Are Dress Codes Sexist?

Earlier this week, a private school in Michigan, United States made the headlines for establishing a written agreement signed by both parents and students not to break the prom dress code. A detail that surprisingly remains unstated in the contract is that those whose attire does not follow the rules will be given ‘modesty ponchos’ at the door, in order to cover their bodies.

Let’s first take a look at the history of dress codes around the globe. For over centuries, dress codes have been a norm in societies. During the Middle Ages, the royalty and nobility used these written or unwritten conventions to stand out from lower social classes. Nowadays, official dress codes are mostly the reflection of either religious affiliation or occupation (such as state nominated occupations), but not of social status as it was in the past. Furthermore, a set of rules that still exist today and is widely in use worldwide, although usually unofficial, applies specifically to the workplace. Whilst the open-mindedness of employers when it comes to clothing might differ from country to country, dress codes persist across the globe. Before attending interviews, candidates are often told to dress smart and not wear any piece that would make them stand out. Again, this might differ as regards to the industry. In fashion, for instance, your style may have a positive impact, however personal it is. In emerging start-ups, a casual outfit may as well do the job. Nevertheless, these cases are rare and most the time you will be expected to stand out from within, not from without.

Over time, many schools and higher-education institutions have ceased to impose uniforms, except for private schools. Oxbridge students’ formal wear, however, has survived its centuries-old existence. Different from uniforms that are meant to represent the ‘emblem of a group’, as scholar Nathan Joseph defines them, dress codes are still very much ruling the classrooms. In recent years, many controversies have emerged in high schools where young girls have been denied access or sent home for wearing clothes like yoga pants, crop tops, or even shirts that are seemingly too revealing. Their clothes were judged inappropriate and sexualizing. For instance, the perception of bare shoulders could, according to principals and teachers, distract the boys in the classroom. Female bodies have thus been objectified and sexualized, let alone the fact that these comments are made during adolescence, a delicate age that shapes new adults.

Another example of misogyny regarding dress codes is the case of Chinese airlines. Last year, Cathay Pacific airline was one of the few companies in the country to agree that female flight attendants would finally be able to wear trousers. Around the world, it became acceptable for women to wear trousers only after the 1960’s — merely five decades ago!

Those few examples of dress codes are just enough to make us realize how sexist they are. In societies where feminist advocates are working towards gender equality, the concept of dress code is outdated. In fact, it reflects the injustice inflicted on women by the patriarchal society. In major businesses, female employees are often expected to wear skirts and high heels, in spite of their inconvenience and the physical damage they often entail. In schools, through restriction, girls are taught that they are the ones responsible for their safety and shall always look out for potential harm from their gender-opposite classmates. Teaching girls how not to get raped but not educating boys is part of today’s persistent rape culture. The fact that the high school that decided to provide their prom dress code rule-breakers modesty ponchos is a Catholic, private institution does not matter. They have the right to implement rules as tough as they wish, but in this case, it is merely a reflection of discrimination against girls. The education that is received by myriads of young people today shall not be based on discrimination.

The most commonly selected dress code requirement among women (59%) was being asked to wear high heeled shoes. Among men, the most commonly selected item was being required to wear a tie

Beyond the issue of sexism lies one of identity. Dress codes were implemented in various parts of society to informally label people. Even walking around the streets today, people wearing less sophisticated outfits could be subject to negative assumptions from their peers. In the workplace, uniforms and dressing conventions are meant to suppress one’s own identity. On a day-to-day basis, people are made to conform to social norms through the pieces they choose to wear, whether in some groups it is an unsaid truth or not.

Moreover, there are those who, like me, love to express themselves through their outfits. Those are often denied their right for self-expression in the workplace (except for high positions in the fashion industry), and even more likely to be victims of a rampant form of sexism which is catcalling. In spite of the variations, dress codes remain sexist as the pressure that is put on women in many areas of their life to be a reflection of perfection, be it by exposing a bare face, a symbol of natural beauty, in places like Japan or full-on makeup and bleached hair in Anglo-Saxon countries. These off-the-record rules embody a society that is based on appearance, one in which first impressions are more important than deep, moral and intellectual worth. By imposing dress codes, society deprives its people of complete equality and freedom.


Do you think that dress codes are sexist or that they are a way for us all to be equal, or at least neutral? Are they necessary in certain places?

giulia (3)



  1. I can’t ‘like’ this enough – this is absolutely brilliantly written. I was furious reading about the school’s modesty ponchos but didn’t go further than anger in my reaction – once again, you’ve provided the research and well structured argument I felt but couldn’t express! Thank you xx

  2. Women through time have had to dress down to be less feminine or dress up to be more feminine. Girls in school have had to dress as not to distract the boys. It’s an unfair system if you ask me.

  3. I loved reading this post! I think it raises so many issues that need to be resolved soon. I’m shocked by the examples you give- surely they highlight just how sexist society has become.

      1. Exactly!! And no problem- thank you for writing about such an important issue!

  4. What a great and well-argued post 🙂 the things that aggravates me most about dress codes is the double-standards regarding gender, and the restriction it places on our self expression. I love nothing more than dressing creatively! xx

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