A woman gets the boot when her pants are deemed revealing.
BY SETH FREEDLAND
Hampton Roads Daily Press
NEWPORT NEWS, Va. -- One day last week, when 24-year-old Brooke Vande Hei chose her outfit to go shopping with her son, her sister and a friend, she didn't give it a lot of thought.
But it definitely caught the attention of some Patrick Henry Mall shoppers, who complained to security officers that her shorts were too short. The officers told Vande Hei to cover up or leave. She eventually left, but she later said her shorts revealed nothing but her legs.
Her eviction from the mall for wearing improper clothes - a rarity at Patrick Henry Mall - has sparked a debate on mall dress codes.
The mall is itself a contradiction: a private property with public access. This combination can create a delicate balance between personal freedom and ensuring the comfort of all shoppers.
An informal poll at Patrick Henry Mall this week found a mix of opinions on what's appropriate and what's not.
Keri Allen, a 30-year-old Newport News resident, said she wouldn't like to see "anything provocative," such as a low-cut top or a skirt ending at the hip, but she said something baring a woman's midriff is fine.
Taking it a step further, 41-year-old Sandra Phillips of York County described her ideal dress code as "fairly conservative," with minimal skin showing."I say good for the mall for asking her to leave," she said.
But 20-year-old Rachel Harless, who lives in Gloucester, said shoppers should have the freedom to dress how they want.
"A mall can't say what we can or can't wear in public," she said.
Patrick Henry Mall's dress code is at the discretion of mall management, a fact usually posted at all entrances. During the mall's ongoing renovation, however, the signs have been removed.
The dress code has been a bone of contention before at the mall. A motorcyclist was asked to remove his bandanna or leave in 1994. Calling his bandanna sun protection and not gang wear, the biker chose to leave.
A few shoppers who were told about Vande Hei's shorts said they often see skimpier clothing in the mall.
"The mall sees people like that all the time," said 33-year-old Eric Taylor of Newport News, "so I'd think it would have been pretty bad if they made her leave."
Vande Hei was shopping at Express last Monday when two mall security officers approached her and told her that her outfit was inappropriate under the mall's dress code.
They told her to change her clothes, pull her shorts down a little more or leave. She tugged them down a bit and continued to shop. She thought that was the end of it.
But about 15 minutes later, the security guards told Vande Hei that she would have to leave the mall because of complaints the mall received.
"I thought it was ridiculous," she said. "They should be monitoring other things besides my clothing. I wasn't bothering anybody. I hadn't done anything wrong." The officials walked her to the exit "like a criminal," she said, and her 4-year-old son began to cry.
She insists the shorts, worn on a day when the temperature hit 93 degrees, are not provocative.
"There was nothing sticking out. I would never go out like that, especially if I'm with my son," said Vande Hei, an administrator for Gannett Media Technologies International in Norfolk.
"It's not fair to harass people just because some people didn't like what I had on."
But mall security said they saw a small area of Vande Hei's derriere after other shoppers called for security, said mall spokeswoman Moffat Welsh.
It's not uncommon to receive complaints from shoppers about clothing they find inappropriate, Welsh said. But asking customers to leave is a rare thing. During the past two years, Welsh remembered that a man with a lewd comment on his T-shirt and another with pants that dropped to the ground were asked to leave.
Welsh disagreed with Vande Hei's portrayal of being led out of the mall. No one is "escorted" out by officers for a dress code violation, she said.
But Vande Hei said the bad memory of walking out with security guards by her side lingers with her. She said she doesn't feel comfortable going back to Patrick Henry Mall, a fact that saddens her - she once bought a certain pair of red sporty shorts at the Express there.
For mall officials, the issue boils down to keeping their shoppers happy.
"We just don't want our shoppers embarrassed," Welsh said, "The mall should be a nice, comfortable place for everybody."