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Who Benefits From Dress Codes? Almost Always, It's People In Power

The context surrounding what is 'appropriate' attire is rooted in respectability politics — and it's time to dismantle those norms

By Preston Mitchum

“You are your child’s first teacher,” Principal Carlotta Outley Brown told the community of Houston’s James Madison High School in an April 9 letter explaining “acceptable” dress codes on campus. “However, please know we have to have standards, most of all we must have high standards.”

Yet while most dress code “standards” ordinarily target what a student wears to class, Outley Brown’s sweeping new policy applied to parents, and aimed to ban particular items of clothing for all people visiting the school, as well as pajamas, hair rollers, satin caps, and bonnets, which are often worn by Black women for hair protection.

“We want [the students] to know what is appropriate and not appropriate for any setting they may be in,” the principal added. “This is a professional education environment where we are teaching our children what is right and what is correct or not correct.”

Although some people reportedly praised the school for its policy, many people on social media saw it for what it was: an unnecessary set of rules singling out a particular group of people who couldn’t or didn’t conform to the school’s definition of appropriate attire. Others also noted how the school could have done literally anything else with their time than seemingly choose to target Black families for their attire. (Outley Brown has since defended the policy.)

It should escape no one that, in her letter, Principal Outley Brown showed little regard for why a parent may be dressed a certain way when visiting school grounds. Instead, she simply focused on how one is dressed — as if that is an indicator of how successful a student will be. No such metrics exist. What we do know, however, is that some parents cannot afford clothing that others would find “appropriate,” and that working multiple jobs or picking up irregular hours might impact how someone chooses to dress themselves in their off-hours.

It’s not the first time that schools have questioned the likelihood of a child’s “prosperous future” based on what an authority figure was wearing. In 2016, Atlanta teacher Patrice Brown, otherwise known as #TeacherBae, was penalized after a photo of her in a pink dress went viral. Through no doing of her own, people called the look inappropriate and revealing; however, considering she can often be seen on Instagram page wearing mostly knee-length dresses and form-fitting clothing, people likely thought her attire was “unprofessional” primarily because of her race and the shape of her body.

Similarly, it’s been shown that school dress code policies are disproportionately applied against Black girls. As one storyteller told the National Women’s Law Center for their project Dress Coded: Black Girls, Bodies, and Bias in D.C. Schools, “Black girls with curvier figures would wear the same top [as white, skinnier girls] and be met with disapproving smirks and sent to the front office to change — after barely stepping one foot inside of the school door.”

The context surrounding what is “appropriate” attire, either for work or to visit your children at school, is rooted in respectability politics, a reaffirmation of the false idea that there are only a few correct way to show up for particular people, places, and events. These rules and mores are arbitrarily created and preserved by society; we follow them because we have been taught there is no other way. But they’re anti-Black, and are particularly weaponized against Black women, who are constantly subjected to unwanted and unnecessary policing  — for example, when they're told that hairstyles are inappropriate and worthy of punishment.

Although many people are pushing back on the ways in which these policies promoting outdated models of “professionalism,” they have yet to be eradicated altogether: In 2016, Kentucky’s Butler Traditional High School introduced a new dress-code policy banning twists, dreadlocks, Afros longer than two inches, jewelry worn in hair, and cornrows. In 2017, Mystic Valley Regional Charter School suspended twin 16-year-old girls Mya and Deanna Cook for their braided hair extensions, and in 2018, an 11-year-old was asked to leave school because her braided hair extensions allegedly violated policies.

These are all part of sweeping dress code policies claiming to promote “high standards” when they are in fact discriminatory policies aimed at sustaining normalized (read: white) ideas of success that effectively rewrite and erase the Black experience.

There is nothing wrong or inappropriate about parents wearing pajamas, bonnets, rollers, and leggings outside; how we feel about seeing those articles out and about says more about us than it does about anyone else, and these classist and elitist standards we apply to others are rooted in our own linear understanding of so-called professionalism.

If dress code policies are enacted to promote “high standards,” who ultimately benefits? The answer is a sad one.