Why I Don’t Believe in Dress Code

In a move that will make me less employable, I wanted to talk about why I don’t believe in dress code, why I think it’s a bad idea, and why I think it’s… well, not immoral, but of dubious moral value at best.

Many private schools (and some public schools these days, especially inner-city schools) have dress codes. The most typical code in the US is a business-oriented one, which is what I’m going to be talking about today when I refer to “dress codes.” I’ll spend some time at the end talking about other types that I find less offensive.

A business-oriented dress code is one that asks students to dress “respectably,” in the manner of bankers, lawyers, salespeople, and store managers. Typical requirements are split down gender lines. Boys are asked to wear slacks or khakhi pants, a belt, “dress shoes,” and a button-down or polo shirt. Some schools add a tie and jacket. Girls dress code varies substantially, but is typically designed with the goal of covering most of the body and distracting fewer boys in class. Some schools still require dresses or skirts and cardigans. Some sllow girls to wear boys’ style dress code; others do not. Some schools maintain the same standards throughout the academic year; others alter them for weather, special occasions, or “good behavior.”

As someone who enforced this sort of dress code for three years, I can tell you that the amount of weaseling and petty rebellion it encourages (primarily amongst the students) is monumental. In my tours of various schools I actually had a school administrator tell me that their staff psychologist recommended keeping dress code because it “gave the students something to rebel against.” When I was in high school (using that phrase makes me officially old), students and teachers organized buses to travel to Washington DC so students could join in a protest on the Mall. That is a school that believes in the value of student protests and rebellion. Give your students something worthwhile to rebel against; don’t encourage them to complain about their shoes.

Other schools have their own reasons, from preparing students for a particular career to preventing gang violence. Whether dress codes work for those reasons is a valid educational research question. The answer seems to be “yes” when it comes to the violence issue. I think there are viable alternatives and I’ll talk more about that below.

Most dress codes leave some room for interpretation. Even the typical boys’ dress code is far more vague than one might think. Administrators end up spending valuable time talking about ridiculous topics like whether a fish tie and button-down Hawaiian shirt should count as dress code, and whether “boat shoes” (whatever those are) are allowable footwear. What a waste of time.

Furthermore, the vagueness of girls’ dress code is not confined to the way I defined it above. At most schools with a dress code, girls are allowed much greater latitude in their choice of dress. For some reason we have no problem telling boys what to do, but we treat girls like delicate little flowers when every indication is that women have an emotional fortitude that matches or exceeds men’s. We also teach girls to cover up rather than teaching boys to grow up and act with respect. Both of those gender items are really a point for another day, I suppose.

Gender divisions also further marginalize students who don’t fall into traditional gender roles. At many schools girls can wear the boys’ dress code, but not vice versa. Boys who identify as girls, and sometimes vice versa, face a battle that starts with the school administrators, rather than ending there.

Students don’t like dress codes. I couldn’t care less about that. They don’t like homework, either. Most of them don’t like either writing or mathematics; tough luck, they need both. The issue is not whether we are trampling our students’ wishes, but whether what we are doing is the best thing for them in their lives. Schools shape lives.

The biggest problem I have with dress codes is this:

If we are trying to teach our students how to judge others based on their appearances, dress code is the right way to do that.

That is, in a nutshell, why I feel that dress codes are one step away from being outright immoral. The idea that we should respect people because they are dressed like bankers and businesspeople, in this day when so much of our economy is in shambles because of the actions of bankers and high-ranking businesspeople, seems rather silly. That choice of dress code also implies that people like artists, musicians, and mechanics are not worthy of emulation, and thus, by extension, of respect. A dress code based on an artistic aesthetic has exactly the same problem, with the opposite people as targets of derision.

Teachers, from kindergarten through the professor level, are role models. Students emulate their teachers in word and deed. (Note: they don’t always obey, but they do watch what we do, and they do emulate.) So when a teacher berates a student for dressing a certain way, other students learn that lesson: people who dress a certain way are not worthy of respect.

Dress codes are moral statements. They teach students to care about what people wear, and to judge the inner selves of others based on that outer presentation.

Dress codes teach disrespect at a fundamental level.

Now, I’m ok with restricting students’ dress to a certain extent. If you want to say, “Students must wear clothing that covers them from shoulder to knee,” that’s fine with me. (I’m also fine with Hampshire College’s clothing-optional days, though I don’t particularly need to see it, and I think it’s a bad idea at the high school level.) “Everyone must wear footwear” is a health issue, no argument from me. If you want to say “No swear words,” that’s fine too. Want to protest and make it a First Amendment issue? Fine: T-shirts are like TV and radio in that they are a broadcast medium for whatever’s printed on them. Swearing on broadcast media is legally restricted to late night hours; I have no problem with doing the same to T-shirts. It’s when you start asking students to dress a particular way and calling that “respectable” that you start actively teaching students how to judge others.

I’m also ok with an out-and-out uniform. On the day you show up, the school hands you a wardrobe full of the clothing you’ll be wearing, with size upgrades as you need them. Nothing else is allowed – not your own socks, not hair clips, not finger rings or earrings. If you want to really level the playing field and make clothing a non-issue, this is the way to go. No wiggle room, no personal expression, fewer arguments than a dress code. The male/female division (if there is one) would still be a question, but one fairly easily solved. If you want to be authoritarian, this is, in my mind, the right way to go.

Finally, I’m not insensitive to the issue of gang colors and the possibility of school violence, nor to the issues of students who do not yet respect their bodies or those of others. I’m incredibly insensitive when it comes to someone telling me who I should or should not respect. Handle it another way, please.

Research on the effectiveness of dress codes is, as with many opinion-laden educational issues, easy to find and fairly contradictory. Here are a few sources, chosen primarily for their density of references:


About Colin Fredericks

By day I help to create online courses at HarvardX. By night I write roleplaying games.

Posted on November 25, 2011, in Uncategorized and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Tangential, but what is the health issue with not wearing footwear?

    • In a school environment it’s mostly things like ringworm and frostbite. (Yeah, frostbite – you’d be amazed at how long some folks will insist that it’s not cold out.) If your school is near a road, there’s always the possibility of broken glass. It’s one thing to walk around the grounds a little barefoot; I’m a fan of that. To do it continuously exposes you to a lot of fairly gross stuff. If you’re in a chemistry lab or working in the kitchen, more serious health risks come into play, like nitric acid and accidentally dropped knives.

      • I asked since I walk barefoot at university and at home. (Outside, too, during summer.) Since few to do this, I think I’m safe from ringworm.

        Broken glass can be easily avoided with some practice and alertness, but groups of children and alertness do not play well together, I guess.

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