Can Dress Codes Exclude People?

Last Updated: May 8, 2019


In the last few years, dress codes—in schools, workplaces, and sports—have regularly made the headlines. In January 2019, for example, Congress received attention for amending a rule that prevented religious head coverings on the House floor. In August 2018, a girl was sent home from school for wearing braided hair extensions, in violation of her school’s policy. In April 2019, a Houston high school became the latest school to make the news for a controversial dress code, which bans parents from coming to the school in certain attire.

Regulating dress can be necessary to promote health and safety, but at other times, dress codes unfairly target the appearance of certain groups of people. The teaching ideas below are designed to help students explore how dress codes can be biased and what dress standards in schools should be.

  1. When Are Dress Codes Biased?

    Introduce your students to controversies around dress codes by exploring regulations for women’s attire in sports. Play the video Amaiya Zafar from the Secret Lives of Muslims for your students. Then, read the following excerpt from the Elle article Serena Williams's Tennis Outfits Defy the Sexist, Racist Norms Female Athletes Face:

    Today, dress codes for many women’s sports are being policed by two seemingly opposed forces—modesty and objectification. Either cover up your body because it’s inappropriate or a distraction, or reveal almost all of it because female athletes are primarily here for men’s pleasure. Ever since women’s sports began to be televised (though, it should be noted, still at a rate far less than men’s sports), the age-old demand for female modesty was met with a new demand to draw in audiences.1

    Discuss the video and article with your students by exploring the following questions:

    • Who decides what types of clothing or appearance are appropriate or normal in society? Who makes those decisions for workplaces, schools, athletic competitions or other environments? How are dominant culture, gender, religion and race reflected in dress standards?
    • How can it impact people’s lives when dress codes are biased? How did dress codes impact Amaiya Zafar and Serena Williams?
    • Why might sports leagues have regulations on the attire worn by athletes? Why might schools? How can sports leagues and schools create dress codes that are fair and fairly enforced?
  2. What Dress Codes Should Schools Have?

    Explore the role that dress codes can and should play in schools by reading about controversial dress codes and then designing a dress code for your school. Begin by reading the article When School Dress Codes Discriminate from NEA Today with your class. Ask your students to take notes using the Connect, Extend, Challenge framework:

    • Connect: How do the ideas and information in this reading connect to what you already know, or have experienced, about dress codes?
    • Extend: How does this reading extend or broaden your thinking about dress codes?
    • Challenge: Does this reading challenge or complicate your understanding of dress codes? What new questions does it raise for you?

    After you read the article, give your students a few minutes to finish writing down their reaction and then discuss the article as a class. Ask your students:

    • Based on the examples we discussed, how can dress codes be used to reinforce social hierarchies (or “in” and “out” groups)?
    • How can dress codes impact the quality of education certain groups of students receive?

    Next, place your students into groups and ask them to design a dress code for your school. As they design their model dress code, they should consider the questions:

    • What are the goals of my dress code? What kind of school environment do I want to promote?
    • How will I ensure my dress code is fair to all students?
    • How should the dress code be enforced?
    • Have students present their dress codes to the class and explain why they decided on the regulations they included.

Additional Resources:

Use the reading The Eye of the Beholder to further explore questions around the subjective nature of beauty standards.

Our resource What Do We Do with a Difference? France and The Debate Over Headscarves in Schools explores questions around French legislation that prohibits the wearing of conspicuous religious symbols in public schools.

For more historical context about sexism and racism in dress codes for women athletes, read the full article Serena Williams's Tennis Outfits Defy the Sexist, Racist Norms Female Athletes Face from Elle.

The Oregon chapter of the NOW designed a “model dress code” for schools.

Consider exploring more examples of dress codes in the news with your students:


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