In discussing the various impacts and ethics of fashion, I spend most of my time thinking about choices. Where we buy clothes, how we take care of them, what kind of clothes we buy, what we choose to support with our dollars. There is an incredible amount of freedom for expression and presentation in the way we dress ourselves. It is an essential way in which we interface with the world. Yes, clothing is superficial, but this superficial layer provides the first impression for all the strangers we see everyday. It can be an outward manifestation and presentation of identity.
A recent casual conversation at work brought back some memories of a time during which my choices around clothing were far more restricted. The most demanding dress code I have experienced I found in what should seem like an unlikely place, the public school system.
It was another typical Tuesday. I walked purposefully into the office, cutting it close to that magic hour, clutching a purple travel mug with green tea steaming inside. I shrugged off my coat and settled in for another day of bouncing on my exercise ball office chair while I type. I had dressed that morning in a pair of high rise, light wash jeans with a little distressed detailing on the thighs, handed down to me by my husband’s grandmother, who happens to be almost exactly my size. I paired those with a dark blouse, a gray cardigan, and boots, pretty much my normal work attire. As we were settling in for the day, one of my coworkers complimented me on my new pants. It’s a small enough office that you notice the little things. She subsequently commented, “you wouldn’t believe this, but my daughter wouldn’t be able to wear those to school.”
Shocked, I had to ask what was wrong with these pants. They literally were handed down to me by a grandmother, albeit a youthful and stylish one. Apparently, the local public school has ruled that distressed jeans, or pants with holes in them are totally unacceptable for the educational environment. That strikes me as utterly ridiculous. I couldn’t think of anything distracting or objectionable about them. Clearly, I had deemed them appropriate for work attire, so the fact that a child could not sit through math class in them seemed pretty objectionable. (To be clear, I do work in a rather permissive office environment. The vibe is very much jeans and boots.)
After my initial indignation, I started to think about my own experience in high school. Although it’s been about a decade since I graduated from my public high school, I still remember the ridiculous restrictions placed on the attire of the students. Hazy memories of arbitrary requirements for the length of shorts and skirts based on the relationship between hems and fingertips surface. As a relatively long armed but short legged person, I developed a strong preference for wearing pants year round, rather than risk shorts which might be deemed unacceptable. I remembered what even then seemed like garbage standards about the thickness of straps compared to fingers. I recalled classmates being forced to wear oversize school spirit wear from the lost and found if they were found to be in violation of the dress code. What a misallocation of energy and resources!
With my mind churning through the implications and executions of dress codes in public schools, I started to dig into a few articles and podcasts. Though I do not have children, I find myself troubled at the thought of the perpetuation of harm caused by school dress codes and the long lasting implications thereof. I realized that my experiences are only a tiny tip of the iceberg. As a cis, straight woman, I have privileges which insulated me from the full impact of the policies. Dress codes extend beyond the realm of arbitrary and vexatious; they actively cause harm. The issues associated with dress codes, and the enforcement thereof, reveal racist, homophobic, misogynisitic, and patriarchal motivations. While the same can be said for many social norms, unfortunately, this one particularly deserves attention, as children suffer the consequences of these actions. While a number of changes have been made in recent years, a great deal of work remains.
The enforcement of arbitrary standards by public educational institutions disproportionately impacts children who are people of color, girls, and/or members of the LGBTQIA+ community. Not content to restrict clothing garments, schools also place restrictions on the style, cut, and colors of hair. So-called grooming codes lay limitations on jewelry, piercings, and makeup. Disturbingly, some dress codes even go so far as to require the wearing of certain undergarments. The policing of the undergarments of children manifests as an instantly disturbing and objectionable policy.
Many dress codes are still written using only heteronormative terms. “Ladies must not wear strappy tank tops or tops which reveal the straps of undergarments.” Such language is reductive and fails to acknowledge the breadth of the human experience, while invalidating the identities of members of the LGBTQIA+ community. Many dress codes also prohibit or penalize gender expression, which creates yet another difficulty for these young people.
These clothing and appearance standards, allegedly in the name of pursuit of educational focus in the classroom, reinforce heteronomative standards, instill body shame, and perpetuate a society which hypersexualizes children. The idea that the way a person dresses can distract others teaches victim blaming which can cause lifelong harm.
Restrictions on hair color, style, and cut disproportionately impact children of color. This manifestation of racism in an educational environment normalizes extremely objectionable views. Hundreds of people who suffered at the hands of such policies have come forward, sharing their experiences and advocating for the passage of the Crown Act. Unfortunately, untold thousands have been negatively impacted by such flawed policies.
Dress codes and the adjacent “grooming codes” limit a key means of expression during a time in which many people are coming into their own and discovering their identities. Free choice of clothing allows people to begin to build a relationship with their physical selves, to exercise some measure of control over their presentation to others, and to express their own sense of self to the world. Such limitations in schools distract from the purpose of the institutions and instill enduring consequences for these children. Of course, while there are a plethora of issues with the policies themselves, bias on the part of the humans who write and enforce those policies poses a significant challenge. Standards composed without consideration of the experience of the students impacted and unequal application of those standards cannot have any place in an educational environment.
To be clear, I do believe that educational institutions have the right, and even the obligation to limit certain fashion choices. These choices include, but should largely be limited to, the wearing of clothing with hate symbols, or profane or illicit images. These standards must be equitably applied to all students, regardless of gender, sexuality, race, religion, etc. The enforcement of other standards, however, holds no place in a publicly funded educational environment.
I loathe thinking about the harm that these dress codes cause children every day. Though high school students are progressing into their adult lives, many have little autonomy or agency to rebel in meaningful ways against the educational institutions which hold so much power over their lives.
As a person who has no children, I cannot exactly show up to the PTA meetings with my prepared remarks in hand. However, there are ways to become involved. More and more students are taking to social media to expose the abuses of their school dress codes and to shame the educators who insist on perpetuating this cycle of harm in the name of “maintenance of an educational environment.” Sharing and consuming this content offers a low cost means of involvement. State and local campaigns are underway in many areas. If you have the energy and bandwidth to become involved, these offer a chance to participate in advocacy for the current and future students. Other efforts, such as voting for members of your own local school board in elections, can ensure that educators and administrators are held to a higher standard.
More so than anything else, we all need to abandon any shred of the toxic belief that these dress codes are “normal” because we may have experienced them. When people of one generation say “well, we lived through it so it can’t be that bad,” we turn our backs to the younger generations. This cycle creates nothing but harm. When we evaluate our own experiences through a lens which gives compassion to our past selves and acknowledges the harm we and others may have received and the importance of creating change in the future.
Eleni Georgiadis is a classically trained horn player currently residing in Kentucky. Outside of music, she enjoys knitting, sewing, composting, kombucha brewing, and spending time outdoors. She is thrilled to have the opportunity to share her thoughts about sustainability and inclusivity in fashion, weaving together her technical knowledge, passion, and research.