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The Weirdest Dress Codes at Your School
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Readers and Atlantic staffers talk about the strangest rules they’ve encountered.

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Dress Codes After Columbine

In her callout for reader submissions, Olga shared her own dress code story:

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.

A few readers also recalled bans on trench coats, including this one: “I was actually suspended the day after Columbine because my trench coat was ‘gang-related clothing.’” In the aftermath of the 1999 shooting at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, much of the media pointed fingers on the “trench coat mafia.” Here’s a New York Times report from the day after the massacre:

Rendered virtually invisible among the athletes and popular classmates who surrounded them, a small group of students at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., found their way out of anonymity by banding together and dressing in Gothic-style clothing highlighted by long, black coats.

They called themselves the trench coat mafia.

The group was easy to notice among the 1,870 students at the school, because every day, no matter the weather, they wore their coats. [...] But investigators now believe that among the dozen or so students in the group were the people responsible for yesterday’s mass shooting at the high school, which left an estimated 25 people dead and at least 20 others wounded.

But the narrative that the assailants were part of a group of embittered goths turned out to be false. Here’s Dave Cullen, reporting for Salon in 1999:

One reason school dress codes are such a lighting rod is that they often have no basis in real-world sartorial standards. Though some rules are common sense, people seem most irked by prohibitions on clothing that wouldn’t be out of place in a business meeting—yet is unacceptable by middle-school standards.

Recently we asked what the strangest dress code was at your school. Dozens of you wrote in, and here are the 11 we deemed most odd:


  1. No holes in jeans, but duct tape is fine:

“This was at a public high school in West Virginia in the mid-2000s—the time just before leggings and yoga pants, which was a dress-code battle after I graduated. The fad at the time was holes in the jeans. The rule shifted every year, from no holes at all to only ones allowed below the knee. The kicker was if you were caught with in appropriate rips or tears in your $50 Hollister jeans, you had to put duct tape over them. Our principal carried a roll of tape with her just in case.

The strangest part was the rule was established because it “looked bad.” But then we were forced to wear duct tape, which makes you look even worse. And of course, this rule completely targeted girls because few boys wore holes in their jeans. The duct tape also ruined the tears, created even bigger holes once the tape was removed. It was bizarre and embarrassing.”

-- Taylor Stuck

  1. No little old Russian grandmas:

“I attended a public high school in rural Ohio from 1998 to 2002. It was the only high school in the entire county, and despite the lack of any real problems (save the occasional student caught with a joint), the teachers and leadership felt it necessary to institute an oppressive dress code. At least once a week, the principal would announce via intercom a new standard. Below are some of my favorites:

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.