Dress Codes – Top 3 Pros and Cons
While the most frequent debate about dress codes may be centered around K-12 schools, dress codes impact just about everyone’s daily life. From the “no shirt, no shoes, no service” signs (which exploded in popularity in the 1960s and 70s in reaction to the rise of hippies) to COVID-19 pandemic mask mandates, employer restrictions on tattoos and hairstyles, and clothing regulations on airlines, dress codes are more prevalent than we might think.
While it’s difficult to pinpoint the first dress code–humans started wearing clothes around 170,000 years ago–nearly every culture and country throughout history, formally or informally, have had strictures on what to wear and not to wear. These dress codes are common “cultural signifiers,” reflecting social beliefs and cultural values, most often of the social class dominating the culture. Such codes have been prevalent in Islamic countries since the founding of the religion in the seventh century, and they continue to cause controversy today—are they appropriate regulations for maintaining piety, community, and public decency, or are they demeaning and oppressive, especially for Islamic women?
In the West, people were arrested and imprisoned as early as 1565 in England for violating dress codes. The man in question, a servant named Richard Walweyn, was arrested for wearing “a very monsterous and outraygeous great payre of hose” (or trunk hose) and was imprisoned until he could show he owned other hose “of a decent & lawfull facyon.” Other dress codes of the time reserved expensive garments made of silk, fur, and velvet for nobility only, reinforcing how dress codes have been implemented for purposes of social distinction. Informal dress codes—such as high-fashion clothes with logos and the unofficial “Midtown Uniform” worn by men working in finance–underscore how often dress codes have been used to mark and maintain visual distinctions between classes and occupations. Other dress codes have been enacted overtly to police morality, as with the bans on bobbed hair and flapper dresses of the 1920s. Still other dress codes are intended to spur an atmosphere of inclusiveness and professionalism or specifically to maintain safety in the workplace.
Should Dress Codes Be Implemented and Enforced?
Dress codes enforce decorum and a serious, professional atmosphere conducive to success.
Research shows that the quality of work improves when performed by individuals who dress up. One study found that participants who wore formal business attire (such as suits) scored higher on cognitive tests, with specific increases in abstract thinking.
Another study compared negotiations completed by a group who dressed up and another group who dressed casually. The dressed-up group closed more profitable deals.
Study participants who wore a white lab coat or who were told a white coat was a doctor’s coat made 50% fewer mistakes on high-concentration tasks than people who did not wear a lab coat or who were told the white coat was an artists’ smock.
High school athletes at St. Louis Park High School in Minnesota agreed that their teams’ dress code days (which include dressing up on game days) positively contributed to team unity. Brendan Donahue, a hockey player, said participating in dress code days better prepared him for games. He stated, “The dress codes add a further feeling of connection, teamwork and bond by wearing the same thing. It acts as a uniform much like our jerseys. Our dress code of dressing up adds a feeling of professionalism to our team and sport.”Read More
Uniformly mandated dress codes promote safety.
From school chemistry labs to manufacturing jobs, some dress code requirements are obviously about safety. Many places require protective glasses, steel-toed boots, fire-resistant jackets, hard hats, or reflective vests, for example.
Other items of clothing may be restricted for less obvious safety reasons. Leggings, for example, are frequently made from synthetic, flammable materials that could react with spilled chemicals and catch fire. Similarly, skin-baring clothing may also be banned around chemicals to prevent burns.
Religious headscarves have been banned in some settings, such as prisons, because wearers could be strangled by the garments in an altercation.
Still other dress codes, such as no full-face masks (like Halloween masks) allowed in movie theaters, are intended to help prevent shootings and other violence.
Other clothing restrictions at schools and public places may seem arbitrary but are used to protect against gang activity. Colors, brands, and logos may be gang-affiliated in certain locations. As Lincoln Public Schools in Nebraska explained, “Clothing and accessories associated with gangs and hate groups have the potential to disrupt the learning environment by bringing symbols that represent fear and intimidation of others into classrooms. The identification and prohibition of this clothing help decrease the impact of gangs and hate groups in school. These rules also protect students who are unaware they are wearing clothes with a gang or hate group affiliation.”Read More
Dress codes promote inclusiveness and a comfortable, cooperative environment while eliminating individualistic attire that can distract from common goals.
As Bonneville Academy, a STEM school in Stansbury Park, Utah, explained, “The primary objective of a school dress code is to build constant equality among all the students. When all the students wear the same style of dress, then there will be the same kind of atmosphere across the school campus. This pattern encourages the student to concentrate more on their academic and co-curricular activities… then all the learning becomes more interesting and relevant… Students who are used to dress[ing] properly will be well equipped to evolve into the actual world, especially when they enter into the ever-competitive job market.”
Susan M. Heathfield, a management and organization development consultant, stated, “Employees appreciate guidance about appropriate business attire for your workplace—especially when you specify a rationale for the dress code that your team has selected.” Simply knowing whether suits are required or jeans are appropriate removes guesswork for employees, which leads to a more comfortable work environment. Similarly, dress codes can make a disparate group of people feel like a team—no one is left out or judged differently solely on the basis of the way they dress.
Dress codes can also make workplace hierarchies friendlier and more work-conducive. A manager who dresses in suits with ties may intimidate employees who wear branded polo shirts and khakis, preventing effective communication.
Further, dress codes mean employees and customers or clients won’t be distracted by individualistic clothing. For example, a customer of Nebraska State Bank & Trust Co. complained to the bank’s president about a branch employee’s outfit of mismatched tunic and leggings, fringed boots, and large earrings. A customer complaint can not only alienate the customer but also distract employees from their tasks and potentially embarrass or shame the employee whose outfit sparked the complaint.Read More
Dress codes reinforce racist standards of beauty and dress.
As the National Women’s Law Center summarized, “Black girls face unique dress and hair code burdens. For example, some schools ban styles associated with Black girls and women, like hair wraps. Black girls also face adults’ stereotyped perceptions that they are more sexually provocative because of their race, and thus more deserving of punishment for a low-cut shirt or short skirt.”
Assistant Superintendent and Principal of Evanston Township High School, Marcus Campbell spoke about changing an outdated dress code: “if certain females were not a certain body type, if they had more curves or they had certain features that were developed, they were dress coded over another young lady who may not have the same features but were wearing the exact same items. Our young women of color were dress coded more than our white girls were. So we found it to be racist, we found it to be sexist, we found it to be antiquated. It was not body positive, and there was just trouble all around with our dress code, and we knew we needed to make a change.”
Banning traditionally Black hairstyles goes back at least to tignon laws passed after emancipation, which required Black women to cover their hair with scarves (tignons) so as to not compete with white women. But these rules continue today as Black girls and women aren’t always allowed to wear their hair in braids, locs, or other styles suitable to Black hair texture at school or work.
Black male students are often “dress coded” at schools for hoodies, low-rise or baggy pants, and do-rags. Black boys were also more likely to be disciplined (suspended, for example) for a dress code violation than non-Black students.
As Dialectic, a company that counsels workplaces, concluded, “Traditional dress codes work to police certain kinds of bodies. They ensure that employees follow the practices of the dominant culture. Under the guise of professionalism, dress codes tend to punish marginalized groups of employees for refusing to conform.”Read More
Uniformly mandated dress codes are seldom uniformly mandated, often discriminating against women and marginalized groups.
The average dress code, whether for a school, workplace, public transportation, or other location, includes more rules for how girls and women should dress than how boys and men should dress.
Girls in school are frequently “dress-coded” for “too short” shorts and skirts, “too thin” tank top straps, leggings, and other clothing that might be a “distraction to boys.”
Fourth-grade teacher Marci Kutzer said these rules send a clear message to girls: “A boy’s education can be compromised by your gender. Please do what you can to neutralize it.”
The problems follow women into the workplace. A leaked training presentation from Ernst & Young coached women to “look healthy and fit” with a “good haircut, manicured nails, well-cut attire that complements your body type,” but not to wear too-short skirts because “sexuality scrambles the mind.”
Dress codes also frequently exclude people outside of the gender binary and/or force them to adhere to the codes for their sex assigned at birth.
Journalist Li Zhou explained, “Transgender students have been sent home for wearing clothing different than what’s expected of their legal sex, while others have been excluded from yearbooks. Male students, using traditionally female accessories that fell within the bounds of standard dress code rules, and vice versa, have been nonetheless disciplined for their fashion choices.” Similarly, the Ernst & Young training excluded non-binary and gender non-conforming people.Read More
Dress codes bolster religious and cultural intolerance.
Only in 2019 did US Congress change the 1837 rule that banned headwear of any sort, including religious headwear such as kippahs, hijabs, and turbans.
While the United States protects religious expression and cannot ban religious wear as France has banned burqas and hijabs, American dress codes frequently use acceptability standards to less explicitly ban religious garb.
A 5-year-old Native American Texas boy was sent home for a dress code violation because he wore his hair in a long braid according to tribal religious code, which states hair must not be cut except when in mourning. And a Georgia State Representative tried (and failed) to add hijabs, niqabs, and burqas to an existing anti-masking law originally aimed at the Klu Klux Klan (KKK).
Until sued by Tvli Birdshead, then a high school senior and a member of five Native American tribes, the Latta School District in Oklahoma refused to allow Native American regalia on graduation day, which for Birdshead meant a Chickasaw Nation honor cord, a beaded cap, and a sacred eagle feather. Native American Rights Fund has long battled to protect the cultural and religious rights of Native Americans against discriminatory school dress codes.Read More
1. Consider the official dress codes in your daily life. How are dress codes implemented in your school, workplace, and/or religious institutions? Do you find these appropriate? Restrictive? Explain your answer(s).
2. Consider the unofficial dress codes in your life. What do your friends think is acceptable for various occasions? What do you wear when visiting a place of worship or to grandma’s house for a special dinner? How do you dress differently when hanging around with friends than when going on a date? Do you find these formal and informal codes appropriate or restrictive? Explain your answer(s).
3. If you have to choose one, would you prefer a uniform policy for school and work, just a dress code, or neither? Explain your answer.
1. Consider the pros of dress codes with Bonneville Academy.
2. Analyze students’ rights about school dress codes with the ACLU.
3. Examine the history of rules and laws about clothing and the contemporary repercussions with law professor Richard Thompson Ford.
4. Consider how you felt about the issue before reading this article. After reading the pros and cons on this topic, has your thinking changed? If so, how? List two to three ways. If your thoughts have not changed, list two to three ways your better understanding of the “other side of the issue” now helps you better argue your position.
|1.||Christopher Dolan and Lourdes De Armas, “No Shoes, No Shirt, No Mask = No Service,” dolanlawfirm.com, Feb. 11, 2021|
|2.||Society for Human Resource Management, “May Employers Have Dress Code Requirements That Prohibit All Visible Tattoos and Piercings?,” shrm.org (accessed Mar. 3, 2022)|
|3.||Workplace Fairness, “Dress Codes and Grooming,” workplacefairness.org (accessed Mar. 3, 2022)|
|4.||Corinn Jackson, “Dear Littler: Can We Still Maintain Hairstyle and Personal Grooming Policies?,” littler.com, Dec. 9, 2019|
|5.||Apeksha Bhateja, “Do Airlines Have the Right to Dictate Dress Codes?,” fodors.com, Aug. 6, 2021|
|6.||University of Florida, “UF Study of Lice DNA Shows Humans First Wore Clothes 170,000 Years Ago,” news.ufl.edu, Jan. 6, 2011|
|7.||Rachelle Hampton, “When Wearing the Wrong Pants Could Land You in Prison,” slate.com, Feb. 10, 2021|
|8.||Stanford University, “Dress Codes: How the Laws of Fashion Made History,” stanford.edu (accessed Mar. 4, 2022)|
|9.||Facing History, “Debating the Ban of the Veil in Public Schools,” facinghistory.org (accessed Mar. 3, 2022)|
|10.||Facing History, “A Brief History of the Veil in Islam,” facinghistory.org (accessed May 5, 2022)|
|11.||Jake Flanagin, “Why Are All These Business Bros Wearing the Same Vest?,” esquire.com, July 9, 2018|
|12.||Rumble Romagnoli, “To Shout or to Whisper? Dissecting Quiet and Loud Luxury,” thedrum.com, Feb. 26, 2020|
|13.||Matthew Hutson and Tori Rodriguez,“ scientificamerican.com, Jan. 1, 2016|
|14.||Alyse Kalish, “The Scientific Reason Why Dressing for Success Works (with a Twist, of Course),” themuse.com (accessed Mar. 2, 2022)|
|15.||Alec Pittman, “Sports Dress Codes Create Sense of Unity,” slpecho.com, Dec. 27, 2016|
|16.||Society for Human Resource Management, “Managing Employee Dress and Appearance,” shrm.org (accessed Mar. 1, 2022)|
|17.||Susan M. Heathfield, “Photos of Acceptable Warehouse, Industrial, and Manufacturing Attire: The Dress Code for Warehouse and Similar Jobs,” thebalancecareers.com, Nov. 20, 2019|
|18.||George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences, “Laboratory Dress Code,” smhs.gwu.edu (accessed Mar. 1, 2022)|
|19.||Michigan State University, “Proper Lab Dress,” chemistry.msu.edu (accessed Mar. 1, 2022)|
|20.||Mari Schaefer, “Delaware County Prison Employees Lose Appeal on Head Scarves,” inquirer.com, Aug. 3, 2010|
|21.||Maryclaire Dale, “Court Says Pa. Prison Can Ban Muslim Scarf,” nbcnews.com, Aug. 2, 2010|
|22.||Reuters, “Two US Movie Theater Chains Ban Masks at Screenings of ‘Joker,’” cnbc.com, Sep. 27, 2019|
|23.||Lincoln Public Schools, “Increased Awareness of Dress Code Guidelines Related to Gangs, Hate Groups,” lps.org (accessed Mar. 1, 2022)|
|24.||Bonneville Academy, “What Are the Benefits of the School Dress Code?,” bonnevilleacademy.org (accessed Mar. 2, 2022)|
|25.||Susan M. Heathfield, “Sample Dress Code Policy for Business Attire,” thebalancecareers.com, Sep. 29, 2019|
|26.||Maddie Grant and Tess C. Taylor, “Should Companies Relax Their Dress Codes?,” shrm.org, June 1, 2016|
|27.||Nyasha Ziwewe, “Does Workplace Dress Code Matter,” thehumancapitalhub.com, Nov. 14, 2019|
|28.||Angie Shinn, et al., “Dress Codes in the Workplace: Effects on Organizational Culture,” central.edu, 2011|
|29.||Theresa Agovino, “Fashion Statement,” shrm.org, May 18, 2019|
|30.||National Women’s Law Center, “Dress Coded: Black Girls, Bodies, and Bias in D.C. Schools,” nwlc.org, 2018|
|31.||Jennifer Gonzalez, “Time to Take a Look at Your Dress Code,” cultofpedagogy.com, Feb. 17, 2019|
|32.||Claire Elise Katz, “You’re Wearing That? From School Dress Codes to Rape Culture,” blog.apaonline.org, July 28, 2021|
|33.||Alyssa Pavlakis and Rachel Roegman, “How Dress Codes Criminalize Males and Sexualize Females of Color,” kappanonline.org, Sep. 24, 2018|
|34.||Dialectic, “How Dress Codes Feed Systemic Racism,” dialectic.solutions, Sep. 10, 2020|
|35.||Li Zhou, “The Sexism of School Dress Codes,” theatlantic.com, Oct. 20, 2015|
|36.||Kira Barrett, “When School Dress Codes Discriminate,” nea.org, July 24, 2018|
|37.||Emily Peck, “Women at Ernst & Young Instructed on How to Dress, Act Nicely around Men,” huffpost.com, Oct. 21, 2019|
|38.||Dana Wilkie, “When Do Dress Codes That Perpetuate Gender Stereotypes Cross the Line?,” shrm.org, Mar. 18, 2019|
|39.||Tara Law, “Congressional Rule Change Allows Head Scarves, Religious Headwear on House Floor,” time.com, Jan. 6, 2019|
|40.||Cady Lang, “Who Gets to Wear a Headscarf? The Complicated History Behind France's Latest Hijab Controversy,” time.com, May 19, 2021|
|41.||Shaista Aziz, “France Is on a Dangerous Collision Course with Its Muslim Population,” cnn.com, Feb. 5 2022|
|42.||Feliks Garcia, “US State Bill Could Make Hijabs and Niqabs Illegal in Public,” independent.co.uk, Nov. 17, 2016|
|43.||Lisa Suhay, “Dress Code Flare Up: Native American Kindergartner Sent Home for Braid,” csmonitor.com, Sep. 2, 2014|
|44.||Oklahoma News 4, “School Officials: Native American Regalia Not Allowed at Graduation Ceremony,” kfor.com, Apr. 9, 2019|
|45.||Native American Rights Fund, “School Board Agrees to Amend Policy on Graduation Dress Code,” narf.org, May. 7, 2019|
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