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Dress Codes and Uniforms

You should be able to wear what you want

Many school districts in the United States restrict young people’s freedom of expression by making rules around what is acceptable to wear. School dress codes may require students to wear a certain outfit or uniform or may ban specific items, such as hats, jewelry, religious symbols, team jackets, “unnatural” hair colors, items with political messages, or “immodest” clothing. School authorities have argued that certain clothing is inappropriate, disruptive, distracting, or inflammatory, but often with little evidence and always without any input from the students themselves.  Students have been humiliated, sent home, forced to change into clothes with “Dress Code Violation” written on them, suspended, or even handcuffed because of dress code violations. At one high school in New York, 200 students were given detention for violating dress codes. Being able to wear what you want is part of a person’s right to freedom of speech, which NYRA believes everyone deserves regardless of age.

Dress Codes and Sexism

Many students have challenged dress codes because of sex or gender discrimination. In fact, some schools have tried to implement rules that only apply to certain students based on their gender. Male students have been prevented from having long hair or earrings or told that only female students can wear bandannas or their clothes aren’t appropriate for boys. Transgender and gender-fluid students may also be forced to wear clothing stereotypical of a gender they don’t identify with. Female students are told they can’t wear certain clothes because male students will find it “distracting,” which may include any clothing showing shoulders or collarbones. Even students in kindergarten have been forced to change their clothes because their shoulders were exposed. Schools have also punished female students wearing clothes that allow them to feel comfortable and concentrate in extremely hot weather.

Adults have also tried to police young people’s clothing outside of academic settings where no one can be “distracted” from learning. Female students have been sent home from prom both for wearing clothing that is “too revealing” and for wearing a tuxedo.

School rules about students’ hair can also have a gender bias when male students have been sent home for wearing a wig or when schools have rules that “a boy’s hair may not be longer than the bottom of a regular shirt collar.” Additionally, female students have been punished for having short hair. (In one case, a female student was suspended for shaving her head, even though she did so in support of her friend who lost her hair due to chemotherapy.)

Because these dress codes are often applied differently to different students and include forcing students to dress the way administrators think a particular gender should dress, they are likely to be in violation of anti-discrimination laws, such as Title IX.

 

A Student’s Right to Freedom of Religion and Cultural Expression

The First Amendment of the Constitution mandates that public schools remain neutral on the subject of religion. However, school administrators often misinterpret this and attempt to curtail all religious expression. Students have been suspended or otherwise disciplined for wearing rosary beads, crucifixes, yarmulkes, headscarves/hijabs, and pentagrams.

School administrations have also attempted to ban students from wearing hairstyles that reflect their ethnic and or cultural heritage. Some school dress codes have prohibited “extreme or distracting” hairstyles, which can include “dreadlocks, cornrows, twists, or mohawks” and “afros more than two inches in length.” Students are also subjected to having their hair inspected or suspended for wearing box braids. These policies are frequently denounced for singling out African-American students.

What You Can Do

Know your rights.

Many students have sued their schools over unfair dress code policies. Reading about their cases can help you fight for your rights.

Read the Court Cases

Start a NYRA Chapter.

Through our chapter network, we help students learn how to launch a campaign, raise awareness, and change school policy.

Start a NYRA Chapter

Fight back.

If your school isn't allowing you to dress in a certain way, let us know. We can help you get organized and launch a campaign.

Contact Us

Find out more.

Our activist toolkit has lots of suggestions on how to use the media, contact your representatives and gain supporters.

Read the toolkit

Points to Remember:

  • If your school's dress code policy is different for male and students, it may violate the law.
  •  
  • If your school only singles out clothing with particular writing, it may be a free speech issue.

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