Dress Codes

School dress codes have their origins in English private schools but only recently became common in American public schools. Primarily due to favorable economic conditions in the 1950s and 1960s leading to an increase in disposable income, clothing designers and marketers began to target a generation of fashion-conscious students. Combined with the social upheaval of the 1960s, student grooming and dress began to challenge traditional educational expectations. Student dress became a means of individual and political expression. Consequently, educational policymakers devised dress policies, or dress codes, to inculcate their values upon an increasingly diverse student population. This entry looks at Court rulings that have been applied to student dress codes, looks briefly at their effectiveness, and provides guidelines for educators.

Relevant Cases

Student dress received national attention in 1969 when the U.S. Supreme Court granted students the broad First Amendment right to freedom of expression. In Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, the Court considered whether a school policy banning the wearing of armbands by students in protest of the Vietnam War violated the students’ freedom of expression. Noting that the school officials had no evidence that the wearing of the armbands was potentially disruptive or would substantially interfere with the educational process, the Court held that because the circumstances of the case were close to “pure speech,” the students were entitled to First Amendment protection.

Largely due to Tinker and subsequent court decisions, school district dress guidelines began to consider students’ expression rights. Subsequently, dress code litigation has been influenced by two other student speech cases. The first, Bethel School District No. 403 v. Fraser (1986), centered on a speech that the plaintiff delivered to the student body. The speech included a graphic, explicit sexual metaphor, and as a consequence, the student was disciplined. Although the Court affirmed that students had the right to advocate unpopular viewpoints, the Court noted that the expression of those views may be balanced against reasonable standards of civil conduct as established by the school district. In essence, the Fraser standard evidences that student speech may be restricted if it is lewd, offensive, or inappropriate in the school setting.

The second influential case, Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier (1988), involved the publication of a high school student newspaper. The Supreme Court held that the school newspaper was not a public forum and as such did not receive the same purespeech protection as did the armbands in Tinker. In essence, the Court modified the Tinker standard, noting that if the speech would materially disrupt class work or invade the rights of others, then the school could impose reasonable constraints over the speech. Accordingly, the Hazelwood standard establishes that school officials may restrain student speech if there is a legitimate pedagogical reason to do so.

More recently, the courts have used the Tinker, Fraser, and Hazelwood rulings to craft guidelines for student speech and consequently, student dress codes. As a result, rulings across the different circuits have been inconsistent. For example, a student in the Ninth Circuit was inappropriately disciplined for wearing a T-shirt with a reference to drugs, but the message was not found to be offensive or counter to the school’s antidrug mission. Yet, other circuits have held that “plainly offensive” speech, as noted in Fraser, is broader than lewd and vulgar speech. Accordingly, the offensive speech may extend to hate speech, or even to references to drug and alcohol use.

Specific dress codes for students are universal. Policymakers tend to encourage dress codes and, typically, the right to establish and enforce the codes is sustained by the courts. Commonly, dress codes attempt to prevent the promotion of drug and alcohol use, gang-related insignias, sexually provocative clothing, and hate-related clothing.

Effectiveness of Dress Codes

Research regarding the effectiveness of dress codes is inconclusive. Opponents of dress codes claim that dress codes are discriminatory, primarily toward females and minorities. Further, opponents claim that dress codes are an assault on the fundamental First Amendment right to free speech. Proponents of dress codes respond that codes improve the learning environment, enhance student safety, place less stress on students’ families—particularly low-income families, and eliminate student preoccupation with fashion.

Although the Tinker Court held that students do not shed their constitutional rights when they enter the school, the Court also noted that the case did not address student dress policies such as skirt length or clothing restrictions. The Fifth Circuit in Canady v. Bossier Parish School Board (2000) determined that a school policy regulating student dress is constitutional as long as it furthers an important governmental interest, the interest is not related to student expression, and First Amendment restrictions are minimal.

School Uniforms

With the growth in conservatism in the 1980s and the rising public concern about student discipline and safety in the schools, the courts became more receptive to increasingly dogmatic school dress policies, such as school uniform policies. The courts have supported dress code regulations necessary to maintain an environment free from disruption and distraction. Although the idea of implementing school uniform policies in the public schools began in the late 1980s, President Clinton added credence to the practice in 1996 when he endorsed school uniform policies as a means of reducing school violence and disciplinary problems.

Often controversial, school uniform policies have become popular with state-level policymakers. Currently, many states allow, or specifically encourage, local public school policymakers to implement school uniform policies. Much like the research regarding dress codes in general, the research on the effectiveness of school uniforms is inconclusive. Whereas dress code policies are often viewed as restrictive, detailing what may not be worn, school uniform policies are often viewed as directive, detailing what must be worn. This minor distinction can play a significant role in how the courts view the legality of uniform policies.

Educator Guidelines

School officials possess the authority to establish dress codes. Dress codes that do not suppress political speech will receive more judicial support than those that do. Yet, in a time when school violence is prominent, the courts are inclined to leave dress code regulations to school officials as long as the regulations are specific enough to provide notice to the students. Additionally, when the guidelines are restrictive, school officials would be well served to have a clearly legitimate interest (e.g., safety) as a rationale for implementing the guidelines.

Acceptable student dress codes are flexible and avoid restricting constitutionally protected freedoms like religious expression. Dress codes devised as an attempt to affect disciplinary problems or gang violence should be developed as part of an overall school safety program. If the dress code has economic implications, some assistance may need to be provided to economically disadvantaged students.

Mark Littleton

See also Bethel School District No. 403 v. Fraser; Free Speech and Expression Rights of Students; Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District

Further Readings

  • Salgado, R. (2005). Protecting student speech rights while increasing school safety: School jurisdiction and the search for warning signs in a post–Columbine/Red Lake environment. Brigham Young University Law Review, 2005(5), 1371–1412. 
  • Uerling, D. (1997). Student dress code (EA028608). Lincoln, NE: Educational Management. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED411577) 

Legal Citations