Can Dress Codes Exclude People? | Facing History & Ourselves
Middle school students in classroom
Current Event

Can Dress Codes Exclude People?

Explore how dress codes can unfairly target the appearance of certain groups of people and help students consider what fair school dress codes look like.


At a Glance

mini-lesson copy


English — US


  • Civics & Citizenship
  • Social Studies


  • Racism


About This Lesson

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 mini-lesson below is designed to help students explore how dress codes can be biased and what dress standards in schools should be.

This mini-lesson is designed to be adaptable. You can use the activities in sequence or choose a selection best suited to your classroom. It includes:

  • 2 activities 
  • Recommended articles and videos for exploring this topic

Save this resource for easy access later.

Save resources to create collections for your class or to review later. It's fast, easy, and free!
Have a Workspace already? Log In



Introduce your students to controversies around dress codes by exploring regulations for women’s attire in sports. 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 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 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?

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.

Materials and Downloads

Resources from Other Organizations

These are the resources from external sources that we recommend using with students throughout the activities in this mini-lesson.

Additional Resources

You might also be interested in…

Unlimited Access to Learning. More Added Every Month.

Facing History & Ourselves is designed for educators who want to help students explore identity, think critically, grow emotionally, act ethically, and participate in civic life. It’s hard work, so we’ve developed some go-to professional learning opportunities to help you along the way.

Most teachers are willing to tackle the difficult topics, but we need the tools.
— Gabriela Calderon-Espinal, Bay Shore, NY