Conflicted by Culture: Current Issues with Dress Codes and “Appropriate” Attire

midriff shot of women standing aside onanother

By Remington Jensen

Whether you’ve have had a School Resource Officer question your overall health on the appearance of your outfit or have possibly been sent home due to observable bra-straps, it’s plausible that you’ve seen the rise in strict dress codes, especially those in schools.

Though schools aren’t the only location that dress codes are enforced; workplaces, public spaces, and even homes are all authorized by those who can control what others wear. In strict households this could be a parent who doesn’t enjoy the openness of an outfit, at work it could be a Human Resources member, in public even the government has the power to deem what is or isn’t allowable to play

As a male however, I only once was confronted with a dress code violation, when I once wore a tank top that slightly exposed my nipples from the side. This was the only known time that I –or for that matter, any of my male friends in High School – was dress coded, in an instance that would certainly result in a far more severe punishment for a female.

Yet I was in the same school where many got flagged every day for very menial wardrobe choices when only once was I even questioned for my outfit! All the while the girls in the school walked through the halls, draped in long baggy school-given sweatshirts to cover what the administration likely claimed was too sexual, too revealing, or if anything, too provocative for the person to be wearing.

Outfits – unlike the advantages given to men in the sensibilities of their outfits – have changed, and nowadays a more modern, and arguably more Internet-inspired “punk” culture is revitalizing itself through the trends of chokers, tight clothing and the fight back against even tighter restrictions on these outfits.

As time has progressed, there seems to be a serious uptick in the seriousness in school dress codes. Not only were the kids of the 80s and 90s allowed skin to be shown and jean shorts to be worn high, but the children of the 00s and onwards have been placed under scrutiny by such practices as the “fingertip” rule – where shorts or a skirt must reach to the fingertips of an extended arm.

What has come in this new millennium is a reimagining of free expression. Much like that in the late and mid-1900s we now have culture warping in on itself, but at times it parodies itself to the point of individuality almost making fun of the idea of conformity. Culture shreds itself down and distorts its own image until what had used to be hip now turned square, and the vicious cycle continues.

These strict guidelines are harder to enforce as culture begins to tear down its own boundaries, with rips and tattered clothing becoming the preferred expression of attire in comparison to flowing clothes that favor comfortability over fashion.

But with this known, it’ll make a bit more sense that dress codes have gotten stricter, because the times of long flowing overshirts and bulky jeans have been replaced with rips, tears, and other mauled fabrics. The parody begun morphing so seamlessly into culture that something thought to be unwearable or inappropriate five, ten, or fifteen years ago has now become a standard.

Not only are these very subjective laws placed into the school systems like this, but situations – like showing visible bra straps or wear knee-showing ripped jeans – lead students to become placed on suspensions, and these suspensions — as well as other punishments — overall primarily target women.

However, dress codes aren’t only enforced in schools. Parents, likewise can have their own rules and restrictions on what the members in their family wear depending on the age and gender of their family members.

When talking specifically to women of my age group, the matter wasn’t if they got dress coded, but rather the severity of the punishment that came as a result of what many believed were unjustifiable apparel opinions. From the girls who I spoke to, whether if she were from a rural city in Idaho, a private school in California or even an arts academy in Texas, at one point had been subjectively, inappropriately or incorrectly judged on what their outfits meant or had aspired aspire to accomplish.

Now I’ll quote a pair of University of Idaho women– both of which I talked to about their experiences with dress codes — who have authorized me to share their experiences anonymously.

The first comes from a UI student whose experiences in a Boise Charter School were undeniably unfair.

 “I definitely got coded a lot, but I can’t speak much to it because I was the only person of color in the school for a couple of years” she said. “I never heard this from teachers, but I got a lot of shit about not straightening my hair for professional dress day from my classmates. The worst thing I heard a teacher say about that was along the lines of “frizzy hair is unprofessional.”

The second comes from another UI student whose troubles with dress codes came from having a family member regulate her outfits more than her school:

“My father has always been very controlling on what I wear and how I look. I remember in junior year of high school he [her father] threatened to take away my car/phone if I didn’t leave my friend’s house immediately to change my clothes into something more appropriate. I was wearing a dress which was apparently “too short”” she said. “I always thought it was inappropriate of him to say stuff like that because it always made me massively uncomfortable.”

Regardless if it has been family or faculty, the cultural increase in strict dress codes has met the changing landscape of fashion. Pieces of clothing that once were defined as ruined have now become an expressional norm, but with this comes an even stricter regiment on clothes that have been this whole time in accordance with strict laws.

Primarily women are improperly judged on their clothing, with this comes exceptions made for dominant races in schools and family traditions of modesty being challenged by the millennium’s attraction towards free-expression.

It’s unfair to think that this issue is only modern, dating back to the civil rights era of the United States and its ambiguous rules and regulations on who can wear what based on race or gender. But it’s only becoming an ever-increasing social phenomenon, with powerful public action movements like Slut Walks taking civilization’s oversexualization and fetishization of clothing and appearance into the public spaces.

Though all is to be questioned, society’s total opinion of what people should wear, or can wear, have backed us into corners of restricted expression, and have brought forth a homogenization of appearance if you will.

And the fight against this homogenization comes alongside rebuking the increased sexualization of women, the bigotry against people of color, and a power complex that arises from the male dominant culture of America to control.

These challenges of culture are what happen when the culture itself is being restricted from being challenged and will continue to happen until lines are draw in the sand – if any are drawn – into what fashion is applicable for schools or public spaces and what exists just as fashion against culture itself.


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