OPRF's 'white dress' tradition

Opinion: Columns

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Sheila and Angelica Haennicke

Two Views

Two views of a longstanding tradition — and controversy — from two former editors of the OPRF High School newspaper, Trapeze.



"Argh, one more thing to have to worry about!" That was my initial reaction to the "white dress" tradition at Oak Park and River Forest High School. Weren't the forms and fees and meetings and performances and supply lists enough for a harried mother to manage? Now we have to find a white outfit for graduation?

Not only did I see it as an inconvenience, I also wondered about the message we were sending our girls. First a dress (OK, or pantsuit) reinforces a feminine stereotype. Then it has to be white — for what? Purity? Innocence? Those are wonderful qualities but they also connote naiveté and passivity. OPRF girls are strong, assertive, accomplished and steeped in diversity, be it economic, racial or sexual. They are trailblazers and team players, comfortable in a crowd or on their own. Our community has shaped them into young women that our world needs — open-minded and confident, courageous and compassionate.

Now you want me to put mine in a white dress? Where do I even find one?!

But a funny thing happened on the way to graduation. I stopped feeling harried about all things high school and realized that my daughter's eventful four years at a remarkable place were coming to an end. Tradition began to matter more than my busy life.

I have also been blessed with a daughter who does a lot for herself. Angelica found a dress online, for under $40, which fit perfectly. It looks like a wedding dress, circa 1969, very "Romeo and Juliet" with an empire waist and long velvet skirt. We took it to our local cleaners, and Gel made it her own, by having the sleeves shortened and the hem adjusted to her liking. Tailoring the dress symbolized to me the "fit" between Angelica and OPRF. She immersed herself in the school and emerged with her own learning, her own legacy. It's that kind of place.

Finally, I had the honor of interviewing five women who wore the same dress to their OPRF graduations. Something the youngest, Elle, said to me really hit home. "A lot of schools just do the simple and stereotypical cap and gown type of graduation ceremony, but at OPRF each student gets to pick out a certain white dress that says something about them." Elle helped me see the "white dress" tradition as a way to express individuality within uniformity, which I think is a fitting legacy for a high school as special as ours.

Like the school itself, a collage of buildings from different eras connected by a common roof, the "white dress tradition" connects our OPRF girls with all those who went before them: generations of remarkable young women, united, yet unique.

Sheila Haennicke is a social worker and writer and 1980 graduate of Arlington High School. She does not remember the dress she wore under her cap and gown.



Growing up as an "Oak Park kid," I have learned many things about honoring the rich history of this beautiful town and the innovative and accepting attitude of a cultured community. At OPRF, I have been able to discover my own passions and share them with the curious and supportive Oak Park audience. So when confronted with the tradition of wearing white dresses for graduation, the historical significance of the school and the progressiveness of the community clashed within me and left me with a hesitant, yet proud acceptance of the tradition.

While working on Trapeze, the school newspaper, I researched a bit about Hemingway and the pieces he wrote for the same paper 90 years ago. Learning about the history of the school produced an existential crisis in me; I was not the first to walk these halls and I definitely wouldn't be the last. But I also realized that though I was not entirely unique, I did add to the immense history of the school and even further, would always be part of the Huskie family. Wearing a white dress at graduation seemed like an affirmation of being in that family. I would have my own detailing and special style, but I would still be included in the honorable practice that connects each graduate to their OPRF roots.

Yet being a part of the Oak Park community is also about innovation and acceptance. As a feminist, I listened to those who gave their opinion on the sexist and submissive connotations of putting girls in white dresses. Walking through a white arch with red roses in my arms seemed like a creepy effort to keep our Oak Park girls pure and domesticated. The honor and history of the school seemed adulterated and I felt less proud of the family I so ardently attached myself to.

Conflicted, I began to think about what this tradition would mean to me. Would wearing a white dress make me feel like all the challenges and realizations that my incredible OPRF teachers conveyed to me appear insignificant? Would carrying roses and walking through an arch lead me away from my dreams to travel, learn, and discover? I concluded that the tradition, at least for me, connected me to the greatness of the school, the education, the culture, and the people, and would not be about purity or submissiveness. And just like our response to everything else, the students of OPRF take traditions or rules or standards and make them their own. I was proud of girls who wore pants suits and boys who felt that they identified with girls and wore white dresses.

More than anything, regardless of what the tradition was established to represent, I saw wearing a white dress as paying homage to my incredible four years at a richly historical school, but also flaunting the independence that I have been encouraged to activate.

Angelica Haennicke is a 2013 graduate of OPRF, where she was editor-in-chief of the student newspaper, Trapeze. She is headed to the University of Illinois.


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