Reporter's Notebook

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

Show 1 Newer Notes

Your Weird Dress Codes in the Workplace

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 (🚨):

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:

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:

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:

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:

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, 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.