What should be guidelines for ‘appropriate’ attire for college students?

What should students wear?

That question was raised by a recent story in the New York Times about students at Stuyvesant High School who were protesting the school’s dress code.

The students complained that the dress code was too restrictive, especially in hot months when the school’s air conditioning wasn’t dependable.

Having taught in classrooms that weren’t air conditioned or where the air conditioning didn’t work effectively, I can agree that shorts and a tank top would be more comfortable. But it’s a question of degrees (pun intended).

The students at Stuyvesant can wear shorts. The length of the shorts was the issue. According to the school dress code, shorts (and skirts and dresses) must be as long as the length of the student’s finger tips when the arms are extended straight down. The photo (on right) of the Stuyvesant students climbing the stairs to class illustrates the different lengths of shorts. And in a school or the workplace, when do shorts become distracting?

The Stuyvesant High School students wanted to “Redress the Dress Code” and had handouts with the dress code guidelines Xed out.

[I think the students made a strategy error in calling their protest “Slutty Wednesday.” Certainly the term catches people’s attention, but it raises a set of issues that aren’t directly connected to the overall protest of the dress code. Also, some students, teachers and administrators would have difficulty in supporting Slutty Wednesday, when they might be supportive of Redress the Dress Code Day. But the naming of the protest isn’t the topic for this post.]

The issue of clothing comfort, distraction and cost are factors when schools and businesses debate “appropriate” attire.

Yahoo! featured “What Not to Wear to the Office,” a blog post by Johanna Douglas, where she offered seven tips from Katherine Power and Hillary Kerr’s new handbook, “What to Wear, Where” for women employees.

Some of the tips are to help women employees be well groomed, such as #2 – Avoid wrinkled or stained clothing.

But two of the other tips are more about what is “appropriate” for the workplace and support the Stuyvesant High School dress code — no tank tops or halter tops and dresses and skirts that would pass the dress code length guidelines.

Let’s shift (not a shift dress) from high school students to college students and their dress.

One great aspect about being a college student is being able to be more relaxed and even have fun with one’s attire. College students often have gone through high school dress codes and know that workplace dress guidelines await them.

Do college students need a dress code imposed by the college?

Brighman Young University and Hampton University are two universities that say “yes,” and each has its dress code posted on the university’s website.

Brigham Young’s dress code lists clothing that is not acceptable for male and female students. Here’s a partial list.

For men: “Avoid being sloppy or inappropriately casual; no baggy/saggy pants; pants must be worn at the waist; no underwear should be visible.”

For women: “Skirts, dresses, or shorts must extend at least to the knee and shirts and tops must cover the stomach and back; clothing should cover the shoulders; clothing that is low-cut in the front or back, tight, or revealing in any other manner is unacceptable.”

Part of Hampton University’s dress code points out that what is appropriate in one setting (classroom or cafeteria) would not be appropriate for other settings (job interview or formal social function). Some of Hampton’s dress code requirements go against young adult fashion trends, such as no baseball caps or hoods for men or women when in a building.

Having spent years looking at college student attire, I have two recommendations for student dress.

The first recommendation has to do with the “content” of messages conveyed on clothing. Would it be offensive or insensitive to others?

The first day of class in a large auditorium course, I was recruiting a few students to help me distribute handouts. I was about to ask one student when I saw that the front of his T-shirt had two anatomically correct nude cartoon figures. I decided not to ask him to stand up and distribute the handouts. Several weeks later, when I’d had other conversations with him, I mentioned that T-shirt and that some people might get the wrong impression about him if he wore that T-shirt when he was doing an interview for class, for example. He said he hadn’t thought about that — and he didn’t wear that T-shirt again (at least in my class).

If I think one of my students is wearing a potentially offensive clothing item, I typically wait until another day to talk with to the student about it — privately. Otherwise, they could be embarrassed — and then what would they do? Turn the shirt inside out as students sometimes have to do at high school?

The second recommendation is more challenging as it has to do with that tricky issue of the “appropriateness” of the clothing. The students I’m working with aspire to go into careers in the media — and about 15 percent to law school. So instead of addressing the classroom clothing issue, we can talk about what would be appropriate in the workplace. If students wear short shorts to class, that’s not typically a concern. However, wearing those same shorts when conducting interviews for stories they are working on for class could be a problem. For example, the source might not consider the student to be professional if dressed too casually.

To me, the college student dress issue is more of a critical thinking issue.

Can the student consider the implications of dress depending on the setting?

Can the student recognize that although we’d like to think that appearance is superficial, one’s attire can change the tone of the situation and the impression the other person has?

What do you think about attire for college students?

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