What If You Ruled the School Dress Code?

What If You Ruled the School Dress Code? (Illustration: Jen Tribbet)

Oakland, CAAbout half of all public schools in America have a strictly enforced dress code, which means a lot of us have to think twice each morning before getting dressed. Sometimes dress codes are designed to keep us safe, like a ban on open-toed shoes in science labs. But when there’s no health issue, it’s harder to pin down the logic.

Commonly banned clothing categories include baggy, tight and revealing clothing, according to the dress code policies YR Media analyzed from 42 schools across the United States. Given that range, how do schools even decide what’s off-limits? What are dress codes really for?  

Before I share my take, what if you got to rule school dress code policy? Check out the outfits below and decide which you think are violations — and then compare your answers to a subset of actual dress codes from schools across the country.*

One last note: dress codes are subjective! We’ve made our best attempt to interpret the published codes, but sometimes it’s a hard call. That’s why we’re sharing the codes in full, so you can judge for yourself. Oh and remember: as we all know, official policies don’t always match what happens in real life...

* Why those schools? We picked them because they’re located in metropolitan regions where the YR Media audience is concentrated and represent a range of types (public, private, charter, parochial) with diverse demographics.

Okay so we know how your dress code judgments compare to real-life examples. Now, we’ll go deeper.

Let’s Talk About Gender

A common justification for dress codes is that they keep students from being “distracted” or  “distracting” others. It’s been widely reported that girls are more likely to have their outfits policed and be asked to alter their appearances for the sake of others. Taken to an extreme, this core idea came up last year in a rape case where the victim’s lace underwear was reportedly used in court as proof that her clothing signaled her consent, according to The Irish Times. Also, take the example from our line-up of outfits with a non-binary student in a dress. Would a ban on an outfit that “causes distractions or inhibits the learning process” make that one off-limits — using the code to enforce gender norms? School is where students first form perceptions of the world around them. Dress codes risk normalizing an outdated sexism that young people can carry into adulthood.

Getting Ready For Work?

Most of us eventually graduate from school to the workplace, where discrimination, harassment and the wage gap are widespread, and these problems are related to dress codes, too. Of course, modest dress can be a show of respect, whether at a place of worship or a job interview, and that’s important. But students aren't doing a job or getting paid. Some dress code proponents argue that dressing professionally helps prepare students for the workplace, but why not allow students to take advantage of these years for personal expression before they have to adhere to dress guidelines for the rest of their lives?

Ironically, while dress codes might be designed to reduce sexualization at school, the effect for those whose bodies are policed is often the opposite — suddenly they’re being viewed and shamed for how they look. In the #MeToo era, dress codes can feel out of date and just plain out of touch with the current political climate.

Social Control

Clothing is not just clothing. Take a headscarf. Banning that can be a coordinated attack on a person’s religious identity. Gang-associated garments are another tricky case. The term “gang-related” gets twisted and racialized in a lot of dress code policies. One school in the YR Media sample bans chains, bandanas, stylized belt buckles, and PLAIN WHITE T-SHIRTS because they’re considered to be “gang-related,” and it’s hard to find a school that doesn’t ban sagging. Essentially, if you want to dress like a popular rapper, you are labelled a “thug” or “gang member.” These rules put people in boxes and criminalize some of the culture trends associated with people of color.

Now that you’ve read my take, do you want to go back and re-assess those outfits above? Also: if you went to school with the clothes you’re wearing now, would your outfit pass?


  • Ariel Tang
  • Dante Brundage
  • Elisabeth Guta
  • Jen Tribbet
  • Marlene Rodriguez
  • Mila Sutphin
  • Shanya Williams
  • Radamés Ajna + Asha Richardson 
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