Guidelines directing student dress requirements are common in public and private schools. Dress codes include hair length and color, clothing, school uniforms, body art and piercing, insignias, and jewelry. Dress guidelines or codes have their historical beginning in the English private schools, but have recently permeated schools in the United States. This entry looks at regulation of student apparel and grooming, including the imposition of school uniforms, and discusses related legal cases.
The history of dress codes in the United States receives little attention in the literature. However, there is evidence that student dress was predicated upon cultural and economic predispositions until the social upheaval of the 1960s. The burgeoning baby boom generation, with a growing disposable income, became a focal point of clothing marketers. As a result, fashion became a means of student expression and identity.
Developing dress codes to meet the fast-changing fashion industry has become problematic for policy makers. In Tinker v. Des Moines, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed students’ right to freedom of speech by striking down a school district policy prohibiting students from wearing black arm bands in protest of the Vietnam War. Consequently, school district dress guidelines began to consider students’ right to expression. Then, with the growth in conservatism in the 1980s, combined with the rising public concern about student discipline and safety in the schools, the courts became more receptive to increasingly dogmatic school dress policies, such as school uniform policies. Although the idea of implementing school uniform policies in the public schools began in the late 1980s, President Clinton added credence to the practice in 1996 when he endorsed school uniform policies as a means of reducing school violence and disciplinary problems.
How Dress Codes Work
Specific dress codes for students are universal. Commonly, the codes attempt to prevent the promotion of drug and alcohol use, gang-related insignias, sexually provocative clothing, and hate-related clothing. Empirical evidence regarding the effectiveness of dress codes is inconclusive. Proponents of dress codes argue that dress codes improve the learning environment, enhance student safety, place less stress on the family, particularly low-income families, and eliminate student preoccupation with fashion. Opponents of dress codes counter that dress codes are discriminatory, focusing on females and minorities. In addition, opponents argue that dress codes violate students’ fundamental right to free speech and are oversimplified solutions to much larger systemic problems.
Acceptable student dress codes are flexible and avoid restricting constitutionally protected freedoms, like religious expression. Dress codes devised as an attempt to affect disciplinary problems or gang violence should be developed as part of an overall school safety program. If the dress code has economic implications, some assistance may need to be provided to economically disadvantaged students. Finally, the dress code should pass the review of legal counsel, and the policy makers should ensure that the employees possess the necessary resources to fairly and effectively enforce the policy.
In the late 1980s, public schools began to mimic many private schools by requiring school uniforms. Interestingly, during this same time period, many private schools chose to abandon the practice of school uniforms in favor of less rigid dress guidelines. Often controversial, school uniform policies have become popular with state-level policy makers. Currently, many states allow, and encourage, local public school policy makers to implement school uniform policies.
Much like the research regarding dress codes in general, the research on the effectiveness of school uniforms is inconclusive. Whereas dress code policies are often viewed as restrictive, detailing what may not be worn, school uniform policies are often viewed as directive, detailing what must be worn. This minor distinction in difference can play a significant role in how the courts view the legality of uniform policies.
The seminal court case on student dress guidelines is the 1969 case Tinker v. Des Moines. In this case, several students were suspended from school because they chose to wear black arm bands in protest of the Vietnam War. The students successfully argued before the U.S. Supreme Court that their First Amendment right to freedom of expression had been violated. The Court held that students do have the constitutional protection of freedom to express themselves as long as the expression does not disrupt the educational process.
More recently, the courts have been inclined to uphold reasonable student dress codes as long as the policies allow students to legitimately express themselves on political issues. However, the courts have held that the right to wear fashionable clothing is not, in itself, a fundamental right protected by the Constitution. In addition, the courts give wide latitude to policy makers to develop dress codes that regulate obscene or lewd speech and gang-related clothing.
The courts have been inclined to support school uniform policies, allowing local-level policy makers to determine what is best for their schools. However, because school uniform policies tend to be viewed as directive, an “opt out” policy is a common means of avoiding potential litigation.
A persistent dress code issue is the matter of hair length and color. Viewing this issue as an educational one, the Supreme Court has not ruled on hair length or color restrictions. Thus the controversy remains unsettled, with the outcome of cases being dependent upon the persuasion of the courts and varying from region to region.
- Anderson, W. (2002, Fall). Policy report: School dress codes and uniform policies. Eugene, OR: ERIC Clearinghouse on Educational Management. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 471528)
- Brunsma, D. L. (2004). The school uniform movement and what it tells us about American education. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.
- Holloman, L. O., LaPoint, V. Alleyne, S. I., Palmer, R. J., & Sanders-Phillips, K. (1996). Dress-related behavioral problems and violence in the public school setting: Prevention, intervention, and policy—a holistic approach. Journal of Negro Education, 65, 267–282.
- Rubenstein, R. P. (2001). Dress codes: Meanings and messages in American culture (2nd ed.). Boulder, CO: Westview Press.
- Wilson, A. M. (1998). Public school dress codes: The constitutional debate. Brigham Young University Education & Law Journal, 1, 147–172.
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