Op-Ed: In 2021, Why Are We Still Graduating in All White?

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Karly Hamilton

Student reflecting on alternative graduation attire. Illustration by Karly Hamilton ’21.

Zoe Kaplan, Associate Editor

When it comes to graduation, the School has carried on the tradition of students wearing white dresses and dark suits for the better part of a century. However, this year, the administration contemplated transitioning from the traditional dress code to graduating students in caps and gowns.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, this year’s graduating class experienced a significant shift in their senior year experience. COVID-19 has affected everything from being on-campus to athletics, activities, the Ring Ceremony, Prom, and now, graduation. Given the multitude of changes students experienced this year, the administration wanted the senior class to have a voice in the dress code at their graduation in June.

After receiving feedback from students, the School ultimately decided that seniors will graduate in the traditional black and white dress code this spring.

The tradition of wearing white for graduation dates back to before the merger of the Brimmer School and the May School in 1939.. Wearing white dresses for graduation is a tradition at many schools, so there has to be a valid reason for the choice. It makes the girls look like a group; a complete set that is in place.

Head of School Judith Guild provided insight on how what the tradition represents has changed with time.

“My understanding of how it started and why private schools did this might be rooted in traditions that are not consistent with what we see as of today,” Guild said. “I think what happens is we don’t want to take it out of the context of the time it was created and we don’t want to judge the people for the time it was created.”

I feel that while the tradition has its place, it is time to create new traditions instead. I think students should be able to fully embrace who they are by graduating in whatever outfit they feel like best represents them.

On what is supposed to be a happy day, students should be wearing something they feel comfortable and confident in, regardless of their gender or other variables.”

While wearing white is a tradition that may look good in photos, requiring young students to wear white dresses to their graduation is cause for concern. To many, the color white represents purity, virginity, and innocence, which is incredibly problematic. 

It is bad to project these values onto young students, particularly women because it makes them conscious of the way they act during everyday situations. Women should never be confined to these values, when who they are inside matters so much more.

Additionally, not all people have a white dress sitting in their closet, which means they now have to buy a new dress specifically for graduation. Not all families have the same means to purchase a new dress or rent a suit for graduation, which causes an additional problem.

When students walk across the stage at graduation, they should be filled with pride and excitement for their accomplishments. Unfortunately, having a dress code that often varies based on gender could be stressful for an individual who does not identify with a particular gender.

On what is supposed to be a happy day, students should be wearing something they feel comfortable and confident in, regardless of their gender or other variables.

Director of Equity and Inclusion Jessica Christian agrees.

“I think that the tradition of white dresses, which traditionally convey purity, and dark suits, as the requirement for graduation dress is no longer in line with who we are as a school and with who we claim to be,” Christian said. “The tradition is heavily gendered at a time when we have some students who identify as non-binary, which means we are robbing students of their identities.”

While students will graduate in white once again this year, it is safe to say that changing the dress code at Commencement will be a topic of conversation again soon.