Confronted with a bevy of scantily clad celebrities and piggybacking dress designers, school administrators statewide are cracking down on plunging necklines, backless crop tops and leg slits up to the navel for the most formal event of a high school student’s career – prom.
Religious schools like Saint Mark’s and Padua Academy, both in Wilmington, adhere to some of the strictest rules. But even public schools like William Penn in New Castle and Mt. Pleasant in Wilmington are insisting that young women cover it up when their parents won’t.
School officials say the rules are necessary to prevent confusion and uneven enforcement, noting that it’s rare for a student to be refused entry to prom.
“What we try to do is encourage them toward refinement, elegance and grace,” says Padua dean of students Rebecca Manelski, who pre-approves dresses based on cell phone images. “You just try to help each girl find the look that’s going to work for her.”
Dress codes have always induced moans from students. Recently, parents in McSherrystown, Pa. joined the chorus after a local Catholic school announced in March that all prom dresses would need to be approved by administrators in advance. Criticizing the late notice, parents have circulated a petition.
In Delaware, prom dress codes vary greatly by school. Some schools even keep a sewing machine or a stack of oversized T-shirts and pashminas by the door to conceal the evidence, according to students and administrators.
At William Penn, however, jackets and shawls won’t cut it. At Delcastle Technical High School in Wilmington, work boots, hoodies and shirts open like John Travolta in “Saturday Night Fever” are banned. At Appoquinimink in Middletown, officials follow up a PowerPoint presented to students with a letter sent home to parents. Several girls ask administrators for prior approval.
“Many are fine,” says school principal Keisha Brinkley. “It’s mainly parents wanting to be certain before they spend the money.”
Meanwhile, all Red Clay district high schools and Salesianum, Tower Hill and Delaware Military Academy in Wilmington have no prom dress code, other than formal attire.
St. Andrew’s in Middletown and Ursuline Academy in Wilmington leave it up to the students to uphold the private schools’ core values.
“We just have a very strong culture,” explains St. Andrew’s dean of students Will Robinson, adding that the school hosts a casual prom where the boys cook dinner for their dates and students visit faculty at their homes.
Several female public school students complained that the dress code limits their options and self-expression, and unfairly targets women.
“You’re paying $400 for a dress. You want to wear what you want to wear,” says Kylie Thomas, a junior at Mt. Pleasant.
What’s worse, according to Mt. Pleasant senior Jess Sanford, is that other schools in the Brandywine School District – Concord and Brandywine high schools – have no dress restrictions at prom.