Dress codes, while gone from most people’s lives by the time they get to college, are certainly not forgotten. Just mentioning them brings passionate discussions to life. But why is it such a big issue?
First, it’s important to figure out the intent. “We’re preparing students for a world outside of here, and we should treat this as a job, and students should treat their coming to school as a job,” said Darcy Fletcher, an administrator at a local middle school. “I think we’re just preparing people for the real world.”
Many other administrators agree, arguing that in the world beyond school, what you wear determines some important things. “If you’re dressed professionally, you act professionally,” said Diane Reilly, an elementary school principal. “Clothing can really affect the way you behave.”
It can also affect the way you learn, according to Daylin Judkins, an elementary school teacher. “You’re coming to be professional and learn,” Judkins said. “You’re not coming to show off what’s under your clothes.” This sentiment was echoed by many others.
The idea that professional attire promotes a professional environment is one that is prevalent in both school communities and in the world at large. While prevalent, however, it is not necessarily shared among students.
“They say it’s for professionalism,” said NVU student Ally Marcou, who has done research on dress codes. “They talk about how it’s for uniformity and school spirit. I really think it comes down to a little bit of patriarchy and a little bit of societal expectations, though.”
Arlo Adrich, an NVU student who went to high school at St. Johnsbury Academy, was also disenchanted by professionalism being the reason for dress codes. “They say the purpose was to encourage professional behavior, which was so dumb and completely untrue,” he said. “In reality it was very outdated.”
He added yet another reason for dress codes, at least in his experience. “I think it was an image thing. They wanted their school to be this place of professionalism and elites, but at the end of the day, I think it was an outdated thing that will just never change, unfortunately.”
While students interviewed for this article acknowledge that teachers and administrators cite “professionalism” as the rationale for dress codes, many also feel something darker behind the codes, namely sexism.
“I don’t think the intention is to be misogynistic,” said Adelle MacDowell, a high school senior. “I think it comes from a half-conceived, misguided notion like, ‘we should try to keep things professional and have a safe learning environment,’ but it turns into something that can be used as a tool to oppress women.”
This is a common feeling among a number of female students, that although the wording places an emphasis on creating a safe space, the idea behind it is one that’s pervasive in society. Bodies, and women’s bodies in particular, are seen as unprofessional.
Male students also agree with this. “Like most things in society, dress codes just exist to make old white dudes happy,” said Union 32 student Colby Frostick. “They have this idea of what a woman should be, but in reality it’s a lot different now. We have a lot more body positivity and it’s more open.”
Danye Bell, an NVU student, asked, “In the end, what’s unprofessional about a woman’s chest?” This is the real question that many people struggle with. In our society, there’s an expectation that you cover up when you go to work, and after hours you can strip off your outer layers and have fun.
While there isn’t anything inherently wrong with the notion of different clothes for different occasions, there is a clear group of people that this idea centers around. Men’s outfits are deemed professional or not by the amount of buttons, while women’s are judged by the amount of skin.
This was the case at Craftsbury Academy. “Guys would get dress coded for profanity on their t-shirts, while girls got dress coded for showing skin,” said Orion Cenkl. “But it was pretty much by the discretion of the principal, and she was traditional and old fashioned and didn’t like newer clothing trends.”
Some say that in addition to the idea of bodies being unprofessional, “dress-coding” students negatively affects the quality of learning.
“I have some angst against current policies, because I feel like they’ve primarily been about policing bodies and amassing unnecessary disciplinary actions,” said one teacher, who wished to remain anonymous. “When I think about a dress code, I think about growing up in the South, and I would always get in trouble for having ripped jeans. That would clearly disrupt my educational experience, and take me out of class to meet with the dean just for having holes in my jeans.”
Many students agree that dress codes are totally unnecessary. “My school doesn’t really have a dress code, and everything seems to be going fine. Seeing someone’s stomach is not something that is making it any harder to learn,” said high school student Anna Gale.
Other schools also function just fine without dress codes. “In England, you can really wear whatever and nobody cares.” Cenkl said. “It’s just an unspoken rule that you don’t wear anything too out there.”
Even in schools where there are dress codes, students aren’t necessarily forced to go home and change. Mae Searles, a high school junior, remembers wearing shorts that didn’t meet dress code.
“My shorts weren’t down to my fingertips, but I didn’t have to change. It was just public humiliation,” she said. This theme of being called out in front of people, with no direct disciplinary action, is common.
MacDowell experienced it when her shorts failed to meet dress code. “It was just kind of embarrassing — to be reprimanded in that way when you don’t feel like you’re doing anything wrong, especially in front of other people,” she said, recalling a time when one of her friends wore a skirt that, while technically meeting dress code, was questioned by several teachers. The student was eventually asked to pull up her skirt to prove she had spandex on underneath, much to her embarrassment.
“My sister [got dress-coded] all the time,” Bell said. “She’s plus-sized, so she couldn’t wear certain things without them saying ‘oh that’s inappropriate.’ Women are targeted by the dress code a lot more than guys are, specifically plus-sized people.
“Their bodies are just naturally more restricted by dress codes, because you can’t show your cleavage and your thighs, and you have to have your skirts below a certain point, but if you’re a certain size, your skirts aren’t going to fall that low.”
It’s not just plus-size people who feel especially targeted. Marcou said the issue goes beyond any narrow considerations, extending into the realms of class as well. “Females in low income communities are especially impacted,” she said. “It’s done as an equalizer, but I personally feel like it can create more issues.”
In the end, there seemed to be a primary characteristic in those most impacted. “[Dress codes] overwhelmingly target women,” said Frostick. “I would never get dress-coded for something I’d normally wear, but girls do for totally ridiculous things.” He recounted one time that he and his friends decided to purposely get dress coded, just to prove a point.
Dress codes aren’t directed only at women. “I got dress coded for sure, all the time,” said Aldrich. “But I would just ignore it.”
“The girls probably had it much harder,” he adds, “I had friends who would get called out in front of everyone, and then have to change into clothes from the office that completely wouldn’t fit them.”
For sure, some administrators and teachers have little use for dress codes.
“If mutual respect for identities remains, there’s no need for a dress code,” said another teacher who asked not to be identified because of her position. “I wouldn’t want to see things that promote extreme vulgarities, but I wouldn’t say it would be detrimental because there aren’t dress codes in society.
“We don’t go out to the grocery store and have our whole day wrecked by other people and what they’re wearing, although that’s not a professional environment. I think if we instill the culture and the norms and the mutual respect, and that’s ingrained, I don’t see the need for a dress code.”
In the end, it’s true that dress codes are a thing of the past for many college students, but the feeling they provoked is remembered.
“In high school, I was always worried if what I was wearing was too revealing or if it would show off too much and if I would get glances,” said Mei Elander, an NVU student. “But here I can just wear whatever I want and not have to worry about comments.
“Everybody just wears whatever, and everybody’s fine with it. I think [dress codes] relate to how women are sexualized and how it becomes their fault for wearing certain clothes. Girls will be called sluts and whores for wearing certain things, and schools address that by having a dress code.”
Dress codes are likely to remain in place at many schools across the country, something that Erin Carr, an elementary school teacher, finds troubling. These codes reflect skewed priorities, she suggested.
“When the dress code is written in a way that says ‘clothing is a distraction to others,’ it feels like it’s on the spectrum as cultural practices that require women to cover themselves to prevent ‘impure’ thoughts from men,” Carr said. “We need to reflect on where the problem is. Is it in the clothing that someone wears, or in the mind of the observer? Adults should be focusing on the student’s school work, not on their clothing or their bodies.”