The Good and Bad of School Dress Codes

When I went to public school, the basic dress code for students was: Don’t cause trouble.

We had what was ostensibly called “free dress,” but students did occasionally get sent home. The only one I remember involved a t-shirt with a cuss word on it. It was tacitly understood: Cover your basic bits. This is a school.

There were schools with more rigorous dress codes. The Catholic school in the district had a uniform, which is how you could tell them from us at 3:30.

These days, there’s a lot more talk about dress codes, and it’s getting muddled. A huge part of the muddling of the conversation is that there are multiple reasons for a dress code, and multiple reasons for enforcement, some good, some not so much.

I’ve noticed four basic categories offered as reasons behind dress codes and uniforms.

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Sociopolitical concerns

The first defense given by urban schools with uniforms or strict dress codes is a concern about economic differences. Poor kids will get bullied if their clothing isn’t a popular brand. Uniforms act as a social equalizer, erasing economic differences.

My mother shopped for clothing at garage sales and Kmart when I was a child. It was one of many factors that got me bullied at school. I would have loved to have removed that particular flashing neon sign.

However, research consistently shows that uniforms don’t have a real impact on bullying. “Bullies are smart,” says Tony Volk of Brock University. “They will just find some other way to show status.”

Furthermore, uniforms are just as prone to disrepair as other clothes: When a student shows up with a ripped or stained uniform, they get the same ridicule about poverty they’d get without the uniform policy.

Dress code rules that prohibit pictures, words, or slogans on clothing can also pre-empt political fights over a student wearing something like a Trump t-shirt.

This is a reasonable argument: Leaving a rule like “Don’t cause trouble” up to individual interpretation can lead to selective enforcement. A liberal teacher might send a student out for “Trump: Make America Great Again” on his shirt while ignoring a student with an Obama Hope image.

At the same time, there are reasons for a more nuanced or case-by-case policy. A piece of clothing might have deep personal meaning for a student who has lost a friend or family member, and a ban would infringe upon the mourning process.

And some clothing is flat-out innocuous. At my high school, we had little trouble knowing that Iron Maiden’s Eddie wasn’t appropriate for school while Bananarama was fine. Giving teens more credit for reason contributes to their growth into adults.

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Safety

There are three sides to the safety issue. The first is about bullying, as mentioned above. Students have gotten assaulted and killed over athletic shoes. That’s a legitimate problem, and something each district needs to consider independently. Hoodies, meanwhile, can be grabbed from behind when starting a fight.

Another aspect is that certain articles of clothing, particularly hats and hoodies, can be used to disguise identities. Certainly a school can have a policy forbidding non-religious headwear, such as, “Hoodies cannot be worn over the head,” but that’s more difficult to enforce. “Take off that hoodie” becomes “take down that hoodie.” Some students who wear hoodies instinctively put the hoods over their heads, and “take down that hoodie” becomes a constant reminder.

There are several problems with a “no hoodie” rule, though. Clothing manufacturers continue to make a lot of hoodies, and often that’s the most affordable sweater-style option. I’ve had many students complain that their mothers forget about the rule when shopping, and now that’s the only thing they can wear when the classrooms are chilly.

Also, hoodies can be comforting to some students. They don’t put them over their heads to hide their identity in order to do something nefarious, they do so to hide from the world. Or to hide a bad haircut. Or to hide their earbuds (often a rule violation).

A final safety aspect involves gang affiliation. One of the schools at which I’ve taught was in an area with heavy gang activity, and the dress code prohibited red or blue articles of clothing.

Naturally, this has the same problem as banning status markers: Gangs will find some way to communicate affiliation if that’s their goal. At the same time, I can understand the reasoning of not just shrugging it off and letting colored bandanas rule the halls.

This is a complicated issue, and solid arguments can be made on both sides.

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Professional dress

Schools with uniforms often argue that they’re preparing students for the professional work world. This is the same defense of the House of Representatives’ dress code policy: This is a professional work environment.

In the wake of the House kerfuffle, many men complained that the dress code is more restrictive to men than it is to women, even though it was a woman who was complaining. Men, after all, must wear a jacket, a shirt, slacks, proper shoes, and preferably a tie, while women can wear those or opt for a skirt and a variety of tops, so long as their shoulders are covered.

This defense tends to ignore who made the rules. If we men are unhappy with what we’ve selected as “professional dress,” then we have no-one to blame but ourselves and our patriarchal forebears. We at one point in history had the option to wear skirts, but chose to remove that option for ourselves.

However, nobody alive was around when those arbitrary rules were devised, so it’s fair to grumble about the rules even if the veiled suggestion that it’s somehow the fault of women is disingenuous.

This year, in response to the heat in the school, some British boys protested their uniform by wearing knee-length skirts to school. Skirts are allowed, but shorts are not.

It’s important when considering this story to note the result: The boys were not sent home. The principal said he’d consider changing the policy. A common pattern in dress code violation stories is that white males have an impact or get a warning, while other students get suspended or expelled.

Enforcement of rules concerning sagging pants and hoodies has a racial skew: Multiple white students can walk past administrators while wearing jeans in violation of school rules, while a black student will get pulled aside.

Likewise, hairstyles that are well-suited to natural hair typical of people of African descent are often banned, forcing black students to adopt European-expected hairstyles. For girls, these typically require chemical treatments or wigs.

I understand the importance of teaching students how to dress for success. But if rules are being enforced inconsistently, especially based on race or gender, that’s a serious problem.

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Sexually provocative clothing

The reasoning behind dress codes that gets the most criticism is the idea that girls should watch what they wear because they will distract boys. There are many, many articles on this topic.

This seems very simple to me: We need to stop supporting rape culture by objectifying girls. We need to teach boys to respect girls and to not ogle them. We need to place the onus of proper interaction on the people who are behaving inappropriately, not on the victims. Dress codes based on the idea that girls should change their wardrobe because boys can’t control their eyes are wrong-headed.

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I have a personal opinion on dress codes (“don’t deliberately cause trouble”), but my bigger concern is about the inconsistent enforcement of them. Dress codes need to have a clear, fair-minded motivation, and they need to be enforced consistently without regard to race or gender. Like any other tool in a school system, a school’s dressing policy needs to teach the correct lessons, not the incorrect ones.

Originally published on The Good Men Project.

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