State Watch

‘Victorian’ school dress codes may be doomed

The school dress code, a prohibitive inventory of skirt lengths and neckline depths, is under attack from students, civil rights groups and government watchdogs, who view it as an artifact of a sexist past.  

Women’s advocates say dress codes discriminate against girls — especially girls who are Black and Hispanic — with seemingly endless proscriptions against garments that might reveal a female student’s shoulder, midriff or thigh.  

After years of rising concern, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) weighed in last fall with a report that found school dress codes inherently sexist, racially biased and demeaning. Three-fifths of dress codes call for measuring students’ bodies and clothing, the GAO found, “which may involve adults touching students.” 

School dress codes date to the era of corsets and shirtwaists. They arose, scholars say, from the notion that girls should hide their bodies from boys. The case for dress codes as a boon for student safety or learning is inconclusive, at best. Yet, more than 90 percent of school districts have written policies on dress. Educators argue that a campus without a dress code will descend into anarchy.  

Students say dress codes have sexist standards

In dozens of communities, students have risen up against dress codes that seemed to hold boys and girls to different standards. 

Maggie Sunseri, now 23, remembers the dress code as a daily struggle from the first day of middle school in Versailles, Ky.  

“We couldn’t show our collarbones, for one,” she said. “We couldn’t wear anything that didn’t come to our knees, so any shorts or skirts or dresses. It was just horrible, because it was impossible to buy clothes.  

“But I didn’t really notice that it was sexist until I got into high school, and I started realizing that none of the boys ever got called down. It got me thinking, what are we really policing here, and who are we protecting girls from?” 

For a class project, Sunseri produced “Shame,” a documentary on dress codes that went viral on YouTube. 

Dress codes focus on items worn by girls

The GAO report found that 90 percent of school dress codes ban items of clothing typically worn by girls: Tops with spaghetti straps. Tops that reveal midriffs or cleavage. Shorts or skirts cut above the knee. Leggings worn as pants. Nylon. Spandex. High-heeled shoes. Open-toe shoes.  

Two-thirds of dress codes forbid students to expose a midriff, stomach or abdomen. Nearly one-quarter prohibit exposed “cleavage, breasts, or nipples.” A small share forbid exposed shoulders, armpits, thighs or knees.  

“I think, a lot of times, they’re based on this stereotype that girls’ bodies are inherently inappropriate or vulgar, or shameful, even, and that girls’ bodies require more regulation than boys’ bodies,” said Linda Morris, a staff attorney with the Women’s Rights Project at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).  

“But then, there’s also this other stereotype that boys are incapable of controlling themselves or focusing on their studies if they are around girls wearing spaghetti straps or wearing quote-unquote ‘provocative’ clothing,” Morris added. 

Dress code controversy extends to sports

The ACLU intervened last year when administrators at Albany High School, located in the New York capital, punished female athletes for practicing in sports bras on a hot day. Most of the targeted students were Black or Latina. 

The student athletes pushed back, noting that the boys routinely practiced shirtless.  

“The cross-country team, they always had their shirts off, and that was never an issue,” said Kayla Huba, one of the suspended students. “Why do they get to cool off, and we have to suffer in the heat?” 

Enforcement practices also called into question

Federal investigators found examples of dress-code enforcement that suggested excessive punishment for comparatively minor infractions, and administrators exercising questionable judgment toward their adolescent charges. 

In one instance, the GAO reported, an employee instructed a high-school girl “to ‘move around’ for the school dean to determine if her nipples were visible through her shirt. The student was then instructed to put Band-Aids on her chest.” 

A female high school student was suspended for 10 days and barred from graduation over a top that revealed her shoulders and back. A group of middle school girls were instructed that they “should not report inappropriate touching” if they failed to follow the dress code. 

Black, Hispanic students are more impacted by dress codes

The GAO found strict dress codes in more than four-fifths of predominantly Black schools and nearly two-thirds of majority-Hispanic schools, but in only one-third of mostly white schools. Most policies included rules about hair, hairstyles and hair coverings that might disproportionately impact Black students. 

Dress codes “tend to be embedded and enforced with sexist and racist stereotypes that have kind of gone on over time and are rooted in white cultural norms,” said Sabrina Bernadel, an attorney at the National Women’s Law Center. “The things that we see as modest or ladylike: What is modest? What is ladylike? And that tends to be white modesty, white ladylikeness.”  

Some dress codes seem to push beyond any reasonable standard for unacceptable dress. In one high-profile case from 2021, administrators at a Florida high school censored the yearbook photos of dozens of female students with sloppy edits that covered their chests.  

“As progressive as we think we are, sexually, we are very Victorian,” said Adrienne Dixson, a professor and executive director of the Education and Civil Rights Initiative at the University of Kentucky.  

“We are very critical of countries where young women have to cover up and wear burkas. But we are essentially exposing girls to the same kind of treatment,” Dixson added. 

Students and educators have battled over dress codes for generations. Conflicts have multiplied in recent years, however, as a new generation of students absorb lessons about sexual harassment and body-shaming and apply them in real life. 

The growing visibility of nonbinary and transgender teens raises additional equity issues in schools with separate dress codes for boys and girls. In one recent case, the GAO reported, a female transgender student “was told not to return to school until she was following the school’s dress code guidelines for males.” 

Dress codes that set separate rules for boys and girls potentially violate Title IX, a federal law that bars sex-based discrimination in education, as well as the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment. 

Strict dress codes are on decline

As student protests rise, schools are backing off from strict dress codes. The share of public schools that enforced such dress codes rose from 47 percent in 1999 to 59 percent in 2013, according to federal data. But by 2019, the percentage had declined to 44 percent. 

School officials cited two main reasons for dress codes: eliminating “distractions” and promoting student safety.  

Critics say the focus on distractions effectively blames girls for the behavior of boys. 

“You’ve essentially removed a child from class, for what? Wearing a shirt with spaghetti straps? Is that really what we want to be doing?” said Jackie Nowicki, director of K-12 education at the GAO.  

The federal agency recommended that the Education Department guide school systems on how to make dress codes equitable. 

Catherine Lhamon, assistant Education secretary for civil rights, said her office “continues routinely to address discrimination with respect to dress codes” and will work with schools “to fulfill students’ civil rights on this important issue.”  

Rather than abandon dress codes, some principals are revisiting the rules with help from students.  

At Haines City Senior High School in Polk County, Fla., school leaders fashion a new dress code every year in meetings with teachers and students. The final rules go to students for a vote. 

The current dress code is nothing if not strict: No hats. No rips or tears. Nothing revealed between the neckline and knee. No exposed undergarments. Students sent to the office for a violation get a second opinion from an administrator. 

“The dress code has a lot to do with a smoothly operating school,” said Adam Lane, the principal. “You must have a dress code, because it eliminates the thing where a rip goes from the size of a nickel to the size of Rhode Island. It’ll get out of control.” 


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