Dress Codes: Why We Need to Respect Them

The day before my middle school graduation, my stomach was in knots- not just because I would be moving onto the intimidating halls high school in the fall, but because my graduation dress had spaghetti straps. Evidently, the graduation dress code stated that girls should not be wearing thin-strapped or strapless dresses without something covering her shoulders. The rule-abiding dork I was back then, I fearfully told my mom that I wouldn't be able to wear the dress without some type of cardigan.

"You'll be fine," she said. "Your shoulders may not be covered, but your neckline isn't too low, and your hemline isn't too short."

And she was right. I went through graduation without a hitch. In fact, I don't think the teachers pulled anyone to the side due to inappropriate dress. And that's because even if a girl's shoulders were exposed (like mine), most of my fellow classmates wore beautiful dresses that demonstrated a certain degree of appropriateness for the occasion.

Fast forward to today and you see an article every week about some student or young professional that was turned away from a class, event, or interview because of her inappropriate clothing. And while I had my brush with defying authority back in middle school, I find myself siding with the "powers that be" who are enforcing these dress codes more often than not.

So what's changed since I hesitantly bared my shoulders at my middle school graduation? Clothes have gotten skimpier, social media has become more ever-present, and acts of "defiance" are now almost always lauded by the media.

Dress codes in schools exist for a reason. School is a place that aims to prepare you for adult life. And in adult life, aka the Real World, you can't just wear whatever you want in any setting because you feel that you have the right to. Most places of employment have a dress code in place because the way you present yourself is a reflection of the company you work for. And I believe that is something that all young people should learn before they're thrown into adult life.   

As a proponent of dress codes today, I don't regret what I did back when I was 13. My mother was right- my dress was appropriate in all other facets. My philosophy about dress codes stems from the idea of using common sense when dressing yourself. Your school may have a "fingertip length" policy on shorts (my middle school did). If your shorts fall a half inch above that, is anyone really going to bat an eye? Probably not, because that is still a very respectable length. If you're wearing shorts that show the bottom of your backside, however? That's pushing it.

The dress in question (middle school pictures are rough, y'all)

It's not necessarily about men being able to (or, really, not being able to) "control their gaze." Rather, it's about having respect for your setting, and understanding that certain items of clothing aren't appropriate in professional contexts.  

I'm not saying that schools and other institutions should put more dress codes in place (my high school didn't have one and that was a-ok with me), I just think that if there is a dress code, students (and their parents) should respect it. And the same mentality should apply to events and dining spaces that have a dress code in place.

Recently, I read an article about a woman who was asked to leave a coffee shop because she had just come from the gym and was wearing only a sports bra and leggings, and did not have anything to cover up with. While it may have been a little harsh for the staff to ask her to leave after she had already purchased a coffee and sat down, a sports bra is definitely not the same as a shirt- it is an undergarment. Most eating establishments do have the policy of "no shirt, no shoes, no service," and that's exactly what this coffee shop was enforcing. If a man had walked in without a shirt, I assume (and hope) that he would have received the same treatment.    

People often argue that these dress codes are only directed at females, and therefore these rules are sexist. But the truth of the matter is, there is a much wider range of clothing marketed at women than men, and this range often includes more provocative items. Men (unfortunately) are pretty much limited to knee-length shorts, button downs, and short sleeved shirts. There isn't much room for error. Crop tops, leggings, and daisy dukes aren't exactly what we're seeing on the shelves of the men's section of J. Crew. But this doesn't mean that men are pardoned from the sanctions of proper dress codes- many high-end restaurants will provide a man with a jacket if he comes without one.

Similarly, places of worship require appropriate dress when entering these sacred spaces. For example, at the Vatican in Rome, all visitors (men and women) must refrain from wearing sleeveless tops or anything above knee length (including shorts!) upon entering. And if you're not dressed appropriately, you might be given something to cover up. This is simply out of respect for this incredibly important spot.  

To me, what it all comes down to is that there is a time and place for everything. Sure, a slinky dress is totally appropriate for a night at the club with your girlfriends- but if you wore that same dress to school, would you really blame anyone for calling you out on dressing inappropriately?  

We live in a time that tends to challenge authority and social norms at all costs. At its best, defiance spurs on important social change. But at its worst, it makes us seem like we're simply looking for something to complain about. 

But whatever happened to having respect for the setting in which you learn, work, or even worship? While it's important to argue for social change where it truly matters, we also have to realize that there are rules in place for a reason.   

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