It’s an Oak Park and River Forest High School tradition that dates to 1877 — which, depending on how you feel about it, is either part of its charm and appeal or a signal of its obsolescence. Each commencement ceremony, in lieu of caps and gowns, OPRF’s young men wear dark suits and red ties, with roses pinned to lapels, young women wear flowing white dresses or pant suits. 

There are strict prohibitions. No bowties, flip-flops, slippers or head coverings for males. No jeans, Capri pants, flip flops, inappropriate undergarments, dresses or skirts split above the knee, or strapless dresses — among other prohibitions — for females.   

Again this year, seniors have been given the opportunity to vote among three attire options and while the results of that balloting have yet to be released, the debate this year has a fresh twist of gender identity and gender neutrality beliefs, among other issues. 

“The current dress code also isolates anyone whose gender does not conform to the [conventional male/female] binary,” said OPRF senior Simone Scott during a January school board meeting.

Over the years, particularly since 2000, when the district introduced a white pant 

suit option for females, the tradition has been criticized by some students for a variety of reasons. This year, the criticism prompted a vote among seniors who were asked to select among three options for graduation attire that they’d like to wear during the May 29 ceremony. The results of the vote are expected to be released shortly. 

Seniors had the options of disrupting the tradition altogether and donning caps and gowns; wearing white or dark formal attire, including expanded options for females (which would include, for the first time, the option of black dress skirts or pant suits for females and making the red tie and roses optional for males); or sticking with tradition. 

The debate and consequent vote is nothing new at OPRF. What could be different this year, some students say, is the level of engagement and, in some instances, vitriol surrounding the discussion.

Eugene White, an OPRF senior who edits the Trapeze, OPRF’s student newspaper, said he was “verbally attacked” after he and some other students wrote an editorial about the controversy.

“We took the traditional stance on the question [and] declared that the current graduation attire ought to stay the same,” White noted in an email statement. 

“The following week, I was verbally attacked by supporters of the ‘Welcome Change’ movements (these students believe the current graduation attire at our school is politically incorrect and is strongly urging the administration to implement a cap and gown dress code at graduation).”

White says Welcome Change proponents called him “names such as ‘sexist,’ ‘insensitive,’ and even ‘racist.'”

Scott criticized the dress code’s “choice between bridal and business attire” as stigmatizing for “any student who wishes to graduate without antiquated gender role symbolism,” before also adding that the expensive formal wear “creates a class divide.”

Grace Kavinksy, an OPRF senior, agreed before adding some critiques of her own during that January meeting.

“We understand that certain members of the school community cherish the graduation dress code tradition,” Kaminski said. “However, it is a sexist tradition that arose from the era when women did not even have the right to vote.”

Scott and Kaminski both said they preferred the cap and gown option over the traditional option, since it emphasizes academic achievement over “outdated” sexual symbolism, they said.

But some students, like senior George Brennan, who also edits the Trapeze, opted for the option of keeping the traditional attire with the expanded attire offerings for females.

“I feel that the modified dress code does more than enough to take into account gender-neutral students,” he said.

In a previous version of this article, the name of Grace Kavinsky was incorrectly spelled. Wedensday Journal regrets this error.

CONTACT: michael@oakpark.com 

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