Proms were college affairs until about the 1930s, and their dress codes entailed unspoken social norms. Dress standards started to be written down only in the 1950s, when people began to have just one thing they wore all day—and wanted that thing to be comfortable. The early 1950s saw the emergence of op-ed writers complaining that women don’t own formal coats anymore and go outside with bare legs, according to Deirdre Clemente, a historian at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, who focuses on American fashion in the 20th century.
Around that time, “young people stopped caring as much about stuff like, ‘my mom will get mad at me,’” Clemente said.
Mostly, dress regulations were enforced on women, people of color, and those from lower socioeconomic strata, Clemente said. State colleges were thought to have more boundary-pushing rebels—and thus, more codified rules—but at elite women’s colleges, students were left to police themselves.
For teens, dress codes were more restrictive because, in an era before legal abortion or cures for many sexually transmitted diseases, schools worried about girls getting “attention they couldn’t handle,” Przybyszewski says. But that didn’t extend only to revealing clothes. Administrators also worried about anything that seemed too mature. One rule talked about “draped styles,” the kind with lots of swooping fabric that gathers to accentuate curves. It “looks like you made a dress out of a bedsheet because you were caught somewhere naked,” Przybyszewski said.
Some teens embraced, or even perpetuated, strict dress norms. In the early 1950s, a nationwide group of Catholic schoolgirls calling themselves the SDS—Supply the Demand for the Supply—successfully petitioned department stores to stock dresses that fit their modesty standards. Saying they sought to “dress in a manner in which Mary would if she were a young girl of today,” they prompted stores to advertise their wares as “SDS-approved.” “You don’t have to be strapless to be in fashion,” one ad read.
People largely adhered to these sartorial rules, in Przybyszewski’s telling, until the counterculture revolution of the 1960s. School dress codes took aim at many of the hip trends of the day, like sheer blouses, skirts with slits, and skirts shorter than the middle of the knee. Oh, and no pants for women (too sloppy). For men, there was a prohibition on "contour-fitting trousers" and "outlandish-colored trousers."
The battle between cool kids and administrators raged, and it hasn’t subsided since. Przybyszewski takes the view that’s because “kids today have no practice dressing up.” They don’t go to teas, they don’t have SDS-approved department stores, and they don’t have the Dress Doctors guiding them every step of the way.
“I’m kind of shocked when I see things that a sex worker would wear on a 13-year-old,” Przybyszewski said.
To Clemente, the ongoing uproar over teenage style choices signals something very different. “It shows that adults are still trying to control American youth,” she said. “We're still fearful of young people using clothing to express individuality.”