Equity & Diversity Explainer

School Dress Code Debates, Explained

By Eesha Pendharkar — December 27, 2022 6 min read
In this Sept. 7, 2018 photo, students socialize at Grant High School in Portland, Ore., after school let out. Portland Public Schools relaxed its dress code in 2016 after student complaints that the rules unfairly targeted female students and sexualized their fashion choices.
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Are school dress codes a tool for student safety or a restriction on their self-identity? The question has been debated for years.

But more recently, dress codes have come up as an equity issue after reports that Black students, girls, and LGBTQ students across the country are disproportionately affected by school dress codes. Some districts have imposed harsh punishments on those groups of students, including in- or out-of-school suspensions, for violations of dress codes. And a federal Government Accountability Office report recently concluded there’s a lack of model policies to help school districts set dress codes that are fair to everyone.

Here are answers to some common questions about dress codes.

What are school dress codes?

Ninety-three percent of school districts have dress codes or policies on what students wear to school. These policies are meant to provide guidelines on what students can and can’t wear, including specific pieces of clothing, hairstyles, and accessories. Dress codes can vary widely in what they restrict. Some schools even require students to wear uniforms. Most often, though, dress codes ban clothes that the district considers revealing, distracting, controversial, or pose a safety threat to students.

What do school dress codes ban?

The vast majority of dress codes—90 percent—ban clothing associated with girls, the GAO report found. They also impose limits on the types of clothes students can wear. Commonly banned clothing items include halter or strapless tops, “skirts or shorts shorter than mid-thigh,” and “yoga pants or any type of skin tight attire,” the report says.

About a quarter of them specifically bar the exposure of “cleavage,” “breasts,” or “nipples,” which are aimed at female students. Many ban bare midriffs as well.

Almost 69 percent of dress codes ban clothing associated with boys, such as “muscle tees” and “sagging pants.”

And 59 percent of dress codes have rules about students’ hairstyles that disproportionately impact Black students, the GAO report found.

102622 GAO Dress Code BS

Should schools have dress codes?

In the GAO report, the agency found that most dress codes cite safety as a reason for having guidelines.

But the enforcement of dress codes often ends up penalizing students for their clothing or hair, rather than protecting them, some researchers argue.

“A lot of times these codes, while they’re supposed to be designed to keep students safe and to be able to engage in learning, do more harm than good, and are not inclusive of all identities,” said Courtney Mauldin, an assistant professor of educational leadership at Syracuse University.

Some things banned in dress codes, such as hate speech or hate symbols, can actually do the intended job of protecting students, however. Symbols or wording that promote racism, homophobia, or intolerance should be banned by school dress codes, Mauldin said, because dress codes, like all other equity and school climate initiatives, should aim to make all students feel welcome.

“We have to have some very hard and fast things about what’s not allowed or tolerated,” Mauldin said. “But we can’t simultaneously, in that same section of the handbook, criminalize or stigmatize people’s culture and religious practices.”

When were school dress codes developed?

Schools have had restrictions on dress for decades, though some of them have been challenged in court. In 1969, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Des Moines district violated students’ First Amendment rights to free speech after it suspended them for wearing black armbands to protest the Vietnam War. But the high court has never ruled on a school dress code in its entirety.

Schools began widely implementing modern-day dress codes and uniforms in the 1990s as a response to “increasing student-discipline problems, particularly from gang violence,” according to the Free Speech Center at Middle Tennessee State University. Gang-related symbols and clothing items began to be banned, for example, as well as clothing that obscures students’ faces and makes it hard to identify intruders on campus.

But as the American student body has diversified, many district dress codes still cater to the dominant white culture, Mauldin said. This is evident in schools banning items of clothing, or hairstyles associated with certain groups, like braids or dreadlocks.

Fifty nine percent of dress codes have rules about students’ hairstyles that disproportionately impact Black students, the GAO report found.

“A lot of the origins of some of the policies, practices and traditions that we have in school, they’re antiquated,” Mauldin said. “They come from decades ago, when schools were designed for a certain group of people in mind, which was very much white-dominant culture.”

Are school dress codes sexist?

In addition, the enforcement of dress codes is often discriminatory, as the GAO found. Educators who enforce them often unfairly target students of color, LGBTQ students, and girls.

That’s because a lot of school dress codes are gendered, and over 90 percent ban clothing worn predominantly by girls.

For example, dress codes sometimes mandate that boys are prohibited from wearing long hair, or specify that girls are required to wear skirts of a certain length.

“There are dress codes, of course, that do distinguish based on gender on their face,” said Linda Morris, a staff attorney in the Women’s Rights Project of the American Civil Liberties Union. “But I would say that there are also other dress codes that are not facially gendered, but still include language that is clearly gendered, and it’s clearly targeted at girls, and targeted at hairstyles or pieces of clothing disproportionately worn by students of color.”

Enforcing dress codes also can require adults to touch children to measure the length of their skirts or the width of their shoulder straps, which can be unsafe and demeaning, according to Morris.

How can districts make dress codes more equitable?

The U.S. Department of Education is in the process of developing some model policies for schools.

To create their own dress codes that don’t reinforce gender or racial stereotypes, districts need to think about the message they’re sending to students, Mauldin said. For example, does using words like provocative and revealing unfairly target girls’ clothing by implying that girls are dressing a certain way to gain sexual attention or to prompt a strong reaction?

“Those words alone, a very problematic message to girls in a school,” Mauldin said. “Also it’s a problematic message to all students in the school about what a woman is supposed to look like, how she should be described, and how she should present herself in society.”

Equity audits are also good way to analyze what proportion of school discipline is related to dress code violations, and which groups of students are most impacted by it.

“You have to do something with that data and let it speak to transform your policies,” Mauldin said. “And you might need to change these policies because overwhelmingly they [impact] particular groups of students.”

Students are often the drivers of dress code changes in schools, Morris said, because they advocate against dress codes they find restrictive. Schools should listen to their students and think about the message they’re trying to convey through what is banned and what isn’t included in a dress code, both experts said.

“You don’t want students to feel like there’s something wrong with their identities,” Mauldin said.

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