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‘The Fight for Khakis in Court’: Mock trial students object to no-pants rule

Students object to skirts-only rule for girls on mock trial team. Image by sergeitokmakov

Luna Buckman and Thuy-An Ngo walked into their first official Alhambra High School Mock Trial practice in Martinez last October expecting to find a place that fostered their confidence and taught them how to strive for justice. 

What they didn’t expect was a lesson on how to organize a protest against what they and other students believe is an antiquated dress code that declares female students can only wear skirts during the mock trial competition.

The mock trial contest is an annual high school program in which students compete to make the best case in a mock court. Alhambra High School’s mock trial team is made up of 18 members, 11 girls and 7 boys. 

In preparing for the competition, Buckman and Ngo said there they were told by their coaches that the female students had to wear skirts in the court. The two students, along with others on the team, argued against this, and there was a group discussion with the coaches on why the coaches thought it made sense.

Ngo, an 11th grader, said the rule doesn’t “reflect the values of our society today, especially in mock trial, where we should be arguing for what is right, but we’re forced to do something that isn’t.” 

Buckman, a 10th grader, said the rule requiring skirts is “rooted in an incredibly old misogynistic system. … Women have been openly wearing pants since the 1920s.”

A ‘1950s mindset’

The students said they weren’t successful in making their case, and they wore skirts at the competition in February. They noticed their team was the only one made up of all female students wearing skirts. Other teams had some girls wearing skirts and some wearing pants.

They are continuing to object that the rule is unjust and want to get it overturned for future teams, calling this action “The Fight for Khakis in Court.” 

The students, who first met on Jan. 20 to plan their movement, have been researching and discussing how this “1950s mindset,” as Ngo put it, fits into the larger societal context of sexism and attacks on women’s rights in the U.S. They plan to write an essay and present it to their coaches, noting that making skirts mandatory for women isn’t common nowadays, and the usage of skirts as a way to oppress women is slowly going away.

“With the changing climate and times of the world, it’s kind of fading into oblivion,” Buckman maintained. 

The idea that boy team members can wear pants but the girls can’t lessens the sense of equality on the team, the students said, and they fear this will discourage female students from joining mock trials in the future. 

Ngo said Dawn Polvorasa, one of the team’s two coaches, told them that girls wearing pants would hurt them in the competition. “She thinks that the judges are prejudiced against women wearing pants, and that in order to avoid the undue prejudice, we should wear skirts in order to please them,” Ngo said.

Frank Reichert, who teaches English at Alhambra High and is the other coach of the mock trial team, said the skirts-only rule is to emphasize professionalism. “When I see someone walk into a professional situation dressed unprofessionally, their ethos is gone. I’ve been to courthouses where there have been lawyers who have walked in in Birkenstocks and peasant skirts. They never win. They never get any respect.”

When asked whether the coaches were receptive to hearing the pants-wearer advocates out, Reichert said, “Of course. … I just know that in this world, you have to live within the parameters of what people expect you to do.”

Clothing debate at Syracuse University

The issue of what’s appropriate business attire in mock trial court isn’t new. In 2009, women on the mock trial team of Syracuse University fought with their coach who had a mandatory dress code that required women “to wear a business suit consisting of a jacket, skirt and dress shirt,” according to a story in the school magazine. 

The coach, who was an attorney, argued that his skirts-required approach is about keeping the focus on the client, the article said, quoting him saying, “It’s a conservative look which I think is appropriate courtroom attire. I think it’s important for the students to realize that when you’re in a court it’s not about you. It’s about your client. Conservative dress doesn’t draw attention to you personally.”

The story also reported that a similar dress code at Cornell University was dropped after a new coach, also an attorney, took over. “I don’t care what they wear as long as it looks professional,” the new coach was quoted as saying. “I have not ever, in my real professional career, had any client, judge, or juror say to me that I should be wearing a skirt when I go to court.”

The Alhambra students also argue there is a practical reason for their protest: Skirts can be uncomfortable. Mock trial competitions occur during the winter and even “tights aren’t good enough to keep you warm,” Buckman said. “You’re in big courtrooms.” 

Ngo said, “I definitely would be a little more confident, especially because whenever I wear skirts, I always get super cold. And I have to worry about it hiking up all the time.” 

Buckman said mock trial team members are very active. They move about from the well to their desks and they put up evidence. Skirts “restrict your range of motion. And overall, a lot of the people on the team feel really uncomfortable with wearing [them],” she said. 

Buckman said that mock trials are an important part of who she is. “It’s helped me learn how to stand my ground as well as think outside of the box and quickly.” 

Asked what she wanted people to learn from “The Fight for Khakis in Court” protest, Buckman said, “I think the main message with this is that we should be able to stand up for what we personally support and we should be able to advocate to make changes for things that will really affect us in the world, especially things that are directly related to us.”

*Additional resources:

Anna Messerer is a 10th grader at Alhambra High School. (She was a member of the school’s 2024 mock trial team.)

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  • A

    Aiden FrankMar 25, 2024 at 9:29 pm

    Hey, I came across this story and just wanted to say I fully agree with the mock trialers here. While professionalism is obviously important, the difference between Khakis and Skirts is insignificant, and has no impact on success during trial. I know this because my team has won the county 7 times in a row, all while the majority of women on my team have worm Khakis.

    • A

      Anna MessererMar 27, 2024 at 6:35 pm

      Thank you for reading the story.