Reporter's Notebook

The Weirdest Dress Codes at Your School
Show Description +

Readers and Atlantic staffers talk about the strangest rules they’ve encountered.

Show None Newer Notes

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:

Mike Blake / Reuters

In response to Olga’s callout for weird dress code rules, several readers share stories of hair regulation—restrictions on both length and color. Marcus couldn’t have a mullet:

This was suburban Atlanta in the very late ‘80s. The Billy Ray Cyrus-style mullet was the trend (along with hair metal styles) for guys at the time, but the very conservative school board decided to pass a rule that boys’ hair couldn’t touch the collar. The rule was intended to force guys into the traditional conservative short haircut. The crazy thing was, the guy with the weirdest hairstyle at the school (a punk-rock devotee of Sid Vicious) used toothpaste to spike his equally long hair straight up or straight back so that it never touched his collar.

In any case, there was a school board meeting shortly after the rule was introduced and a large group of male students showed up to protest it, to no avail. Eventually the rule changed, long after I had graduated. It never did make sense in any of the traditional reasons for dress codes (distraction or provocative).

No mop top for John Ware:

Responding to our callout for weird dress codes, many readers who attended Catholic schools recall a strict set of rules. Or as Deborah Qualls summarizes it, “Catholic school. Enough said.”

Another reader, Angela Zalucha, gets more specific:

We couldn’t wear shirts with writing on them (and I think logos/pictures too), all because some girl wore a shirt with a pig that said “pig out.” How on earth is that offensive or in bad taste? #CatholicSchool

Kathie Enright Boucher remembers one day in the late ‘60s at her Catholic women’s college:

I was wearing plaid wool Bermuda shorts and coordinated cardigan and knee socks. I was sent back to my dorm room by a nun and told to change into a “nice dress.” To go bowling.

Charlotte Newman recalls a battle over nylons:

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:

Jason Reed / Reuters

Most of the dress code rules that readers submitted after our callout related to a student’s external appearance. But some schools didn’t stop there. Here’s one reader over Twitter:

Now, you may be wondering how a teacher would, um, know what color underwear a student is wearing. This high schooler used that to her advantage in her quest for underwear justice:

As a high school journalist, I was determined to bring about great change to the world. In the end, I really only made a small change. The dress code at my public school in San Diego (between 2001-2003) had a rule that I thought was ridiculous: “Underwear must be worn, but not visible.” I understood the concept, but ... really? You were going to do panty checks to be sure that I was wearing underwear? I don’t think so!

I went to several teachers and employees and asked, “If I told you I wasn’t wearing any underwear, what would you say?” Most of them told me my question wasn’t appropriate. I ran my story in the school paper about the rule being inane and, the next year, it changed: “Underwear must not be visible”—a much better rule, in my humble opinion. And while no one ever said my article was the reason, I’d like to think I had something to do with it.

In case you’ve felt inclined to pull a Captain Underpants, this school had it covered:

Kai Pfaffenbach / Reuters

In response to my previous note on weird school rules related to undergarments, reader Kat Steele shares her story:

Asinine dress codes don’t disappear after graduation. During a stint at a Christian coffee shop in Virginia in 2006, I made recreational reading out of our comically restrictive staff code of conduct. The strangest? Employees were only permitted to wear “simple, white” underclothes. Lacey bras and panties were explicitly prohibited. I never mustered the courage to ask my boss how often he did inspections …

More readers shared their workplace rules, including this woman who apparently once worked with the Peep Toe Police (🚨):

I want to follow up on something that jumped out at me from our collection of dress code rules: the ones justified as a way of preventing students from joining gangs (Olga noted that trend here). “We weren’t allowed to wear any Dickies-brand clothing or backpacks,” writes one reader who attended a Georgia public school in the early 2000s. “They were considered a ‘gang symbol’.” Another reader: “Because one of the gangs had adopted Mickey Mouse as one of its symbols, we were not allowed to wear anything with Mickey Mouse on it.”

This reader thinks school administrators invoke gangs as a catch-all for dress violations:

Everyone I knew who violated the dress code did so for almost exactly the same reason: wearing clothes that were too baggy or wearing something that was believed to be gang-affiliated. A particularly unusual example of this is when a star-student friend of mine came to school with a mohawk and had to get it shaved off. Some of the teachers believed it demonstrated some sort of gang affiliation, which it clearly did not.

Whether Dickies or Mickeys or mohawks are gang-related symbols remains an open question, but do dress codes actually help prevent students from joining gangs? I reached out to Professor Todd A. DeMitchell of the University of New Hampshire, who, along with University of Louisiana Professor Richard Fossey (the pair co-authored a book on dress codes and the First Amendment), emailed some thoughts. They begin with some historical context:

For nearly a century, student-dress codes and the litigation they have spawned have been important policy concerns for the public schools. One of the earliest legal battles was Pugsley v. Sellmeyer, a 1923 case out of Arkansas. In that dispute, Pearl Pugsley was disciplined for wearing talcum powder on her face in violation of a school policy prohibiting students from wearing transparent hosiery, “face-paint,” cosmetics, or immodest dress.

The Arkansas Supreme Court upheld the school’s rule on the grounds that it was reasonable and not oppressive, but in later years, courts have sometimes sided with students in dress-code disputes.