Tell Us: What Was the Weirdest Dress Code Rule at Your School?

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Spring is here, heralding the emergence of that perennial warm-weather menace: the shoulders and lower femurs of teenagers. It’s only March, and students from Fresno to Baltimore are already protesting what they say are unfair and antiquated school dress codes. As Li reported last year, it’s often girls who feel singled out by these rules.

It’s not just students who are up in arms. A group of parents are suing a charter school in North Carolina because the school says girls must wear jumper dresses, skirts, or “skorts” each day.

Some school dress codes, granted, are nothing radical—they’re similar to what you’d encounter in an entry-level job. But others seem to drag far behind mainstream social norms. (Barring a sister-wife situation, in what other context would women not be allowed to wear pants?) Many school clothing rules seem puzzling because they’re so at odds with real-world business attire.

Here’s my personal head-scratcher: I started high school, in McKinney, Texas, right after Columbine. One of the Columbine shooters was wearing black during the attack. Therefore, in my public high school, we were not allowed to wear all black. That meant no black blouses with black skirts, no little black dresses, no black dress shirts with black slacks. There had to be at least one colorful element. This was, fortunately, during a preppier era, but suffice it to say my current look would not comply.

Below are some Atlantic staffers’ most perplexing dress-code rules. We invite readers to submit their own. Please email hello@theatlantic.com, tell us the rule, the time and place (roughly, if you prefer), and whether the school was public or private. Please also let us know if we can use your name.

Alia Wong, mid-2000s:

When I was a high-school sophomore, my school—Punahou (alma mater of none other than Barry Obama)—did something dramatic: It enacted a dress code. This was probably for the better. It was 2005; Abercrombie & Fitch and its barely-there denim shorts and mini skirts were all the rage. It was also Hawaii, where people in general just don't like the idea of clothing. (When I was a freshman, I remember the popular senior girls dressing up as lingerie-clad Victoria's Secret angels for Halloween. They came to school looking like this.)

The new dress code wasn't just any dress code. It was dubbed a “menu of options,” and allowed us to pick our attire from a pre-selected list of shirts and bottoms. Options included an assortment of relatively pricey American Apparel items (two types of T-shirts, a hideous skirt that awkwardly hit me mid-calf that I will remember forever, etc.) and official Punahou clothing (e.g., a club or team shirt or something like this gem from the campus bookstore). We could wear our own bottoms—as long as they came below the knee. For girls, that essentially meant we were limited to long pants, which in Hawaii’s 80-degree weather wasn’t always pleasant.

The school, I recently learned, has since done away with the menu of options. The rationale was to give students more choice, and by 2012 few students were buying options from the menu, anyway. The dress code “has somewhat returned to a statement of values and guidelines,” the school's spokeswoman told me: “neat, clean, and appropriate.” A brief review of the revised policy suggests that it's pretty run-of-the-mill—and rather vague (excessive exposure of the torso, shoulders, or thighs is prohibited, as is clothing that's too tight). My favorite part of the policy? It specifies that footwear is required of all students—but that, yes, slippers (read: flip flops) are A-OK.

Julie Beck, mid-2000s:

Any tank tops we wore in high school had to have at least one-inch wide straps. Any skinnier straps were considered inappropriate or “distracting” (a category which also included hats and bandanas, flip-flops, and shorts & skirts shorter than “fingertip length.” Also gum.) The only time I can remember a tank top actually being distracting was when a boy in my tenth grade history class, after repeatedly yelling that the classroom was too hot, stood up, screamed, and ripped the sleeves off his t-shirt. He was not sent to the office, though.

Gillian White, earlyish 2000s:

I went to a Catholic co-ed high school where the dress code got progressively stricter during my attendance. For the first three years we had a flexible measurement system for uniform skirts, something to the tune of no higher than 3" above the knee, or no shorter than fingertips extended downward (no skirt rolling). At the start of my senior year, the administration implemented a new rule: All girls (of all heights) must wear skirts that are at least 19" in length.

It was a mess. The first day of senior year, all girls had their skirts measured with paper rulers during class. Those who didn’t meet the mark were sent down to the Discipline office so their parents could be called, skirt hems could be adjusted, or detentions could be doled out. I got pulled out of an AP History class, I believe. By the time I got downstairs there was such a large number of young women in violation of the rule that we were directed to sit in the gym on the bleachers while we waited to be reprimanded. I missed at an hour and a half of class that day, while gym classes came in and gawked at the rule breakers. Not going to lie, it felt kind of slut-shame-y.

A local paper caught wind of the whole debacle and wrote about how ridiculous it was, noting that there were teachers at the school whose skirts surely didn't pass the 19" rule. The school relaxed a bit after that, and have abandoned the skirt measuring. But it was a pretty gross moment. I don't remember any other dress code rule that so clearly singled out one group, disrupted their school day, and then put them on display for censure.

Anonymous, 1996-2000:

My all-girls school required us to wear kilts. We could wear tights or even sweat pants under our skirts, but I was always jealous of our rival school, where the girls were allowed to wear kilts or corduroys.

Lenika Cruz, early-2000s:

At a few [private] schools I went to between middle school and high school, super low-cut socks were the thing to do. So people would pull their socks so that the extra material bunched around their toes and tuck it under their feet inside their shoes. Sometimes if your socks were too low, the teacher would make you take off your shoes and there'd be several inches of unused sock just dangling there.

Idk what the deal is with visible socks being a thing but ¯\_(ツ)_/¯