1998, Genevieve York-Erwin (who is now a litigation attorney with Cooley LLP in Manhattan) chose not to dress for graduation at all if she had to don the dress. Thank God we didn't have online comments then. The print letters alone were off the charts. But the world didn't end in spite of it all and the following year, the high school, showing admirable flexibility and diplomatic skills, amended the dress code to add white pant suits as an option.
The high school evidently amended the code again to allow short skirts as long as they are semi-covered by a long, open "wrap," so Tavi violated the (amended) rules, some critics insisted, by eschewing (no, not chewing) the wrap. What if everyone started flouting the amended rules? Where would we be then? Presumably we'd be at another amendment. And the republic, not to mention our villages, would somehow survive.
I can hear the wailing and gnashing of teeth already. Where will it all end? Well, more than likely just above the knee. I doubt we'll ever have graduates wearing white hot pants, though you never know. If necessary, we can always fall back on the default setting — caps and gowns — which could even be white if people feel strongly enough.
And tradition is what many people feel strongly about. Some seem to believe tradition should never change (like Tevye the milkman in Fiddler on the Roof, which, coincidentally, was the winter musical this year at OPRF High School). Others feel just as strongly that tradition should evolve — like Tevye's daughters, you'll recall, and Steve Gevinson's daughter, come to think of it, and the commencement speaker himself, whose talk was titled, "A great, evolving tradition."
A lot of people were offended that he dared to pair the words "evolving" and "tradition." He was talking about more substantive issues than women's apparel, but he might as well have been talking about long dresses, which seem a sacred symbol to some.
In my view, they are a quaint reminder of a more formal, elegant era, and there is something to be said for "unifying" the overall look of the class. But should this be where we draw the (hem)line? It depends, I guess, on what final message we want to give our graduates as they head off into the world. After 18 years of raising and educating them and turning them, we hope (Steve Gevinson's expressed hope, too), into independent thinkers, do we want our final collective value statement to be that uniformity is prized above all else?
Or is it that rules, while important, must be flexibile, with room for individual alterations?
We are, after all, launching them into a world that will change drastically by the time they're our age, and, as both Gevinsons pointed out (one with a verbal statement, one with a fashion statement), they grew up in an evolving community (excuse me, two evolving communities because River Forest has also been transformed, both towns having changed with the times and for the better). So we prepared our children well. They accept diversity, not to mention change, as the way of the world — not adherence to rules for the sake of adhering to rules. A careful look around the sea of graduates on June 1 revealed that some young women wore white while others wore off-white, so we have altered our very definition of "uniformity."
We don't all need to look alike. That was what our kids learned on the first day of school, and it should be our final message as we send them into a wider world that is ever adapting and evolving, not always — but usually — for the better.
The online commenters are in full fury over this, but they're always in full fury. It's their defining characteristic. Let them fume. The real question is what it has always been: When is it better to hold fast to the rules and when is it better to show some flexibility?
OPRF made the right call, which isn't a surprise.
They are, after all, a great, evolving tradition.