Why Are School Uniforms & Dress Codes Still Around?

School uniforms are a daily reality for many students at countless institutions around the world. So are dutifully enforced dress codes, which dictate what is and isn't kosher to wear to class without prescribing specific items. Uniforms and dress codes certainly aren't new aspects of the scholarly experience, but the value of policing kids' and teens' wardrobe choices has come under fire a lot in the past year. Considering all this controversy over "appropriate" attire in academia, is it really necessary or worthwhile for schools to continue calling the shots fashion-wise in 2016?

Some schools have mandated longer skirts for female students, while others have even sent students home for having supposedly too-short skirts and overly snug pants. Then, there are students who've fought back against uniform mandates, whether by bending gender norms and creating petitions to affect change or wearing scarlet letters in protest.

Not all news about fashion's role in academia is bad news, though. Some institutions have progressively adopted gender-neutral uniform rules. Schools in traditionally conservative cultures are even are moving away from policies that rigidly adhere to the gender binary to ensure LGBT students are more comfortable in the classroom.

It's a really polarizing topic, to put it lightly. We scoured around for a range of perspectives about the joys and frustrations that result from having a uniform or dress code. Ahead, 15 people sound off on being told what you can and can't wear to class, whether they spent their formative years attired according to a uniform, grappled with adhering to a nebulous dress code — or, in some cases, actually wish they'd had guidelines for getting dressed each morning.
1 of 15
"I wore a uniform starting in kindergarten through when I went to college — and I absolutely loved it. I definitely see both sides of the argument. During adolescence, there's so much for teenagers to think about and so much that they're experiencing. It's really nice to have an equalizer.

"I don't think I always had this opinion, but looking back, I think having a uniform was actually the impetus for why I love getting dressed now...when I got to college, I started experimenting with my own style and understanding the value of dressing for my body, rather than dressing for other people." — Athena Chen
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2 of 15
"A school uniform can be very different things to different people, ergo the endless controversy. For me, it was a blessing for three reasons: as a socioeconomic equalizer, a reprieve from all of the effort and judgment and menial mental exhaustion usually spent on clothing, and a way to, at least superficially, fit in when it was painfully clear to me that I did not.

"I spent 12 years at a private, all-girls school where the tuition costs as much as most universities, and as far as I can tell, only a third of my classmates' mothers were employed. It was rarely spoken of directly, but money (and more importantly to girls too young to have real direct experience with it, its trappings) was paramount to the culture of the place. There are many ways to communicate wealth: the cars your parents drive, the gifts you show off the day after your birthday, the destinations of your summer vacations — but the easiest and most omnipresent is your clothing.

"To give you a taste of it, there was a notorious Lilly Pulitzer sale each year on the Main Line in which a whole store-load of discounted crocodile-print sundresses would be made available for 40% of original price, which never failed to generate astonishing stories of block-long lines, stampeding moms, and dressing-room thievery. Money played an oversized role in the culture of the school; I can only imagine the arms race had we been allowed to dress as we (or our parents) saw fit.

"Middle and high school is emotionally difficult, full stop. For me, with about five of those years spent plunging publicly into, and then slogging out, of life-threatening clinical depression, it was also agonizing and exhausting and nearly impossible. Being able to wake up every day and allow muscle memory to handle the donning of an ugly, starched kilt allowed me reprieve from yet another source of decision fatigue.

"It was also a chance to blend in with the normal kids. To a young teenager with the unfortunate combination of rampant insecurity and debilitating depressive fatigue, having a mandatory way to fake normal and direct attention away from me was a beautiful thing. I felt like human skin stretched too tight over a supermassive black hole, but when I walked the halls of the Agnes Irwin school, superficially at least, I was just another blue-and-white-garbed girl, blissfully indistinguishable from all the others." — Anonymous
3 of 15
"I went to Noble and Greenough School, which is a small, private co-ed high school school outside of Boston. We didn't have uniforms, but we had a strict dress code. Essentially, it was no jeans, no leggings, all skirts and shorts down to the top of the kneecap, no sweatshirts, no writing on any clothing, no open-toed shoes or flip-flops, guys couldn't have anything pullover, and certain colors weren't permitted.

"Over the years, I found that the items we could wear to school were so much more expensive than the items that were forbidden. Finding corduroys or nice khaki pants is more expensive than getting a pair of jeans from T.J. Maxx! Sweaters are more expensive than sweatshirts; leather shoes more expensive than other materials.

"When a friend would found a basic pair of corduroys for the fall, we'd all ask where she got them. Then, we'd all go and get the same pairs, anyways. So essentially, my close girlfriends and I ended up in our own expensive uniform looks of our own. When I went to college, I didn't want to wear those clothes anymore. I only had one pair of jeans, since I could never wear them to school, so I had to go out and basically buy a new wardrobe.

"I so wish we had just had a uniform. A strict dress code was a huge waste of money." — Mariah Pongor
4 of 15
"I grew up going to one of many all-girls Catholic schools in the Philippines, a country that is over 85% Catholic. Some of the rules on our uniforms didn’t ever make sense to me — our plain, white socks, for example, had to fully cover our ankle bones at all times. For P.E., we were required to wear knee-length grey skorts — not shorts! — through the seventh grade, when we could finally don black sweatpants, instead.

"I remember sitting and squirming in my scratchy plaid skirt, which had to fall to my shins, despite Manila’s 90° weather. I remember getting ready in the morning, looking in the mirror, and feeling awkward, shapeless, and downright ugly every day I went to school. I thought I’d grow up, look back, and think, that wasn’t so bad...still not the case." — Isabel Francisco
5 of 15
"I wore uniforms from preschool through high school and I LOVED it. Granted, I went to an all-girls Catholic high school, so I didn't experience any of the sexism associated with co-ed clothing standards. But I still believe uniforms are the best way to keep the focus on learning, as opposed to status.

"I would've found it overwhelming to plan my outfit every day and I would've compared myself to the wealthier girl. I would've felt inferior if I didn't have the cool new Frankie B. jeans, Tory Burch flats, or Juicy bags. That shit matters to 15-year-old girls, unfortunately.

"Being able to wake up at the last minute, throw on the same thing as the day before, and skip hair and makeup was the best. Granted, when it came time to go out on the weekends or pack my suitcases for college, I had about 10 non-uniform clothing items to choose from.

"To this day, I would love to have a uniform — I'd wear jeans, a T-shirt, and Converses every single day if it was acceptable." — Alix Tunell
6 of 15
"I always had a uniform. My uniforms varied from complex (tights, pleated skirt, button-down, tie, sweater, blazer, specified shoes, and even a hat) to very simple (polo shirt, khaki pants, and my choice of any closed-toe shoes). However, regardless of how complex or lax my uniform regulations were, I always loved having a uniform; they just simplified my life. To note, I'm cis-gender woman, which made it far easier for me in terms of certain regulations, like wearing skirts.

"Uniforms granted me the ability to not care at all about my presentation at school; I never had to think about what to wear in the morning. I could just wake up, roll out of bed, and throw on a pre-designated outfit. I adored the simplicity and I wish I still had a uniform. When I was younger, I was more self-conscious; I never had to be concerned with whether I was as stylish as my fellow classmates.

"While I had a great experience, I do feel that many of the motivations behind uniforms are insanely problematic. Oftentimes, schools over-penalize young women and girls for dress-code violations, or implement uniforms due to outdated sexist notions that female students are a distraction to their male counterparts. It’s disgusting and it sends a message that females are sexual objects and males are idiots who are incapable of controlling their sexual desires. It’s offensive to everyone.

"Uniforms are best when gender-neutral. My high school uniform was a polo shirt and khaki pants for everyone. It was simple, comfortable, and gender-neutral, while also allowing for individual expression. The school allowed you to wear any closed-toe shoes you felt comfortable in, allowed for jewelry, and dyed hair. It was a great intersection of uniformity and individual expression." — Lidiana Economou
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7 of 15
"Growing up in NYC, I attended public school and never had the opportunity to wear a school uniform. My cousins went to Catholic school and I was always present when their new school uniforms arrived towards the end of the summer. The collared shirts, pleated skirts, knee-socks intrigued me. My public-school friends and I sometimes entertained the idea of uniforms; discussing the ease and femininity of the preplanned outfits.

"Now, considering school uniforms as an educator, I would never fathom making such a requirement of my students. I teach preschool and I realize, even at such a young and tender age, how important it is for children to be able to express themselves. Building autonomy is so imperative in children's lives; allowing them to outwardly self express through fashion is one way for children to build a sense of self, as well as their own sense of style. "— Alexandra Mikhailoff
8 of 15
"Critics of uniforms today have myriad reasons to dislike them. It's argued that uniforms are passé — relics of a more conservative past that we can’t seem to do away with. Or that uniforms are direct examples of church and/or state policing young bodies or sartorial sins that continue to stymie creativity and self-expression. These observations are not far from the truth.

"Yet after spending literally half of my life wearing a uniform to attend school every day, I can think of at least two powerful reasons to keep them around for the time being.

"First, practicality. You wake up in the morning and you know exactly what you’ll wear that day. (And the next one. And the next…) Yes, the monotony can be devastating. But think about the time and the mental energy that you saved by not stressing out over what to wear today. You’ll automatically focus on more important matters, such as school.

"Second, egalitarianism — or the illusion of it. More and more, our consumerist culture intrudes upon the classroom, filling young children's heads with status symbols that they absolutely must own and display for all their peers to admire. In a media-driven, materialistic environment, uniforms are perhaps the one terrain in which the latest Yeezys are denied admission.

"Uniforms ensure that, regardless of family income or class, students are met on an equal playing field. In a world in which the gap between the have and the have-nots is alarmingly widening, it might be necessary to have one space, however superficial, where students are encouraged to zoom in on what really matters: their own academic promise." — L. Seda
9 of 15
"I had a school uniform from fourth grade all the way through my senior year of high school. I changed schools three times during this period, but having a uniform was a constant. I shifted from a purple-and-white checkered print to grey-and-red, and finally to a Scottish kilt and polo T-shirt. I was at an all-girls school for my middle school years and then a co-ed high school where both boys and girls had uniforms.

"I found having a uniform to be helpful. Like most adolescents, I had my fair share of (unnecessary) teen angst, silly fights with friends, and concern over the SAT; a uniform gave me one less thing to worry about.

"College was the first time I was tasked with outfitting myself, and the process was daunting. I found myself unsure of what brands and styles would work well for me; I ended up giving myself an unofficial uniform. For example, I purchased one top in five different colors, and three pairs of the same jeans. Whether this was out of laziness or a means of creating routine, I continued this way of dressing myself throughout college. It became a joke among my friends that I had a couple of pieces of clothing in several colors." — Rohini Menezes
10 of 15
"I despised school uniforms so much as a kid — they made my elementary and high school days dreadful. But in hindsight, I actually appreciate them.

"In elementary school, we wore ugly Peter Pan collar shirts with green plaid jumpers or skirts. At my all-girls Catholic high school, our seasonal uniforms made it extra 'fun.' Our fall/spring uniforms were an oxford blue button-down with a front-pleat khaki skirt that made us look like flight attendants, and our winter uniforms were a heavy herringbone, pleated wool skirt, [and a] white oxford button-down. Oh, let me not forget the name tag and blazer!

"Now, all kidding aside, I was happy I didn’t have to think of a cool outfit to wear every day. What I dreaded the most was the responsibility: Every weekend, I had to clean, press, and prepare my uniform. My mom made sure that I took care of them. Our nuns reminded us, too, that we needed to be good physical examples of our schools. We had to be good girls and boys that looked neat and tidy.

"Would I do it again? Absolutely! I realized later that we all looked relatively the same. What mattered was I learned that it was my responsibility to take care of my uniform. As my mom reminded me every day, you’re in school to learn, not to worry how 'cool' you’re supposed to look." — Michelle Chen
11 of 15
“I attended a Catholic school in Puerto Rico my whole life, and my experiences with uniforms were tricky. In kindergarten, girls were made to buy the same grey pleated skirt paired with a 'bolero,' which is basically a vest from hell. Under the bolero, we wore white rounded-collar shirts that became stained and useless by the end of the year. The cherry on top was a wine-colored bow-type accessory that we had to wear around our necks. Of course, no Catholic school girl outfit is complete without black leather school shoes and above-the-ankle socks.

"Now, imagine all of those layers, including polyester, worn together in the tropical, often savage heat of Puerto Rico. Our skirts had to be under the knee. If you didn't comply, you would get an 'Out of Uniform' slip that every teacher would ask for every time you went into a class room. As if forgetting your ankle socks wasn't annoying enough. In high school, we had the same uniform, without the bow, and with pointed-collar instead of rounded-collar white shirts. The bolero from hell still lived on, however. Having to wear skirts daily made me weary of skirts — and of shaving my legs.

"Casual days were another challenge. We couldn't wear spaghetti-strap shirts — or skirts, even though our uniform included a skirt. Needless to say, I hated these uniform rules and how my school dealt with them." — Paola Delucca
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12 of 15
"I always fantasized about uniforms. I was so obsessed with what I wore in middle school that I kept a notebook of my daily outfits. I wanted to make sure I rotated pieces as often as possible, and to ensure I repeated items as infrequently as possible. Was it to keep up the appearance that I had a 'gigantic' wardrobe? Was it out of fear of someone seeing me wear the same thing too many times in a row and thinking I was dirty? I guess? I'd even resort to wearing things I didn't like or was totally uncomfortable in; an item being new or never before seen by my peers made it worth it.

"As an adult, I have a few go-to pieces that I know look great on me, and that I have very few qualms wearing as often as possible. The only drawback is worrying about wearing them out, then kicking myself for not buying multiples. (And the neuroses continue...)

"But back to uniforms, I do notice, and always have, that girls still tend to make uniforms their own, and always find ways to sex them up. I'm not sure if this is done right when they get out of school or if this is permitted during school hours, but I'm sure that that, too, comes with all the concomitant psychological torment amongst school-aged children anyway. I guess it ends up still being a case of the grass always being greener.” — Stephanie Venetsky
13 of 15
"I really, really liked wearing uniforms. We wore colorful linen dresses that were nicknamed 'potato sacks.' It made getting ready so easy. And they were so comfortable. My dad caught me sleeping in my boxer shorts (which were required under the dress) and bra and just throwing the dress on right before we left the house. He told me that was gross and I had to stop, because it was gross. Whatever, dad.

"I also realize that there were a lot of reasons to not love our uniforms: they were expensive. Uniforms were a constant source of tension between students and faculty, since students often felt like the dress code was too strict and unevenly enforced. Disruptive students or students already marked as 'trouble' were unfairly punished for uniform violations. Meanwhile, students who were 'good' could get away with minor infractions, like an 'illegal' sweatshirt or missing belt.

"It's kind of similar to my feelings about my school in general: I had an amazing seven years, but people I know, like my sister, weren't as good a 'fit' and really struggled. So I take all my happy memories with a grain of salt." — Anonymous
14 of 15
"I don't remember feeling vitriol toward wearing a uniform on a day-to-day basis, but the main thing that pissed me off about it was that when I was probably a sophomore, all the girls were called to an assembly and told that we'd have to start wearing tights year-round, because our skirts were 'hemmed or rolled-up too short' — and the boys were looking up our skirts as we climbed the steps to our classes.

"It was classic 'boys-will-be-boys' shit. Previously, we could go tights-less during the spring and early fall months. So we had to wear tights every goddamn day, and if we didn't, we got written up." — Jess Rezendes
15 of 15
"We didn't have a uniform, but we had a very restrictive dress code. Boys had to wear slacks, button-downs, and ties (in the last few months of the school year, they could swap in polos) and girls had to wear slacks or skirts and a collar at all times (even with sweaters or dresses). No denim of any kind, ever.

"I get what they were going for: pushing the focus from outfits to education and attempting to level the playing field between students of different backgrounds and appearances. But teenagers are teenagers. There was still a focus on twisting the dress code to express your personal style. Kids are still hormonal, low-attention-spanned lust-buckets. Conventionally attractive kids still looked more conventionally attractive than the other kids.

"At the end of the day, I ended up with a pile of clothes I never wore outside of school hours and a pervasive loathing of collars of all kinds. Should kids be able to wear whatever they want to school? No. But administrators need to reevaluate the purpose of a dress code.

"It should be for kids' safety, such no flip-flops in chem lab, rather than some odd, and frankly, impossible, attempt to curb sexual impulses." — Emily Levin
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