The Ultimate Pros & Cons List— Dress Codes

Media provided by Gazette Media Staff.

Dress codes and uniforms are common fixtures in schools around the world. Recently, students in the United States have protested the restrictions that dress codes present, calling them stifling, uncomfortable, and suffocating — both physically and emotionally (CBS8 2021). However, it seems as though the concerns of students are not taken into account when administrators decide on what comprises an appropriate dress code. Are administrators ignoring students or do their reasons for implementing a dress code outweigh the opinions of students? 

 In the Middle School, unlike the high school, there is a uniform in place (Family Handbook, pages 32-34). Ms. Elsa Hepner, Head of the Grace Middle School, explained reasons for the uniform: “[The uniform is designed to] provide identity and a sense of membership in the community [and] ensure that clothing worn at school is comfortable and appropriate for daily activities.” 

Male students in grades K-8 must wear pants and a collared shirt, and female students are required to wear a jumper with a collared shirt underneath (the dress code varies from season to season). Recently, female students are allowed to wear pants to school; however, female students are not allowed to wear shorts, and male students are not allowed to wear skirts. 

Over the past couple of years, the Middle School Student Council has sent two letters to Mr. George Davison, Head of School, expressing concerns about how the dress code may interfere with students’ gender expression. In their initial letter, the Student Council explained: “Grace seeks to develop in each student mental keenness, physical confidence, pleasure in learning, and the skills basic to understanding one’s self and the world …the uniform policy is not aligned to our mission as a school.” The uniform has not been degendered and is not in the process, despite this letter. The Student Council voiced their disagreements to that decision in their second letter: “Teaching gender expression through our uniform can help children understand that it is okay to wear clothing that society had not taught them to wear.” 

Matilde Ettedgui, a seventh grade representative in the Student Council, wrote to a Gazette reporter: “Gender is a spectrum and not everyone fits into the category of boy or girl, which is what the uniform at [the Grace Middle School] is targeted towards.”

Asked to comment on the Middle School dress code, Mr. Davison suggested that the current dress code provides options to students who do not identify as male or female.

“Gender Neutral is not Gender Male,” Mr. Davison wrote in an email. “Gender does exist in a spectrum and students who identify as male, female or non-binary have a place for their gender expression in the context of the current uniform guidelines.”

The uniform at the Middle School seems rigid concerning the articles of clothing appropriate for a narrow and traditional understanding of gender. The Grace High School Student Handbook contains a section that highlights the dress code students must abide by when in the school building. There is a list of clothing articles that would violate this dress code such as “sweat and track pants” and “tank tops and cropped tops.” It also numbers the consequences of breaking the dress code repeatedly, including being “sent home for the day and placed on Behavioral Contract” (Student Handbook). Clearly, Grace takes the dress code very seriously and wants to make sure students are dressed “appropriately” during school hours.

Students [not interviewed] in the Middle School. Media provided by Gazette Media Staff.

Students interviewed by the Gazette expressed their concerns with sexism within dress codes. Liz P. ‘22 explained: “The implications [of dress codes] can be even more harmful because imparting to young women, in particular, that it is their job to cover up so as to avoid the drifting eyes of their male classmates is damaging in lasting ways.” Nylah M. ‘22 added: “Many dress codes tend to be sexist and emphasize how women are objectified and sexualized.” When dress codes accentuate misogyny in school spaces, a safe space meant to facilitate learning and overall development, they can become very problematic and harmful.  

Traditionally, dress codes have targeted female students, dictating that they wear clothing that does not “distract” their male classmates. Ms. Kim Chaloner, dean of community life, explained that when creating the dress code, the school’s goal was to try to remove “any implication that the dress code is about gender.” 

Although the creators of the High School dress code operated with the intention of removing the concept of gender entirely, the history of dress codes has a prevalent impact on students’ views of dress codes that should be carefully considered. It is difficult to erase the history of sexism within dress codes especially within the minds of students who are required to follow them. Therefore, administrators should be aware of the lasting impacts of history when considering what is appropriate to wear to school. 

There are benefits to having a dress code without a multitude of restrictions. Clothing is an important mode of external self-expression. Pippa L. ‘25 wrote in an email to the Gazette, “Since my last school had a uniform, this year I have been able to express myself more through the clothes I wear, and I have been able to choose what I want to wear based on my own mood.” 

The transition from a strict uniform to a more relaxed dress code was freeing for Pippa. On the other hand, Adam H. ‘24 stated that “self-expression does not really influence my decision as to what I wear on any given day.” 

Both interviewees expressed their gratitude to Grace for censoring clothing that may be offensive. 

There is a clear, beneficial purpose for uniforms. Ms. Chaloner explained that the purpose of the Middle School’s uniform was “to make sure that there is equality across clothing because, when there’s a socio-economic piece, it can become an area where people’s differences are highlighted.” 

Administrators try to prevent students from showing up to school in outwardly expensive clothing and accessories that could cause students with a different socioeconomic status to feel alienated.  Ms. Hepner echoed the ideas of Ms. Chaloner: “[The uniform is designed to] remove issues of clothing competition and commercialized fashion from the daily lives of our students.” 

School should be a place to learn in a safe, accepting environment, and dress codes are a beneficial way to eliminate any class divisions among students. 

As Ms. Chaloner explained: “Slightly older students grow out of the need [to show socioeconomic status through clothing] and have a stronger need for self-expression [through clothing].” 

The issue of classism through clothing within the classroom is less prominent as students transition to High School which is the reason clothing is monitored differently in Middle School and High School. 

Students from the High School division commented on how wealth can impact style. Liz wrote in an email to the Gazette, “Of course you don’t need to be wealthy to have good style, but it helps.” She went on to explain that “clothing is expensive and having a closet chock full of items you wear once in a while is certainly an investment.” However, Liz went on to suggest thrifting as a great way to buy trendy and cute clothing without the high prices. 

Nylah had a slightly different argument. She told a Gazette reporter: “Wealth does not equal having a good style … the only thing that can define a good style is one’s mindset.” 

River S. ‘22 had the same opinion as Nylah and commented in an interview with the Gazette, “if you look around the school, most of the people with the best fashion got their stuff from thrifting, or hand-me-downs, or just made their clothes themselves.”  

Students tend to dislike dress codes as they can be confining and they set a precedent that is sometimes detrimental to the environment of a school. However, when voicing disapproval of dress codes, students are often unaware of the issues that ensue when there is a lack of structure. As younger students begin to experiment with making personal choices about clothing, there is an expectation that the clothes they wear will be reflective of their socio-economic class which may create a damaging divide. Every student is seeking a sense of belonging, especially among their classmates, and it is the job of the school to try to eliminate these potential divides.