Color Us Confused

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

When we asked about your weird school dress codes, many of you wrote in with surprising rules about colors. Forget short skirts or untucked shirt-tails. What’s really distracting today’s students are “patterned shoelaces,” according to one reader who attended a public school in Texas.

For some of you, school administrators were fashion police, issuing prohibitions on “clashing” or mis-matched clothes:

The junior high I attended decreed that clothing must match. For example, we could not wear plaids and stripes together, and colors must not clash.

Another reader, Cathy Lehman, said she was reprimanded for what she thought was a nice-looking outfit:

Once I was written up for wearing a very nice shell sweater top and long skirt to school chapel because the sweater had wide stripes in two shades of light brown and the skirt was cream with flowers on it, in matching shades of light brown. I couldn’t believe how arbitrarily that rule could be interpreted, based on any one person’s definition of color or style, or what “clashing” even means. I had truly thought my outfit looked nice.

This reader’s school invented an unusual 11th commandment:

Shortly after I graduated from the private Christian high school I went to, they rewrote the dress code. Well, if memory serves, not so much “they” as “the headmaster’s wife.” She seems to have written it mostly by asking herself the question, “What clothes do I like to wear?” That’s all I can assume, since the dress code specified pleated khaki pants for the girls (let’s just say that pleated khaki pants that will fit a 14-year-old girl are not easy to find). Weirdly, the dress code listed the colors that students shirts could be, and did not include green. My sister, who was still a student there, said to me, “What do you think Jesus has against the color green?”

But an even greater number of readers wrote in with tales of gang-related fears sparking bans on certain colors of clothes. The most common seemed to be blue and red, the colors of the Bloods and Crips, respectively:

Students at my public junior high school in the late 1990s were never permitted to wear the school colors (red, white, and blue.) Instead, we had to wear khaki pants with a black or forest green polo. Any students wearing red or blue would be suspended for promoting gang-related activity.This was in the relatively safe and quiet suburbs of Tacoma [Maryland], where fears of “crips and bloods” permeated the dress code.

It was the same story in California:

My local middle school had banned students from wearing  shirts that were red or blue because they were having issues with gangs. It was sort of funny, seeing as how the middle school'’s colors were red and and gold.

Occasionally, the color restrictions defied market availability, writes Ben, who attended Chicago public middle school in the late 19‘90s:

We had a dress code which required the following—Pants: navy blue or khaki. Shirt: navy blue, white, or school activity shirt.

But the tough part was the shoes, which, in order to avoid “gang colors,” had to be one solid color. They didn’t make solid-color sneakers at the time, because the logo or some stitching would be another color from the body of the shoe. So every month or so, my mother and I would sit down with my sneakers and Sharpies to “touch up” the solid-color-ness of my school shoes.

In the words of another famous fashionista, that’s way harsh.