Sisters share stories of school uniforms over the years

Students do their work in a classroom at Our Lady of Angels Catholic School in Clinton in this file photo. The teacher is a Sister of Charity, BVM.

By Anne Marie Amacher

For decades, students in Catholic schools often wore uniforms. Many times the girls wore solid or plaid jumpers or skirts and boys wore collared shirts — sometimes with a tie.

Today, while some have a plaid jumper or skirt option, most Catholic schools in the Diocese of Davenport follow a dress code option or proper attire guideline.

Three Sisters from the Congregation of the Humility of Mary who taught or served as principals in the diocese shared their stories on uniforms, dress codes and attire with The Catholic Messenger.

Sister Roberta Brich, CHM, said the Catholic school she attended in Neola didn’t have a dress code or uniform. “We just dressed properly. We were poor.”


Sister Rachel Beeson, CHM, said during World War II she didn’t have a uniform until seventh or eighth grade. Then when she went to high school there was no uniform.

Sister Delphine Vasquez, CHM, went to public school until fifth grade and didn’t wear a uniform. When she enrolled in a Catholic school she wore a uniform from sixth through eighth grade: navy jumper, white blouse, red tie. “No exceptions given.” She then attended a private girls’ academy and did not wear a uniform during her four years there. “We did not have any really strict dress code, but could not wear slacks or jeans.”

Sr. Brich said she guesses that the uniform concept was brought over from Europe. Public and private school students wore uniforms in many parts of Europe.

“When the Sisters (of Humility) came in the 1860s, they brought along orphans who were dressed alike,” she said. The history of uniforms “goes way back.”

Sr. Beeson said uniform or dress codes depended on where one lived. Occasionally you could find a public school that had uniforms.

“There’s solidarity and unity with uniforms,” Sr. Brich said. Football teams wear uniforms, she pointed out. “Uniforms promote school spirit.”

Parent reaction to uniforms varied.

Sr. Beeson said some moms liked it. “The kids always tried to find ways around it,” she laughed.

One example might be a boy who tried wearing dark green socks instead of dark blue socks.

Sr. Brich said at one school where she served the parents objected to a uniform. Some would get upset that one student could “get away” with bending a rule, while their child “was singled out.”

“Kids always tried to get away with breaking rules. Any teacher could tell you all kinds of stories about that,” Sr. Vasquez said.

The home situation is a factor in many kids’ attempts in noncompliance with rules, she added. “When Mom or Dad doesn’t have a clue what the child is wearing that morning, what can we expect? Some parents don’t read the student handbook, some feel that their children should be able to express their individuality in their dress, and some want their children to be ‘in style.’”

The decision for uniforms or dress codes “needs to be a group decision between the school board and parents,” Sr. Beeson said. “You need support of both or you set up for difficulty.”

Sr. Vasquez thinks there might have been more parental support in the past and possibly less peer pressure as well. “I don’t remember having to measure skirt length on girls or monitoring shoe styles. However, it did become a part of school rules later as hair grew longer, and skirts got shorter and flip flops became popular.”

All three Sisters said the schools they taught at had varying uniform or dress code attire.

While teaching in Hawaii, Sr. Brich said the girls wore muumuus and the boys wore aloha shirts. Those are the traditional Hawaiian floral attire. “As they arrived to class they took off their shoes. It was the custom there to be barefoot inside.”

At Hayes Catholic School in Muscatine where Sr. Beeson taught, a proper attire dress code was in place. “If their shirt had writing on it that was not appropriate, we made them turn the shirt inside out.”

Sr. Beeson recalled dress codes when she served at North Catholic in Clinton. She also was at Hayes in Muscatine and taught in Albia, Centerville and Oskaloosa.

In the Diocese of Davenport, Sr. Brich served as a principal at Lourdes Catholic School in Bettendorf. “The girls had uniforms and we didn’t have problems.” She couldn’t recall what the boys wore. She also taught at St. Mary and St. Patrick schools in Ottumwa and elsewhere in Iowa, Illinois, Colorado, Missouri, Kentucky, Arizona, Oklahoma and Hawaii.

Sr. Vasquez taught at St. Mary School in Albia and Lourdes in Bettendorf. Outside the diocese she taught in Illinois and for the Department of Defense Schools in Panama and five years at parochial schools and adult education in Washington, D.C. Currently she substitutes at All Saints Catholic School in Davenport.

While substituting at All Saints last month, Sr. Vasquez asked her middle school students about uniforms, which are required there.

“The classes were very open and honest in their comments about uniforms. The impression I had after talking with them is that they are not so adverse to wearing uniforms (for many of the reasons given by parents and teachers as well) except for the ‘picky’ regulations set down in the handbook. They wanted to know and better understand the reasons for certain details in the rules. It seems that once they see the rationale behind the rules they are more comfortable with them.”

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