The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Schools enforce dress codes all the time. So why not masks?

Dress codes are about social control, not student well-being.

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The simmering debate about mandating masks in schools has prompted some to point to the double standard in schools’ reluctance to require face coverings while imposing strict dress codes that ban short skirts, spaghetti straps and leggings, among other items of clothing. As one mom in Tennessee argued in a viral tweet: If schools allow people to opt out from mask-wearing for ideological reasons, then why not offer the ability to opt out from sexist dress codes that do not align with parents’ values?

Although the debate about mask-wearing is primarily situated as a debate concerning public health, the comparison by parents and pro-maskers of dress codes to mask mandates illuminates how it has bled into the broader culture wars. After all, the comparison exposes the hypocrisy of anti-mask and anti-vaccination arguments, which often rely on claims of “freedom” or “individual choice,” even as the same politicians are perfectly fine with imposing mandates and restrictions on women’s appearances and reproductive rights.

But more important, this comparison points to how parents and school officials understand schools’ role and authority. Although protecting students’ lives by mandating masks seems beyond the realm of schools’ responsibility, controlling students’ bodies through attire is a different matter. Indeed, students’ well-being has never been the driver of dress codes. Rather, it is social control, targeted primarily at disfavored groups, that schools have long been all too eager to wield as a way to force adherence to cultural norms.

There is a long history of schools imposing codes of appearance and behavior, from uniforms to rules of conduct. As social institutions that are meant to prepare future citizens to function in society, schools are hardly democratic spaces. Instead, schools use their authority to enforce social values through curriculum choices, enrollment decisions and also dress codes.

Dress codes have usually targeted women and minorities, continuing a long tradition of policing these groups’ appearance and presence in public. And because dress codes are a way to assert power and control, they don’t just target students but teachers as well.

In the 1920s, teachers who adopted the fashions and the bobbed hairstyles of the flapper were at risk of getting fired or not being employed at all. In 1928, Harper’s Magazine reported that the school board of Santa Paula, Calif., refused to hire a teacher because of her bobbed hair, and in Hazel Park, Mich., the school board mandated that all female teachers wear ankle-length, instead of knee-length, dresses.

Not only did mandates regulate teachers’ appearances, but also their behavior, as school boards nationwide prohibited smoking, dating or any other behavior “inappropriate” for educators such as dancing or even getting pregnant.

In the case of teachers, these types of restrictions stirred objection, public debate and — as the 1920s progressed and social norms changed — also resistance. Teachers defied these ordinances by appearing in school with short skirts and bobbed hair, causing one commissioner in California to back down from the requirements. As he pointed out, “If all the bobbed-haired teachers were fired, there would not be enough long-haired applicants to go around.”

Yet, if dress codes for teachers provoked controversy, regulating students’ appearance was not so contentious. In fact, the assumption was that students’ appearance should be regulated, and it was the school’s responsibility to enforce such measures. This was true in particular for Black institutions, which viewed their students’ (especially girls and women) appearances and behaviors as part of a larger project of “racial uplift.” Trying to refute racist stereotypes of the hypersexual Black woman, Black schools mandated strict dress codes that banned flashy or ornamented appearance and called for modest clothing that did not draw unwanted attention to the body.

As dress codes were never just about clothing or appearance, they quickly became an arena where students, school officials and parents tested the boundaries of freedom of expression and power. By demanding freedom to choose what to wear, students asserted themselves as active agents who deserved a say in the school operations.

That was the case in 1925, when Black students at the historically Black Fisk University went on strike in protest of their treatment by Fayette McKenzie, the school’s White president. They tied their demands for greater independence on campus with changes to the institution’s strict dress code. Instead of the mandatory cotton stockings and long-sleeved dresses — which for many of the female students represented an outdated moral system — they demanded the freedom to show “long necks and [wear] dresses made of silk or satin,” as their White counterparts did at other colleges.

Black female students were also aware of the gendered aspect of these demands. They insisted upon their right to be treated like their Black male colleagues who were not subjected to the same curfews or strict code of appearance.

The battle over dress codes in schools only intensified after World War II, when students demanded greater voice and influence in their education while simultaneously asking for greater freedom of self-expression manifested through their clothes. Moreover, as the student population changed and the number of teenagers grew as a result of the baby boom, school officials found greater need to control this age group, and their attire.

Yet, if dress codes became stricter in the 1950s, by the mid-1960s, students did not stop at protesting and rebelling against schools’ regulations but turned to the courts for help. Although dress codes traditionally targeted female students, many of the court cases in the 1960s were filed by teenage boys who protested bans on longer hair styles. For these students, resisting dress codes became a way to demand their right to be recognized as equal citizens, a claim that only intensified as the United States became more involved in the Vietnam War. Using the argument of free speech, these students framed their fashion choices as a constitutional right.

In the 1969 landmark case of Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, the Supreme Court sided with this argument, ruling that neither students nor teachers “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”

Yet, even if the decision gave students some power and control, it extended only so far. Just three years later, in Karr v. Schmidt, the court ruled that wearing long hair did not merit the protection of the First Amendment. Rejecting arguments that there was a constitutional right “to wear one’s hair in a public high school in the length and style that suits the wearer,” the court also rejected the argument that school dress codes usurped the rights of parents to control their children’s appearances.

Although much has changed since the tremulous 1970s, the fight for more student autonomy and independence regarding dress codes has continued to the present, as students point to the often sexist and racist values behind them. However, while the question of how much control schools may exert over students’ bodies is up for debate, there is a consensus that schools have the authority to do so, not students or their parents.

And it is precisely this consensus about dress codes that offers a route to solve the current debate about masks. As a school in Texas recently discovered, masks could be mandated despite the governor’s executive order banning such mandates (although that order is now being challenged in court), if the mandate was framed as part of the school’s dress code. Treating masks as a fashion item instead of a health measure allowed the school to claim the authority to regulate their use.

Although it would be preferable to have a consensus over the necessity of health measures to protect children during a pandemic, turning the debate about masks from a public health issue to a fashion one might turn out to be more useful than we think. If we can’t agree to follow the minimum health guidelines during a pandemic, maybe the long history of regulating students’ appearance will convince parents that we can impose masks on children. Schools have long asserted their ability to control students’ bodies; this time they could at least use that power to protect children.