We met Roxanne Castillo, eight, fishtailing her way through the schools of schoolchildren in front of the Shedd Aquarium. Her breezy sundress and hyperactive running shoes shouted “Let’s play!,” seemingly straining the limits of the “appropriate dress required” commandment permafixed to Shedd’s marble facade. Was Roxanne’s carefree costume a fish out of water? Our fashion ichthyologists reeled it in to get a cold-blooded fix on the markings.

This fish story begins with a yellow-bellied sundress whose rippling skirt, breezy bodice, and brilliant color wriggle free from the confines of early children’s dress codes. Once upon a time babes of both sexes turned out in pure white puffery, as sexless and indistinguishable as guppy spawn. But once progressive educators suggested tots might differ from both adults and one another, kids’ clothes began to take on color (it used to be pink for Jacks, blue for Jills), relax in style, and mutate along the boy/girl divide. The postwar generation–baby-obsessed, convenience-happy, reverent of the doctors Spock and Freud–refined the pull-on, snap-shut, snuggly ease of kid couture and let its budding individualists choose their own stripes and plaids. Even Roxanne’s shrimpy version of running shoes, Velcro-scaled for small fry, are all wrap-and-go convenience.

But there’s more to this tale than creature comfort. The nuanced colors reveal a complex adaptation to the environment. Roxanne’s bright bodice is baited with a pair of parrots. Her shoes, marked with the smirking mug of ever-loving Barney, serve as foot soldiers in the children’s crusade for tenderhearted tolerance. As Roxanne gazes deep into the man-made deep, her most site-specific accessory emerges: a hand-colored whale-shaped nameplate tagged to her dorsal fin.

The preprinted parrots and purple palosaurus work as badges–symbols of affinity for the animal kingdom. But the name tag dives deeper, taking on the role of totem. The construction-paper icon, named Roxanne and affixed to the person Roxanne, flip-flops in an anthropomorphic fish wish.

But does the whole getup flounder, turning a cold shoulder on the stuffed-shirt concept of a dress code? According to research rehashed by Susan Kaiser in The Social Psychology of Clothing, uniforms promote herdlike groupthink. Dress codes, on the other hand, simply ask patrons to be on their best behavior. Leaving unstated what constitutes “appropriate” dress, unwritten codes rely on social animals to identify–and snub–the inappropriate.

If beasts captured for our viewing pleasure are, as aquarium ideology asserts, ambassadors from the depths that reflect our own humanity, then Roxanne’s outfit–a sunny pledge of allegiance to creatures and kindness–wholeheartedly fulfills the spirit of the dress code. Her thoroughly appropriate Fashion Statement skims the choppy waters of the see fish/free fish controversy: We are family.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Yael Routtenberg.