School Climate & Safety

Dress Codes Target Risqué Styles

By Kevin Bushweller — September 12, 2001 7 min read
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When Katrina Howard undulated across the stage wearing her belly-button-baring, one-strap halter top and jeans cut with horizontal vents from waist to ankles, a crowd of parents and teenagers in the auditorium of Old Mill Senior High School erupted in a collective “whoa.”

At the request of Assistant Principal Patricia Plitt, the 17-year-old senior twirled to give the audience a 360-degree view of her “inappropriate” attire. When she stopped, Ms. Plitt announced a verdict: “I can’t let you stay here looking like this. Shoulders have to be covered. Middles have to meet.”

This was the third annual Old Mill fashion show—an opportunity for administrators here to display acceptable and unacceptable student dress for parents and teenagers before the first day of classes. Like many schools across the country, the 2,400-student high school recently tightened its dress code, with the latest fashions for girls attracting special attention.

The boys in the demonstration modeled familiar off-limits styles: pants sagging to reveal underwear, tight skullcaps, cutoff T-shirts, and various technological accouterments.

But this September, it’s the skin-is-in female fashions inspired by teen idols like Britney Spears and Jennifer Lopez that are really raising eyebrows. The new look is everywhere: back-to-school issues of the magazines YM and Teen Magazine are replete with advertisements for girls’ jeans that ride low and tight on the hips and shirts that expose bellies, backs, cleavage, and shoulders.

And such popular teenage-clothing outlets as Old Navy are hawking micro-miniskirts, a fashion throwback to the 1960s that many school officials find unacceptable.

“I like [my outfit] because it’s trendy and it’s comfortable,” Ms. Howard confided just before stepping onstage to model her ensemble. “I would enjoy wearing this to school.”

Jamenise Walker, 16, an Old Mill junior dressed “appropriately” in a denim skirt and black T-shirt for the show, said she believes girls’ fashions are singled out for more aggressive scrutiny simply because they change more often.

“Boys basically just have jeans and shorts and hats,” she said. “Girls have more of a variety of clothes.”

Some Old Mill boys agreed. “I think [the dress code] is starting to lean more to girls because they have more clothing,” said John Russell, 15, who was wearing a black skullcap and sagging pants with a Walkman and a cellphone attached to his pockets for the fashion show. “To a certain extent, girls show more skin.”

During the first two days of school, Ms. Plitt said, some 50 students were pulled aside for violating the dress code at Old Mill Senior High, located in the 74,000-student Anne Arundel County, Md., district.

Most agreed to put on a jacket to cover outfits that revealed too much skin, or else borrowed clothing from friends. Only one girl was suspended, for swearing at a teacher when she was told her outfit violated the policy, the assistant principal said.

“The kids have been very compliant,” Ms. Plitt said. “This has been something we’ve been working on for five years now. We didn’t have a big problem before. We’re just being more rigid about it.”

Fashion Faux Pas

That educators may be more preoccupied with female fashions when crafting school dress codes is neither new nor surprising, said Jeanne Brooks- Gunn, a professor of developmental psychology at Teachers College, Columbia University. “Forty years ago, schools were doing the same thing when they required skirts to be so many inches from the knee,” said Ms. Brooks-Gunn, who specializes in issues affecting adolescent girls. “The idea of talking about whether a skirt reaches the knee is laughable today—now it’s bare midriffs, spaghetti straps, and halter tops. Certainly the standards for how much skin can be shown have changed, but the tension is the same as schools and communities try to decide what is acceptable.”

Students in Tulsa, Okla., returned to school last month under new fashion prohibitions that apply to both sexes, including exposed underclothes, vulgar or violent tattoos, pants that hang below the waistline, and head scarves.

But many of the new clothing no- no’s—strapless shirts or dresses, spaghetti straps, bare midriffs, plunging necklines, off-the-shoulder shirts, and skirts and shorts less than 6 inches above the knee—apply strictly to girls.

“I think our overriding concern was we just simply wanted to find what was appropriate for school,” said David Sawyer, the superintendent of the 42,000-student Tulsa district. “Certainly this place called school is different from the mall, or MTV, or the bedroom.”

Parents were largely supportive of the new policy, said Robyn Sanzalone, the president of the Tulsa Council of Parent-Teacher Associations.

“I don’t think the intent was to single out particular groups, but we forget sometimes that being in school requires activities that will expose you if your clothing isn’t wide enough or long enough,” Ms. Sanzalone said. “I think there are different ways to dress depending on where you go in society. That’s just a fact.”

Administrators at Maryland’s Chesapeake High School appear to agree. The biggest problem “is that girls do not cover up enough,” they told parents and students in a letter this summer. At the 1,950- student Pasadena, Md., school, “clothing worn in such a manner so as to reveal underwear or bare skin between the upper chest and midthigh” is not allowed.

That’s the same policy that governs all schools in the Anne Arundel County district, but Chesapeake High officials felt compelled to send home a reminder before classes started.

“Shorts are so short that it is obvious where the legs end and the hips begin,” the letter from Chesapeake administrators said. “Blouses are so short that belly buttons are exposed and are so low that breasts are exposed and are so flimsy that whole backs are exposed. And some pants are so tight that the wearer can hardly maneuver.”

The letter also warned that low-hanging pants and tank tops for boys were unacceptable.

But Autumn Yeomans, the Chesapeake High School business manager, said “invariably we have more problems with the girls.”

Legal Issues

Students and parents considering mounting a legal challenge to school dress codes face an uphill battle. Courts have largely ruled in favor of clothing restrictions in schools in recent years, particularly as a means of reducing discipline problems and improving student learning, said Martha M. McCarthy, a professor in the school of education at Indiana University Bloomington who specializes in education law.

In 1986, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that vulgar or indecent student behavior was not constitutionally protected in public schools. And in 1988, the high court said “a school need not tolerate student expression that is inconsistent with its ‘basic educational mission’ even though the government could not censor similar speech outside the school.”

“That is very broad discretion for schools,” Ms. McCarthy said. “If the restrictions are imposed to curtail expression, they will be struck down. But in almost every case I’ve reviewed in the last two years, there was evidence the policy was not imposed to prevent students from expressing themselves. As long as [schools] have a legitimate educational reason, the courts will probably support them.”

At the 2,800- student Naperville Central High School in Illinois, new dress guidelines say: “No clothing considered to be revealing will be allowed on males and females.”

For boys, that specifically means no sleeveless shirts, according to the list provided by the principal.

Girls, on the other hand, can forget about a whole host of clothing trends, including one-shoulder shirts, low-cut tops, spaghetti straps, halters, bare bellies, short shorts, and bare-back shirts in classes or at school events. The new policy also bars the midriff- baring prom gowns that have been popular at the school for the past two years; gowns with spaghetti straps are permitted only if the bodices “are not considered too low-cut.”

“We live in an age where many consider modesty to be an archaic relic of the past,” Principal Tom Paulsen wrote in a June letter to parents and students. “At Naperville, we want to be sure that modesty and proper dress are not out of fashion, but are part of the total education we provide for our young people.”

Even so, body-baring fashions will likely be popular for the foreseeable future.

“We haven’t seen any particular trend toward greater modesty yet,” said Rob Callender, the communications manager for Teenage Research Unlimited, a marketing-research firm in Northbrook, Ill. “The low-rise jeans and spaghetti-strap shirts are still very young in their run.”

Administrators in some schools will get a reprieve from the skimpy styles when winter winds force students to wear warmer clothing, Mr. Callender said. “But once spring and warmer weather comes around, [students] will probably be digging those items out again.”

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