A Study into Social Dress Codes


Do you believe there are different “social dress codes” that alter the way you dress for different situations?

Please Specify:
Created with Survey Creator
Welcome to my GOA Gender Studies Catalyst Conference. For this project, I have put a lot of time into researching the dress codes that are expected but never talked about. I call these, for the purpose of my project, social dress codes. Please enjoy and let me know what you think!

For my Catalyst Conference project, my first intuition was to use the project to get back at my middle school principal, who once dress coded me while I was playing ultimate frisbee because my cropped sweatshirt had risen up. I was so mad that I had been dress coded. She told me to cover up and I had to leave the game I was enjoying. In my middle school, and middle schools and high schools across the country across the United States, students are constantly being told to “cover up” their bodies so that their male constituents will not be “distracted”. There are stories across the news:

Unfortunately, these are hardly difficult to find. Students are often pulled out of class and told to change, not only taking away their education but telling these young students that their education is second to that of others.

So, for my local source interview, I sat down for a meeting with the head of my high school. Along with being an administrator, she is a former teacher and a mother of two. Her stance on dress codes in school is pretty simple and liberal. She referred me to this Oregon NOW Model Dress Code created by the National Organization of Women, a progressive outline of dress code regulations I think to be equal and sufficient.

The interview went very well. Aline, the head of school, held a very similar approach to dress codes as I do: Dress for the task at hand.

As we were nearing the end of the interview, I asked one last question: Do you think that you, as a woman, are held to a higher standard in terms of appearance than your male constituents?

Her reply was this: I do not think that I am held to a higher standard than others in the administration, but I do think that I spend more time thinking about it.

Her answer struck me as very interesting. Appearances are things that I think most people think about. How do we appear to the rest of the world? But Aline suggested that while she didn’t feel compelled to dress nicer then everyone, she definitely spent more time questioning if her outfit would be appropriate.

This response caused me to expand the scope of my project. Instead of looking solely inside schools, I decided to look at dress codes in a larger and more social contexts: the expectations of appearance and expression that are not talked about, that go without being said.



Attire in My Community

Because this is an issue that affects many in my community, I asked a few friends why they chose what they were wearing that day. Here’s some of their responces:


A Brief Timeline – Looking at Gender Expression Through the Lens of Dress Codes

The history of enforced dress codes dates back centuries and can be found as early as the 4th century BCE with the γυναικονόμοι, (“controllers of women”) that controlled women’s attire in Ancient Greece. Throughout history, dress codes have been implemented to curb the individual’s right to self-expression and to reinforce traditional gender roles. This article and this article include more comprehensive timelines of dress codes throughout history. Through this project, I hope to research the history of restricting self-expression, from it’s historical uses to the current day enforcements that take form in schools and shopping malls.


A Study: Pinterest

To look at some of the unwritten expectations of dress, I went to a site that I visited often during middle school to get my inspiration: Pinterest. Here are the links to three categories of dress: “Streetwear“, “School Outfits“, and “Work Attire“. Please note that this is the exact thing that I plugged into Google. The majority of the images are catered towards women or those wearing “feminine” clothing. While there are definite expectations for men or those who dress “masculine” to look a certain way, I have found in my research that most of the expectations lay on females. Please look at these links and see for yourself what expectations are so easily found.











The Role of Body Shaming in Our Society

The next part of dress code enforcement that I looked at was the discrepancy between the implementation of dress codes on different body types. This can be seen in many situations. Unequal enforcement occurs with bustier girls when their cleavage is considered “inappropriate”. A Huffington Post article, written by Kristin Houghton, gave some great examples. In the article, titled “Dress Code Discrimination: Different Figure, Different Rules?”, Houghton gives the example of the 2010 controversy with Lane Bryant and Ashley Graham. Ashley Graham, a well-known “plus-size” model, posed in fancy underwear for this shoot, something not uncommon for models in the industry. “The lacy bra Ashley was wearing showed the same amount of cleavage as models in Victoria Secret ads promoting add-a-cup push-up bras — not a big difference in what the French call ‘décolletage'” Houghton writes. Because of her fuller figure, “The networks said they would only run the Lane Bryant ads after 9 pm at night even though it was standard to see commercials for Victoria’s Secret (featuring thinner models in similarly skimpy attire) in earlier time slots”. It was interesting to see this difference in discrimination that occurs all the time.



So, What To Do About It?

So, obviously, there are some problems here that aren’t so easily fixed. That being said, these are some of the tips I have gathered through my research and conversations that might help to raise awareness of the situation.

The Oregon NOW Model Student Dress Code is a great resource for schools and workplaces. This model creates a safe space where freedom of expression is allowed and celebrated, while the norms of a school/workplace are held.



What I’m Doing About It

Right now, I am in the process of reaching out to schools in my Portland school district to try to get them to implement the Oregon Now Model. I have found that this model is the best example I have found so far of an all-inclusive, gender neutral dress code that will not take away from students education while creating a safe and respectful school environment between students. teachers. and administrators. The head of my school is already in the process of implementing the general ideals presented in the Oregon Now Model. I believe that this dress code is a great model for not only schools but workplaces as well.



So, In Reflection

This project has been really eye-opening to me, just thinking about the ways in which I cater my attire to the situations I am in and the people around me, especially school environments. I want to further research the problems of dress code enforcement and unfair dress codes in schools by continuing to reach out the school administrators around me and work with them to find a better solution to pulling students out of class and making them change. Schools ad workplaces should be safe places where students are allowed their freedom of expression while maintaining a positive working environment.



Works Cited/Consulted

Kumar, Kamles. “12-Year-Old Forced to Quit Chess Tournament over ‘Seductive’ Dress | Malay Mail.” Malaysia | Malay Mail, Malay Mail, 28 Apr. 2017,

Grueskin, Caroline. “Walker High Senior Threatened with Expulsion over Hair Length Turns to Social Media to Fight Back.” The Advocate, 28 Mar. 2018,

Ballard, Jamie. “People Are Furious Over ‘Discriminating and Insulting’ Prom Dress Code.” Good Housekeeping, Good Housekeeping, 21 Mar. 2018,

Bond, Sarah. “What Not To Wear: A Short History Of Regulating Female Dress From Ancient Sparta To The Burkini.” Forbes, Forbes Magazine, 31 Aug. 2016,

Redferd, Corrine. “Timeline of Dress Codes: History of Men Telling Women What to Wear.” Marie Claire, Marie Claire, 9 Sept. 2016,

Houghton, Kristen. “One Size Doesn’t Fit All When It Comes to Office Dress Codes.” The Huffington Post,, 27 Feb. 2012,

Lahiri, Shoma Chaudhury, and Sarbani Bandyopadhyay. “Dressing the Feminine Body.” Economic and Political Weekly, vol. 47, no. 46, 2012, pp. 20–24. JSTOR, JSTOR,

Yuracko, Kimberly A. “SOUL OF A WOMAN: THE SEX STEREOTYPING PROHIBITION AT WORK.” University of Pennsylvania Law Review, vol. 161, no. 3, 2013, pp. 757–805. JSTOR, JSTOR,

Podgers, James. “What to Wear: Courts Agree on Principle of School Dress Codes, Disagree on Their Reach.” ABA Journal, vol. 81, no. 11, 1995, pp. 60–63. JSTOR, JSTOR,

McCombs, Emily, “Sexist School Dress Codes Are A Problem, And Oregon May Have The Answer.” HuffPost UK. N. p., 2017. Web. 21 Mar. 2018.


Share this project
  1. April 27, 2018 by Charlotte.Tenebrini Steckart

    I love the perspective you gave us! I have a dress code at my school too, it’s not bad and we don’t ever really get called out a lot on it, but it is still there.

    • April 28, 2018 by Mahala

      That’s the same sort of situation that I have at my school, being a very liberal and progressive high school. I think one of hte main reasons that I did do this, while not having a dress code per say at my school, is the stories and experiences of my friends, who go to schools in my area and have dress codes where they aren’t allowed to wear jeans, sweats, leggings, for example.

  2. April 27, 2018 by Charlotte.Tenebrini Steckart

    I love the perspective you gave us! Also very good use of the multi model. At my school we have a dress code too. It’s not a bad one and it’s pretty easy to fallow but it is still there.

  3. April 27, 2018 by Soren

    I also have to wear a dress code, so I completely get this. It’s so great that you’re actually trying to do something about it. I know that many people would rather just where what they feel comfortable wearing, either out of disdain towards the rules or out wanting to express themselves. Continue doing this! I love it!

    • April 28, 2018 by Mahala

      Right? Where’s our Freedom of Expression in schools? Thanks for the comment!

  4. April 27, 2018 by Ella.Kohlman

    Great project! At my school the dress code is commonly argued over. None of the girls like the dress code and their is clearly dress code discrimination because some of the skinnier girls will get away with things that others could never wear. I also agree that dress codes are putting boys education above girls in many ways including just making us wear something uncomfortable which would distract the girls from their school work.

    • April 28, 2018 by Mahala

      In middle school, I had the exact same experience. I was being told by the my friends and the media one way that I was supposed to look, but being told by my school administrators that my outfits were too suggestive! Boys, on the other hand, had no such dress code enforcement.

  5. April 27, 2018 by Avery.Courts

    I love your project so much! I wear a uniform at my school so we don’t get dress coded that much, unless it is a non-uniform day. I wish that we had the NOW Model Dress Code at my school, it would make picking an outfit for our non-uniform days so much easier!!!

    • April 28, 2018 by Mahala

      I would like to look into the use of uniforms after this project. While I see the positives of a dress code (saving money, less decisions, less “dress coding”), I don’t know how comfortable I would feel in a uniform, especially if I didn’t feel that it fit my body. I never wear skirts, and being really short, it’s hard for me to find pants that fit right. Do you think that the uniform at your school caters to everyone?

  6. April 27, 2018 by Julia Leet

    Wow I love this page! My school’s dress code is somewhere in between a uniform and a code- and it’s a constant source of tension. I think it’s awesome that you’re reaching out to schools in your area hoping they will consider the Oregon Now Model. I wish I had that option at my school. Keep it up!

    • April 28, 2018 by Mahala

      Send the link to your administrators! It’s a great proposal to back student protests.

  7. April 28, 2018 by Catherine.Wang

    I love love loved the video with your peers; it really emphasized what you were trying to show in a super genuine way. Your research it spot on, and I thought that the Pinterest study was incredibly interesting, and clearly showed how much the expectations to dress a certain way have permeated social media. It demonstrated the social norms that unfortunately exist. Great work!

    • April 28, 2018 by Mahala

      Thank you so much! I thought that Pinterest study was super important because it kind of encompasses everything that is considered “cool”, and it’s very revealing of what is expected of one to dress. Thanks for the comment!

  8. April 28, 2018 by Allie Miller

    I really enjoy this page! We do not have a dress code at my school, but it constantly feels like everyone’s outfits are being “policed” by the community. When we had a dress code in Middle School it was consistently being rejected and challenged by the girls at school (boys did not have a dress code). Good job!

    • April 28, 2018 by Mahala

      That’s exactly my experience. It’s hard for even me to decide where to draw the line of school appropriate clothing, and it’s something that I’m still struggling with. While I want everyone to have the right to decide what they want to wear, I don’t know where the comfort of the teachers come in – as that is usually one big reason for dress codes. Any thought?

  9. April 29, 2018 by Anya.Weaver

    The Pinterest study was a really nice touch. Our school’s dress code is on the laxer side, as it underwent some reforms the year before I came, but it still isn’t perfect, as it bans crop tops and yoga pants, which are both really common. What are example rules of your proposed dress code?

    • May 01, 2018 by Mahala

      Hey Anya. Thanks for the question. With the Oregon NOW model, there aren’t really any rules, other than you cover genitalia and there is no crude/hate speech/foul language/inappropriate depictions on your clothes. It’s kind of like a “dress for the task at hand” model that allows students to make good decisions about what they want to wear while making the community a safe space.

  10. April 29, 2018 by Rio.Townsend

    I love this project and the awareness that it is spreading to everyone. I know that I have been subject to a lot of “dress coding” (as you put it), even in my own house. I have been to “put those away (referring to my boobs)” so many times that I have lost track and most of the time when I am called out, I am in the same sort of outfit as my friends beside me but because I have a fuller figure, I am always the one singled out. It would also be interesting to see what damage the constant reminder that “your body should be hidden and it is shameful” is having on the girls that it is targeted at. Anyways, such an amazing project Mahala and I am so happy we were in the same class!

  11. April 29, 2018 by Rory Smith

    I really enjoyed hearing about your project, and have experienced a similar situation at my old school with dress code. I think that it is really inspiring that you are taking such initiative to contact schools in your area about this issue, and I hope that you find success in this process. Thank you for the abundance of perspectives and articles, as well as the addition of personal quotes from people at your school. This touch helped me comprehend the universality of the issue at hand. One question I have for you: compared to other schools in your area, would you consider your school above/below (or equal to) the average dress code in terms of severity?

    • May 01, 2018 by Mahala

      Hey Rory, thanks for the feedback. My school is actually on the more liberal side. That being said, my middle school (which is technically the same school as where I currently am) had a dress code that did not go well with my outfit choices. Right now, though, my high school is pretty liberal. The head of my school actually initially recommended the Oregon NOW model to me.

  12. April 29, 2018 by Summer

    Mahala, this was such an interesting topic for me to think about. I absolutely agree with you that I see a lot more women being called out for wearing “inappropriate” clothing than men. I think this is such an important topic to be discussed. My school recently changed the dress code, so there is now no official dress code, as long as people aren’t wearing things out of control. Thank you for sharing!

  13. April 29, 2018 by Cassidy.Mott

    Hi! My school has strict-ish dress codes that I personally find both annoying and frustrating. We are not allowed to wear shorts or anything that is above our knees, nor are we allowed to show our shoulders. To me, this makes little to no sense because I do not see my shoulders or thighs as sexual. My school also dress codes women much more than the dress code men, and guys can basically wear anything they want. Overall I loved your project and it gave me knowledge on things I previously did not know a lot about.

  14. April 30, 2018 by Audrey

    Hi! My school has a dress code, and there has been concern about the administration’s stance on the importance of the dress code compared to more harmful issues. I think that your project was really informative and well written.

  15. April 30, 2018 by Kelsey.Russell

    Your project is amazing to say the least from the personal testimonies, to diverse links, and audience participation. I do want to know what your opinion of uniforms are? Do you think they’d hinder to help the ongoing issues with dresscodes:?

    • May 01, 2018 by Mahala

      Hey Kelsey– uniforms are interesting to me. I’ve thought about them, and I know that they have many positives, but I ultimately think they would be harmful. So many students in high school struggle with their body image and body dysmorphia and I just feel that a lot of uniforms make it hard for students to feel good about themselves in. I never wear skirts or dresses, and am really short, so a lot of pants don’t really fit me. With uniforms I would be worried that I would not be able to find a way to wear them while feeling positive about my appearance.

  16. April 30, 2018 by Nicole.Sanders

    I really liked your project. I now go to a private school where we don’t have a dress code, but I used to go to a school we had a strict dress code that mostly applied to girls. The students pushed for change and they finally decided to change it the year I left. I love that you’re reaching out in your school district to make change! Awesome project!

  17. April 30, 2018 by Madison.Collins

    This project is amazing. I really love the perspective that you gave! I like how you had the section about Pintrest too!

  18. May 03, 2018 by Sofia

    I really liked this project, and I think your poll shows some very captivating results. Where do you see dress codes going in the future? I think that the dress code at my school, for middle school at least, was quite geared towards girls only, which was quite frustrating.

  19. May 03, 2018 by DeAnna Riley

    Hi Mahala! I really like this project. Dress code has become a huge issue and it’s difficult to argue. Reaching out to your school district to make change is a good idea. I hope it works out well for you. At my school, the dress code has recently changed and girls were the only ones truly affected by this. Leggings must be worn with a tunic, and I don’t believe most girls even know what a tunic is. Our shorts, skirts, and dresses must come mid thigh. Being 4’11 it’s hard to find dresses, etc. that meet this standard. I think the dress code also gets in the way of expression.

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.