Intersections: Dress Codes and Ethics

September 19, 2017 by Bill Ivey

I understand that in our society, how we dress is linked to respect. Though I love wearing gym shorts and a tank top, there are certainly occasions where I wouldn’t do so.

I also understand that in our society, we have gendered dress to a frightening degree. The lines have blurred somewhat over the past half-century, true, but primarily to allow girls access to “boy clothes.” Boys seeking access to “girl clothes” still generally draw a certain level of concern if not outright scorn. Where non-binary kids fall in all of this is rarely even brought up.

The gendering of dress leads perhaps inevitably to the gendering of dress codes. Kristin Chirico of Buzzfeed deliberately tried to follow eight different high school’s dress codes and in the resulting article explained how she not only found it difficult to assemble "appropriate" clothing from her adult woman wardrobe but also found it super awkward to feel constantly observed and judged. That said, it is possible, though extremely rare, for a dress code to be written in a way that does not end up objectifying girls.

Into this context, with depressing regularity, come calls for students to “dress to impress.” Business casual was suggested in one recent article. But why specifically business casual? I frequently hear the advice to “dress for the job you want.” A friend of mine just posted a picture of her daughter, who had realized her dream of working for a local auto mechanic, working on her car. She was bursting with pride. Should her daughter have thus worn mechanics’ clothes to high school? What purpose would have been served by forcing her into business casual? To what extent is classism a factor here?

And speaking of classism, I’ve often heard the concern that school dress codes lead to stress in families who might have to scrape together money to buy all new (to them) clothing when a given child starts out in a new school. And even beyond that, when kids are of an age where they are growing quickly, the skirt that was acceptable in the fall must often be replaced in the spring.

Race, too, is a factor. Many of the Black men I know who teach have talked of the importance in their minds of wearing a tie, and many of the Black women I know who teach hold themselves to equivalent standards for equivalent reasons. In line with that thinking, one of my friends supported the call for students to wear business casual. Her life experience brings a perspective that needs to be part of the conversation as well.

All of this was running through my mind as I drove to school today, because two of the Juniors want to meet with me tomorrow to talk about some of their thoughts on our school’s dress code and ethics and what changes might be made. I’ve been advocating for years for us to look at whether a feminist dress code is possible and if so what it might look like. I’d still love to see that, but really, in the end, this moment is about the kids and their own ideas. Years ago, their Humanities 7 class had had some really good discussions on the topic as part of a unit on judging:

“They felt that judging is a given in life, and that dress codes can provide a standard for judging. Brand names and other clothing-based commonalities can provoke judgment but can also serve to identify a sense of community with other people. Finally, they noted as a general given that choosing clothing is a matter of self-expression, and that your choices communicate something about you. (...) They felt dress codes might serve to prevent judging by narrowing options, that some people’s clothing choices might “scare people” (in their words) but shouldn’t. However, they also noted that people shouldn’t really be judged by their clothes and that people should know what to wear anyway. Ultimately, they felt dress codes should be written so as to minimize or even eliminate judging.” (from a 2014 blog post, “Equalist Dress Code”)

Our school’s dress code has evolved over the past four years, and these students have experienced four years of amazing growth. Where is their thinking now? What are the specific ethical questions they’re asking? I’m excited to find out, to support them as makes sense, and to see what next steps they take.

Written by Bill Ivey

A dedicated member of the faculty, Bill Ivey is the Middle School Dean at Stoneleigh-Burnham School. He teaches Humanities 7 and the Middle and Upper School Rock Bands. Bill is the advisor for MOCA, the middle school student government, and he coordinates and participates in the middle school service program. Among his many hats, Bill also coordinates social media for Stoneleigh-Burnham School.

Find me on:

Filed Under: dress code, social justice, feminist dress code, Feminism, feminist school, Intersections