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Remain or Reform

Should the tradition of the graduation dress remain?

Say yes to the dress

By Kylie ’22

A sea of confident, proud and academically successful seniors fill the stage in celebration of Marlborough’s graduation ceremony. The image of the student body in white dresses and suits is powerful and unique to the School. To honor their years of hard work and growth, every student should have the opportunity to wear what feels representative of their time at Marlborough. To many, their experience can best be encapsulated by the long white dress. 

We can all agree that it is crucial for every student to feel comfortable on a day intended to celebrate them. No student should feel forced to wear a dress and having options such as suits is absolutely essential to create a feeling of inclusion and comfort. Even though Marlborough has changed significantly over the years, given that the majority of our current senior class has opted to wear the dress to graduation, the desire to commemorate the tradition remains strong. 

Our graduation is celebratory of us as a class and our time at Marlborough. The option of graduating in a dress is distinctive of our education at a girls school, especially one centered around the academic success of women that preaches female empowerment. Having the option to wear a dress or suit honors the long-standing and cherished tradition of the white dress in the ceremony’s history, while still acknowledging the progress and changes of the student body. The white dress preserves a beloved tradition that has been celebrated by so many of Marlborough’s alumni, and allows students the chance to feel empowered in their femininity. 

Staff Illustrator Stella ’23

As a girls school that strives to empower their students, Marlborough isn’t like every other institution. While one may argue that graduating in a cap and gown is traditional at most high schools, Marlborough is not necessarily a “traditional” school. Our identity as a girls school differentiates us from other institutions where graduation may only be seen as an acknowledgement of academic achievements and a step towards adulthood. Marlborough is special in the sense that graduating can also feel symbolic of being an empowered woman. While there should always be an alternative option for students who don’t feel comfortable in a dress, for many, the dress represents both their accomplishments as an academic and identity as a proud woman who wants to graduate in their most feminine form. 

Even if you are stuck on the idea that the visual of the white dress is too similar to that of a bride on her wedding day, slightly resembling a bride would not detract from a woman’s academic accomplishments. This connection reinforces negative stereotypes about married women and the harmful assumption that a woman’s marital status somehow devalues her intelligence and achievements. When a man graduates in a suit his attire is not questioned. No one reduces him to his marital status and concludes that his suit makes him look like a groom. His suit is seen as appropriate for the formality of the occasion and makes him seem mature. So why is it that when a woman chooses to wear a white dress to her graduation her attire no longer qualifies as “academic regalia”?

The simple answer: continuing the time-honored tradition of wearing a long white dress to graduation would in no way detract from the academic significance of the ceremony. Too often women are told that they can only be powerful or a “feminist” by dressing less feminine, and thus reinforcing patriarchal forces. This message is completely contradictory. If Marlborough seeks to continue preaching female empowerment they should not even be considering discarding the option of a dress. At the bare minimum in a girls school it should be clear to every student that academic success and femininity are not mutually exclusive. Spreading the message that the long white dress that so many have seen their own mothers and family graduate in, should be disregarded as “debutante” and removed is honestly disrespectful and suggests that femininity is trivial. When I graduate I want to embody what I feel Marlborough has taught me and my classmates— I can be a highly successful academic and a feminine woman. 

Death to the dress

By Macy ’22

A sea of people in matching white floor-length gowns and flower crowns fills a glossy photo. No, you are not flipping through a bridal wear brochure. Nor is this an old image from a 1950s debutante ball. This is the Marlborough graduation ceremony. 

Although Marlborough has evolved from a finishing school to a rigorous academic institution, one tradition has remained firmly in place: the matching white graduation dresses. Recently, Marlborough has made a few changes to the graduation ceremony, first allowing people who do not feel comfortable wearing a white dress to wear a white suit, and eventually allowing all students to choose whether they wanted a white dress or a cap and gown during the 2020-2021 school year. However, the dress is still a defining feature of graduation because many still choose the dress over the cap and gown. While some traditions are worth preserving, the white dress is a vestige of Marlborough’s finishing school past that should be discarded in favor of white caps and gowns. 

The first image that comes to mind when looking at Marlborough’s white floor length dresses is wedding gowns. Not only do the dresses bear a close resemblance to wedding attire, but they are actually made by a bridal company. They are also similar to the white dresses that debutantes wear when they come out to society. While some argue that wearing white has been reclaimed by suffragists and feminists, the first association with white dresses is still weddings. Graduation should celebrate students’ academic accomplishments and hard work throughout their time at Marlborough instead of likening their merits to getting married or coming out to society. In a culture that often values women only because of their status as wives, wearing a white dress instead of academic regalia reinforces these harmful stereotypes. Wearing exclusively white cap and gowns would celebrate the academic accomplishments of Marlborough students while maintaining the traditional white attire at Marlborough graduations.

Staff Illustrator Amelia ’22

A ceremony where all students wear caps and gowns instead of dresses and suits has the added benefit of being more inclusive for students who feel uncomfortable in dresses. Even in a scenario where students could choose to wear a dress or a suit to graduation, in all likelihood the majority of students will opt for the dress because of preference or to carry on the tradition. Therefore, the students who choose to wear suits will stand out in the crowd of people in dresses. In a school where gender queer students are already marginalized, Marlborough should not create a situation where those who do not want to wear the dress are visibly separated from their peers. If all students wore the cap and gown, people could choose what they want to wear under the robe individually. This would give students the freedom to choose what to wear while still maintaining external cohesion. 

Caps and gowns are also a much more affordable option than the graduation dress. Each dress costs well over $200 including fittings, which is more than four times the cost of the $40 rentable cap and gown. Although suits are not currently an option for students, they would likely cost as much or more than the dress. With Marlborough’s tuition already running almost $46,000 plus a $2,250 senior fee, removing the dress would be a small step in the right direction towards making Marlborough more affordable. While financial aid applies to the senior fee, students have to make up the gap between their aid award and the actual cost of the dress or suit. For those who want to express their femininity or connect with their grandmothers on this occasion, surely there are other ways to do so that do not impose such an expense on everyone else. 

Many students do not want to give up the white graduation dresses because of their ties to Marlborough tradition. However, we should critically evaluate whether traditions are worth keeping instead of indiscriminately continuing them. Let’s face it; Marlborough has changed significantly over the years, switching its mascot, school song, crest and even purpose. It is time for the white dresses to go.

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