School dress codes should give a clear set of rules and guidelines to students and parents about what is (and is not acceptable) to wear at school. It should be simple, gender-neutral, and enforced evenly across the school.
The dress code needs to be devised with community and student consultation to ensure the community’s views are respected. If you are in a community with a lot of religious or cultural minority members, it’s worth consulting them so their concerns and standards are included.
Furthermore, many dress rules can be considered discriminatory against girls and forcing girls to change their behavior to avert the ‘male gaze’. So, consult your community thoroughly.
Disclaimer: I’m not recommending you follow all of these dress codes, or endorsing any of them personally. But they’re all worth looking at to decide for yourself whether you should or should not put them in your school dress policy based on your own school’s and community’s values. Depending on your circumstances, there might be some laws that you need to think about. For example, in the United States, there are rulings by the Supreme Court allowing students freedom of expression (See Point 6). Furthermore, many states require gender-inclusive uniforms (Listed in Point 22).
School Dress Code Examples
1. Exceptions and Respect for Religious and Cultural Attire
First and foremost, your dress code policy will have to have clear and respectful exceptions for religious and cultural attire.
For example, if you have students in your school that need to wear something on their head for religious reasons, this should be respected, even if you have a general no hats policy.
Another example where exceptions might be made is in allowing Sikh students to wear kirpans (ceremonial knives) as with most schools in Canada.
These exceptions may need to be looked at on a case-by-case basis and in consultation with your local community.
2. Girls can wear Shorts
Another tough issue many schools have come afoul of in recent years is the right for girls to wear shorts. Many elite schools used to force girls to wear skirts and not allow them to wear shorts.
Today, this is increasingly unacceptable. And it appears the charge is led by girls themselves who believe that wearing shorts can help them to:
- Participate more fully in Physical Education.
- Be more comfortable sitting at desks.
By allowing girls to wear shorts, you’ll give them more freedom and comfort, and avoid potential future conflicts.
3. Cover your Thighs
Dress codes should insist that shorts and dresses should be of a certain length. If this is not clearly stated in the dress policy, there will inevitably be problems with outfits that are too sexualized for a school context.
One rule is the ‘closed fist rule’. The student should be able to hold their arms straight down their site with a clenched fist. The bottom of the shirts or skirt should be below (longer than) the extended arm with a clenched fist.
You could also add 2 – 3 inches to this policy by adapting it as the ‘extended finger rule’.
4. Keep Underwear Hidden
The hidden underwear rule is one of the key foundations of all school dress codes. This applies to underwear pointing out above (or below) pants and shorts, as well as to bras for girls.
This rule should also apply to wearing longer clothing that is designed to be underwear, such as thermal underwear (aka Long Johns) and girls’ nightslips.
5. No Offensive Logos, Images, and Text
T-shirts that state anything that could be seen as offensive on them (toward minorities, political affiliations, etc.) could be banned by a school. This can extend to both written text and logos that are known to be associated with known hate groups.
Images may also be offensive, such as depictions of deities (particularly offensive in Islam) or cartoons that may be interpreted as offensive.
6. No Clothing with a Political Affiliation (Beware: US First Amendment Rights Rulings)
A blanket ban on clothing with political affiliation may sound like a good idea, but if you’re in the United States, this is a complex issue.
In 1969, the Supreme Court ruled students were allowed to wear black armbands to protest the Vietnam law. This court ruling found that freedom of expression was a protected first amendment right, even within school grounds.
Similarly, a Seventh Circuit ruling affirm a student’s right to wear a T-shirt that read: “Be Happy, Not Gay.”
And according to the Rhode Island ACLU, students have a protected right to wear clothing with political slogans on it, including clothing that is critical of politicians.
However, in a conflicting finding, a Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling found students do not have a constitutional right to wear homophobic and anti-gay clothing.
So, it’s complicated and a tough issue for schools to navigate!
In other countries, and potentially also in private schools, it’s likely that clothing with political affiliations may be banned.
7. No Brand Names
A school may also choose to ban brand name clothing. This is very common in Waldorf schools, where commercialization is considered corruptive to children’s freedom and innocence. Such schools embrace the idea of a clean aesthetic that removes distractions and the ‘adult world’ from children’s lives, freeing them up for their own play.
As the Eugene Waldorf School in Oregon states on their dress code:
“It is asked that children be sent to school in clothes that are free of large commercial logos and any characters so that the child’s own being can shine, without the distractions and commercial consciousness such logos and characters are so apt to bring into the classroom.”
8. No Exposed Midriffs
It’s common for students to want to expose the midriff (the area between chest and waist) to stay up to date with fashions of pop stars. In some subcultures, it can also be common for students to display a belly button piercing.
Depending on the age of the students and school ethos, you may choose to ban exposed midriffs.
One common way to achieve this is to create a rule: coverage from collar bone to thigh (following the closed fist rule for the thigh length).
9. Jewelry must not Dangle (Studs Recommended)
This rule is primarily for student safety. Loose and dangling jewelry can cause serious damage to students. Earring that can catch on clothing or even excessively large necklaces can cause safety problems.
However, beware that some people may choose to wear jewelry for religious or cultural purposes, which may need to be respected.
Annesley Primary School’s jewelry policy provides some good guidelines:
- Discourage the wearing of jewelry except for religious or cultural requirements.
- Only allow stud earring.
- Taping over jewelry for non-contact sport.
- Removing jewelry for contact sport.
10. Hats must not be Worn Indoors
Some people consider wearing a hat indoors to be a sign of disrespect. Furthermore, wearing a hat indoors seems impractical – hats are for protection from the sun!
However, this can be tough. Many girls integrate novelty headwear into their hairstyles, which they cannot easily remove. So, it’s worth discouraging headwear that cannot be removed.
Furthermore, many religions require head coverings, including:
- Islam – Hijabs, Niqabs, and Burqas.
- Judaism – Yarmulkes and Tichels
- Sikhism – Dastars
I’m sure there are many others, so a blanket exception for genuine religious headwear may be required.
11. Hats must be Worn during Lunch Breaks
While we discourage the wearing of hats indoors, you may require students to wear hats during recess and lunch.
In fact, this is an overwhelmingly common requirement in Australian primary schools where the sun can cause serious damage to children. In fact, melanoma cancer (a cancer caused by sun exposure) is one of the most common cancers in Australia.
While less common in the Northern Hemisphere, mandatory hats (and sun block) can be a good way for your school to instil in students positive safety and sun awareness habits, particularly during the warmer school months.
12. No Gang Affiliation Insignia
Gang presence in schools is a threat to student safety and can make students feel very uneasy. The threat of gang recruitment in schools is very real in many parts of the United States.
To counteract the influence and visibility of gangs in schools, you can put in place a rule banning gang colors and brands. This study highlights that school principals believe uniform policies can decrease gang presence in schools.
I’ve also found reports of banning of brand names that gangs affiliate with, such as banning Dickies clothing in a school in Georgia because gangs started using Dickies as a sign of gang affiliation.
13. No Pyjamas
Pyjama day at school can be a whole lot of fun, but wearing of pyjamas outside of the novelty of PJs day could cause some problems.
It could be argued that wearing pyjamas is a sign of disrespect and doesn’t uphold community standards. These are clothing for lounging and sleeping rather than working and studying.
But, others might argue that what you wear has nothing to do with how well you study. It could seem like an arbitrary rule.
This is a rule worthy of a debate!
14. No See-Through Clothing
Summer dresses and light tops can be see-through in the wrong light. While it may seem common sense not to wear them, often, children lack common sense!
See-through clothing can cause parents and community members to be offended. It may also embarrass the person wearing the clothes (especially if they weren’t aware that it was see-through!).
So, it’s worth banning see-through clothing in order to avoid embarrassment for students and prevent a potential community backlash to students’ outfits.
15. No Shoulders
More common in private and religious schools, the ‘no shoulders’ rule is still around. It’s nowhere near as common as it used to be, and many parents and students are protesting that this rule still exists.
If you insist on ‘no shoulders’, make sure you community is on board with the rule and you’ve got clear consent before implementing it.
16. Tops must have Shoulder Straps
In the past, it was considered unacceptable for girls to show their shoulders or knees in public. As society has liberalized, it’s now generally seen as okay for girls to show their shoulders and knees in most parts of the world.
But many people draw the line at ‘tube tops’ that don’t have straps holding the top up at the shoulders. A key concern here is that the tops will too easily fall down, especially during sports lessons.
17. No Cleavage (‘Armpit to Armpit’ rule)
Your community may expect you to uphold a standard where cleavage is not shown.
For this, the ‘armpit to armpit rule’ helps. The student should be able to draw a line from one armpit to the other and have anything below those points to be covered by clothing. It ensures low-cut V-neck shirts are banned.
18. Winter Coats Must be Carried Between December 15 and February 15
Colder places should consider a winter dress code that ensures students are dressed for the conditions. This can include ensuring all students wear winter coats to school between certain dates, depending upon the climate where you are.
In particularly cold areas (including schools I’ve taught at in Canada), you may even insist on full winter gear, including waterproof winter pants, and beanies.
19. No Makeup
Elementary and middle schools more commonly have this rule than high schools, but it is a known policy across several different types of schools. This Catholic school, for example, allegedly forced girls to take out their fake eyelashes so they were compliant with the school’s no makeup policy.
A key reason for this policy is to de-emphasize vanity that can occur when students choose to wear makeup. Childhood is a short period of life, and it should be protected from adult activities such as wearing makeup.
But some people have expressed concern that a no makeup policy can be harmful to students. Students who are bullied for pimples or acne scars may feel more comfortable if they are able to apply makeup to their faces.
If you choose to accept moderate amounts of makeup at the school, you could create rules around the more visible features, such as simply banning excessive lipstick and fake eyelashes while allowing students to still use foundation.
Similarly, you could provide age limits (e.g. no makeup before Year 10).
20. Covered Shoes at all Times
Covered shoes is a safety measure more than anything. Usually, we would consider covered shoes to be shoes that cover the whole foot up to the ankle. This would effectively ban sandals and flip flops.
There are two safety-related reasons to ban non-covered shoes.
Firstly, it is hard to participate in sports when wearing shoes that don’t grip fully around your feet. In games like soccer and football, students may also have their feet stepped on from above, so covered shoes will protect the top of the feet as well.
Secondly, covered shoes are often required for science lab classes to protect the feet from potential spills during experiments.
21. No High Heels
High heeled shoes can be perceived by some community members as inappropriate for children.
Firstly, they are not appropriate for some activities in the classroom and school ground such as playing games during the lunch break.
Secondly, they may be considered to be inappropriately speeding-up the end of childhood. High heels are, by and large, adult attire. Some could argue that children should be discouraged from aspiring to be adults too soon.
And thirdly, it may even be bad for the feet to wear high heels before the foot is fully grown. This is why Dr. Ramona Brooks of the American Podiatric Medical Association recommends in this article that children don’t wear high heels until about 16 years of age.
22. Gender Neutrality
In an age where we are increasingly acknowledging gender identity expression, as defined by gender self-identification and not biological sex, many schools and teachers will come across situations within their classrooms where they will be working with trans and gender non-conforming students.
A modern school dress code is likely going to want to develop a gender-neutral dress code that allows boys and girls the same freedoms to dress in ways that make them feel comfortable.
Schools should be aware of this potentially difficult (and highly political) issue when creating the dress code. Solutions could include:
- Choosing not to refer to ‘boys and girls’ in their dress codes.
- Explicitly stating that dress codes are for both
- Explicitly affirming children’s rights to dress according to their gender expression.
Furthermore, it’s important to note that the following states require by law that you affirm the right to self-identified gender expression within a school dress code: California, Connetticut, Hawaii, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Rhode Island, Washington, and District of Columbia.
23. No Tattoos
While you wouldn’t think too many school-aged people would have tattoos, it appears some schools do explicitly ban visible tattoos.
This is one of the dress codes that I would classify as a ‘preserving (western) childhood’ dress code. In many cultures, it’s not inherently offensive to be tattooed as a child (Maori tattoo their children with traditional Ta Moko tattoos from age 15).
However, western culture preferences the delaying of ‘adult activities’ such as getting tattoos until your early 20s. By banning tattoos, schools are reaffirming their commitment to drawing a clear line between childhood and adulthood, where students remain ‘children’ at least until graduation.
24. No Hair Dye
This is a rule that I think is common enough that you see it around, but is also in less than 50% of school dress codes in my estimation.
Many children like to experiment with hair dye and many parents don’t have a problem with this. But, schools that like to keep a clean and professional image may consider dying hair to be undermining the school’s brand.
Pink and purple hair dying is often also associated with the alternative punk music subculture, which similarly is seen as anti-authoritarian and runs against the culture of some more conservative schools and their communities.
Some schools also explicitly allow natural hair dye colors, but disallow non-natural colors like blues, purples and pinks.
25. Bring a Separate Sports Outfit for Physical Education Classes
Some schools insist on a separate sports dress code. This helps for a number of reasons.
Firstly, it ensures students are dressed in clothing that will allow them to do strenuous exercise without the clothing getting in the way. Sports clothing should usually be loose fitting and allow you to stretch your limbs in directions that non-sports clothing (such as skirts) does not.
Secondly, it means students can change out of their sweat-drenched clothing, which spares everyone the discomfort of sitting in a room full of sweaty, smelly teenagers.
Sometimes, it’s possible to create a specialized uniform for sports lessons, which can even be sponsored by local community businesses.
26. No Non-Prescription Sunglasses Indoors
Sometimes students believe it’s cool to wear sunglasses indoors. As a general rule, it’s considered rude to wear sunglasses indoors. Not only is there no sun inside, but it also prevents you from being able to look one another in the eyes.
One small complication is that some students wear prescription glasses that have a dark sun-blocking lens. These students will need an exception to allow them to use the glasses for prescription purposes.
27. No Distracting Hairstyles
This is a dress code policy that I see a lot and find quite vague. I assume it relates to hairstyles such as:
- Extreme Afros
Clearly, mohawks and beehives can be overly distracting for students in a classroom because it can block other students’ view of the teacher and front of the classroom.
But the problem with this rule is that it often comes into conflict with the hairstyles of minority cultural groups. For example, cornrow and dreadlock hairstyles are commonly associated with people of African heritage (including African-Americans). By banning this hairstyle, you are facing the risk of being accused of suppressing minority cultural expression in the school.
28. No Body-Hugging Clothing
Tight body-hugging clothing can include:
- Yoga pants.
- Muscle shirts.
- Tight dresses.
This clothing may at times be considered unacceptable by community standards. Parents may consider them to be emphasizing adult behaviors, such as body-building to ‘show off your muscles’ at school.
Similarly, tight-fitting dresses and pants may be considered overly sexualized for children to wear.
29. Jeans and Pants to be worn at the Hips
In the early 2000s, there was a sub-cultural fashion trend of wearing your jeans very low around the waist. It would often lead to exposure of underwear and (according to parents) being an untidy look.
At this time, many schools instigated bans on pants being worn low and began insisting on having them worn at or above the hips. I recall my school had spare belts in the front office to lend out to students contravening this policy!
30. No Tears or Holes in Clothing
To preserve the clean look of a school, you could also insist on clothing that isn’t torn or ripped.
This allows the school to insist that children with torn shirts throw those shirts away and but fresh shirts that aren’t likely to hook onto obstacles (or tear further) during sporting activities.
Some jeans are sold with holes and rips in the knees as a fashion statement. So, this rule would need to be put in place with fair warning to parents so they can make purchase decisions well in advance.
You could also loosen this rule by saying jeans can’t have tears above the knees, allowing for the torn fashion to be tolerated in a more modest way.
As you can surely realize, school dress codes are incredibly controversial. You will be laying out what your school’s values are and how traditional you’re planning to be. There’s potential to insult religious groups, cultural minorities, and LGBTQI+ people, who all should be consulted in order for an inclusive policy to be put into place. Furthermore, some policies that used to be commonplace may now be seen as oppressive toward women, so women must be central to the consultation process.
Personally, I belive gaining the consent of the community is essential. If your school is private, founded on certain values, or of a stated religious persuasion, it can be easier to both devise and enforce a dress code because you have a basis on which you can rely for the founding of the policy.
As you can see, school dress code policies are highly dependent on the type of school and the community setting in which the school is situated.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education.