University Dress Code

Dress code as seen at a London Club in the Soh...

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My university, Florida A&M University (FAMU), recently adopted a dress code (or, to be more technical the trustees approved new dress standards). This code allows professors to prevent students from attending classes (or other functions) if the students are not dress appropriately. Previously only the school of business had a dress code.

There seem to be three main reasons for this code. The first is that it is taken as educational. That is, it is supposed to teach students what sort of dress will serve them best professionally and socially. The second relates to classroom order, namely it is intended to deter students from wearing clothing to class that could disrupt the class. The third is a matter of image, specifically that it is aimed at preventing students from wearing clothing that will make FAMU look bad.

While I have not (as of  this writing) been supplied with a list of banned attire, it does include “do-rags”, hoods, and the infamous underwear revealing “saggy pants.” Rumor also has it that tube tops and t-shirts with inflammatory language will also be banned.

As might be imagined, I am somewhat divided on this matter. However, I will endeavor to sort through the matter from a philosophical and professorial perspective. I will do so by looking at the reasons behind the code.

The first reason nicely matches Aristotle’s views of education. When discussing moral education, Aristotle notes that young people do not find a temperate life to be particularly appealing, so it is necessary to condition them to such a life. Doing so, he argues, will make it less irksome and hence it will be all the easier to ensure that they follow the right path throughout life. As might be imagined, many college students would prefer to not dress like professionals and prefer to be rather more casual. Also, some college students clearly prefer the now forbidden styles. As might be imagined, the job creators who will hire the students when the graduate will expect their employees to dress in appropriate ways. As such, the university would merely be extending its mission of conditioning students for the workplace by adding in control over their modes of dress. After all, the American education system has been training students to follow schedules, do boring work at the behest of others, obey petty authorities, stand in lines, and so on. What, it might be asked, is the problem with adding a conformity of costume to the curriculum of conditioning?

The obvious problem is, of course, that such an imposition seems to violate the liberty of the students. Since they are adults, there is a presumption in favor of their right to dress as they choose. Naturally, this should match the laws regarding public indecency (although those could be challenged as well). However, provided the students are not violating such laws, it would seem reasonable to not impose on their liberty. Unless, of course, the harm done by specific attire would morally warrant imposing on the liberty of the students. This takes me to the second reason.

The second reason does have some appeal. While I have never had a class actually disrupted by someone’s choice of attire, it does seem possible for this to happen-provided that the clothing was such that it would create a significant and lasting impact on the class. In all my years of teaching, about the most extreme reactions I have seen is having some students stare briefly at another student because of his/her choice of clothing. This has sometimes been followed by some whispering. However, this sort of “disruption” is nothing compared with the disruptive influence of personal electronics and people talking to each other in class. Naturally, students coming to class partially or fully naked would probably have a significant impact-but that is already covered, I think, by existing laws regarding public nudity. Because of this, I have never really considered improper attire a threat to my classroom-but my experience might be unusual. There is also the possibility that I am blind to the damage it has been doing in my classes.  If other professors’ classes (and mine) are, in fact, being disrupted by improper attire, then the code would make sense on this ground. After all, the disruption of class would harm the other students and thus warrant imposing on the liberty of the student whose attire is causing the disruption.

Of course, it could be countered that there are cases in which the student cannot be reasonably held accountable for the reaction of others. To use the obvious analogy to free speech, if a student says something that annoys, offends or otherwise bothers other students, this does not automatically entail that the student should be compelled to be silent. For example, if a student presents an argument in favor of God’s existence that really annoys some atheists in a religion class, it would hardly be right to silence the student because of this.

The obvious counter to this is to argue that the clothing being banned is not the clothing equivalent of a rational argument that bothers those who disagree. Rather, the clothing is on par with someone shouting vulgarities in class. If this is so, the code would seem sensible.

The third reason also has some appeal. While philosophers are supposed to be concerned with wisdom rather than with the “sights and sounds”, I recognize the importance of appearances when it comes to matters such as recruitment and reputation. For example, if prospective students and their parents see FAMU students dressed inappropriately for higher education, this might impact their decision to attend FAMU (although our enrollment has been at record levels). As another example, photos of the university that feature inappropriately attired students could also do damage to the school’s reputation. After all, reputation is often more about appearance than substance. Naturally, it might be countered that people should be more concerned with the substance than with the appearance, but that idea seems quaintly out of touch in a time when people assert that “perception is reality.”  In any case, if the damage done to the university by the inappropriate attire exceeded the damage done to the students by imposing on their liberty, then the imposition of the code would thus seem morally warranted.

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  1. This is an interesting interview. C N Yang is a 1957 Nobel winner. At about 47 minutes in he discusses cultural differences in education between China and US. Not directly about dress, but it does address issues of conformity and freedom of expression.

  2. It might help if I gave you the actual link:

  3. That does raise an interesting point, namely that clothing can be seen as a matter of expression. If universities are supposed to teach students to think for themselves (a dubious claim, I know), then imposing conformity would seem contrary to that mission. If, however, universities are (in part) engines of conformity, then it would be mission appropriate.

  4. @Ron my thoughts about this blog is captured in the last 25 minutes of the interview; that is the need to strike the “optimal balance” between rigid/structured education and flexible/fluid education:

    The output of the latter is often innovation and creativity which results in more expansive value creation then the former.

    FAMU might wish to define what kind of students they wish to produce and strike the desired balance in attire.

  5. Mike,

    Given that the FAMU is an Agri+Mech uni it might be that conformity is the priority. I don’t know what the range of teaching is there, but I’m supposing they don’t have an Arts faculty, or a Fashion Apparel faculty, either of which might require non-conformity to get in.

  6. swallerstein (amos)

    Wearing formal clothes could be an added expensive for some low income students, who would be better off spending scarce money on books or a new computer.

    I don’t own any formal clothes myself (except a jacket and pants which I have not taken out of the closet for over 20 years) and if I had to buy a new suit, etc, the costs would add up, since I would also have to buy a certain style of shoes to go with them, shirts, ties, etc.

    People generally are comfortable wearing their habitual style of clothing and in my experience, people learn more easily when they feel comfortable, not when they feel tense, especially when we are talking about learning philosophy. It might be different if we are talking about learning how to do the goose step, but I assume that that is not the case here.

  7. Three periods of in my life so far have been such that I was obliged to wear Uniform, that is to say abide by a code of dress, Firstly as School boy, next In the British army, and lastly as an employee of a large public company. I personally was not bothered, there was nothing to it, you wore the stuff and wore it correctly. In each of these separate periods I met people who rebelled; Only when forced to wear the uniform did they do so, but every opportunity was taken to wear it incorrectly. I hasten to add none of the clothing was bizarre or especially uncomfortable. I could never understand why one would constantly want to put oneself in the position of being checked, and sometimes punished for not wearing clothing in the approved manner. It was evident also that in all cases, the majority of these ‘rebels’ formed a very large part of those who were underachievers.
    There was a problem I believe with the public company in so far that potential recruits were never advised that there was a formal dress code Jacket, Trousers (Pants), Neck tie, Shirt, Leather shoes. It was only when taken on and asked, if necessary, to dress appropriately that they became aware of this provision.
    Personally I felt that dress code was somewhat overrated and mostly I turned a blind eye to infringements it seemed more important that people should be enthused to do a good day’s work and be happy in what they were doing. Unless their clothing was in some way offensive or caused an uproar, then forget it. One instance however sticks in my mind of a young man in my care who dressed very casually. He worked very well so I saw no cause for complaint. How ever I had to draw his attention to the fact that an important part of his development was now to deal with members of the public and other organisations from time to time on a personal basis. I pointed out that no way would I allow him to proceed in that direction whilst his dress sense was not in accordance with office requirements. He refused to comply and I had to explain that the omission of interactions with the public would be detrimental to his progress with the Company as it would be reflected in reports I made on him. He remained adamant and left the Company, and what could have been a good career, a few months later.
    So what good does dress codes do? Well initially they are something of a disciplinary nature which seems obvious when Schools and the armed forces are looked at. An old Army saying was ‘If you can’t take orders then you will never learn to give them’. Secondly a body of people similarly dressed do seem to cohere and begin to have a pride in the organisation, what it all stands for, and a respect for each other. Of course the organisation does have to be worthy of respect. Assuming universities are worthy of respect is a dress code necessary or is it too constraining and in conflict with the freedom of thought and expression espoused by so many? A Police or Military academy would be hard pressed I think, to function without it. However such is not the case with other educational establishments I think. Looking at the example given by Mike it does seem reasonable to me to request students and incidentally tutors and the like to dress smartly and avoid certain articles of clothing which are outrageous, or image impressing. This surely leaves a vast area from which to select, where the cost may not be prohibitive. It is something like expecting students to conform to acceptable patterns of behaviour, One can still be smart and cool surely.

  8. swallerstein (amos)

    Hello Don:

    When I was a schoolboy, we had a rather strict dresscode, which in my mind at least seemed to parallel a certain control on the kind of opinions and the subjects we could discuss in the classroom.

    In the university, we were free to wear whatever we wanted and that seemed to parallel our new freedom to express controversial, heretical and
    even radically wild opinions in the classroom on all kinds of subjects. No doubt many of things that I said when I was 18 and had recently entered the university were sophomoric or reflected my lack of life experience, but one learns by expressing ideas, seeing how others react to them and observing if they function in the real world.

    I realize that there is no strict relation between the freedom to say what one thinks and the freedom to wear what one feels like wearing, but in the popular mind they seem to go together and many people realize that they do not go together only through a long process of experimentation with both forms of freedom.

    That is, there is a process of learning that the two freedoms are not necessarily linked, that wearing formal clothes is not “repression” or “censorship”, but unless you let people learn that on their own, they never learn it, although you can force people to wear uniforms.

    One also learns through that same process of experimentation and experience that the freedom to express one’s ideas is much much more important than freedom to wear what one wants and that in fact, the same freedom to wear what one wants is often not even a real freedom, but one manipulated and programmed by retail clothing chains to keep sales soaring. However, 18 year old’s cannot generally be expected to realize that their “freedoms” are cynically created to increase the profits of big corporations.

    That realization takes time and the experience of critical thought, which, as you know, can be fomented through the study of philosophy.

    I agree with you that a corporation has a certain image and can require its employees to wear a certain style of clothing, although, as you realize, a philosophy class is not a business.

    I have never been in the military, although I did work in an “underground” political organization against the Pinochet dicatorship and we did not wear uniforms, although some of us (not me) were armed. I never noted that a uniform was necessary to create our esprit de corps, but of course none of us were conscripted or sent to foreign lands to fight against an enemy which we did not consider to be our enemy.

  9. While a university is supposed to provide substance, it (like almost all things) can also be seen as an institute of appearance and, in many ways, as a stage upon which various theatrical roles are played. The role I happen to play is, of course, that of a professor. As might be imagined, this role does require knowing certain things.The same would seem to hold true for students as well. While they are not expected to know nearly as much as professors, they also have their roles to play. As with any role played out upon the stage, there is the expectation that the costume will match the part. That is, a professor should be costumed as a professor and not as something else, such as a marathon runner or a pirate. Likewise a student should be properly costumed as a student and not as a night club patron or thug. As such, a dress code could be seen as being on par with the costuming specifications for a play, movie or TV show and warranted on the grounds of aesthetics. That is, it would just not look right to have the actors costumed inappropriately. As such, dress codes can be seen as sensible: an actor in the wrong costume can disrupt the production and, of course, make the theater company look bad.

    Another way to look at the matter is that the university is not only teaching students the material in the subjects of math, chemistry, philosophy and so on, but also training students in the matter of appearances. That is, students are also being trained for the proper aesthetics of the roles they will be taking on when they are working for the job creators. This, of course, ties nicely to goal of training of the youth in how to dress professionally and socially. In this regard, the university can be seen as a literal dress rehearsal for the show that starts (hopefully) shortly after the students graduate.

  10. While our roots are agricultural and mechanical, we do have the full range of majors, including art. I don’t think we have a fashion faculty, though. If we do, I’m sure I would bring them shame. 🙂

  11. swallerstein (amos)

    All the world’s a stage. Right.

    However, we don’t agree about what role students should be playing.

    You seem to see students as future wage earners.

    That is true, of course, and out of necessity, but the virtue of the university, in my opinion, is not that it trains or may train people to face the horrors of the job market, but that it provides a space of critical reflection within a competitive and often unreflexive capitalist society.

    Critical reflection begins in wonder, they say, and in letting ideas run wild. It’s common that students, before developing “mature” ideas, will defend philosophies like solipsism (which is pretty weird), anarchism (which will not function), communism (which does not function either), etc., etc.

    By letting one’s ideas run wild in a university setting, one of open debate, one is forced to
    defend them against others and learns (hopefully) through the process of dialogue what is reasonable and what is not.

    As I said above, there is no exact relation between letting one’s ideas run wild and letting one’s dress run wild, but they often go together in late adolescence and in practice, experimentation with styles of dressing often accompanies the very praiseworthy process of experimentating with new and fresh ideas.

    At age 18 I would have interpretated any attempt to tell me what to wear as a form of telling me what to think and I fear that many of today’s youth will see it in the same way.

    That is, I fear that the dress code may scare some future philosophers into silence, although it may produce more well-dressed and obedient future bank clerks.

  12. Some excellent points made by both Mike and AMOS. I think we have to find a way between these two viewpoints. On the one hand it is good to allow a certain freedom of thought and action but thought and action is no good with out a measure of salutary discipline of oneself and also the preparedness to accept advice, and if you like discipline, from those who have authority over us. If you are at university you don’t have to remain there. If you do not like it for any reason then get out.
    So far as I know all universities in UK take very seriously any talk or activity of a Racist nature which can lead to expulsion. Similarly we are, or at least I was, instructed to engage in debate at all times showing respect for all other parties. This entailed amongst other things an attempt to suspend our own beliefs, and seek a sympathetic understanding of the new idea or ideas. Bad language and name calling was definitely not permitted. Such codes of conduct were different from that to which some, I will not say many, were accustomed. In addition to all this there was a demand the Students attended lectures and submitted their papers written in an approved manner, for assessment, on time. The point I am making here is that there are codes of conduct at University which students have to or should obey.
    Amos said “the virtue of the university, in my opinion, is not that it trains or may train people to face the horrors of the job market, it provides a space of critical reflection-” I am totally in agreement here In fact all we hear in UK is for what job university is to train us. Yes there is some importance in that, but it can have a narrowing effect on students. Education for its own sake is rarely if ever mentioned. By this I mean what the world as a whole holds for us. The ability to look outwards and live an interesting and enquiring life with the ability to discuss most subjects if not knowledgeably, but with interest and curiosity. This is an essential part of being educated.
    I am guessing here, but I do not think there would be many who would object to a reasonable dress code which merely frowns on the outrageous or unbecoming or such as would show the university in a bad light. A demand that all dressed the same would have a regimenting effect and be unhelpful so far as personal development is concerned.
    I have been around many universities in my life and I now recollect two tutors, both mature adults. One used to sit before us talking with the soles of his shoes exposed to view. There were holes in them one exposing his bare foot. Another tutor at another place seemed to dress in clothes which Oxfam had rejected as unfit for human habitation. Amongst the pupils all very much younger, there was an air of amusement, curiosity and a certain censure, concerning the dress sense of these two. So what I am trying to say here that there are certain limits in dress, depending on the environment, beyond which it is not good to stray. I much prefer nudity to being clothed but I have learnt to conform to what is the norm when it seems necessary.

  13. It is necessary for students to consistently attend lectures and turn in papers and read (and thus to be failed out when they don’t do such, though there are probably better ways to approach this as well). Reading and writing and building skills are part of the learning process. Wearing uniformed or socially-normal clothing is not; it trains for the wearing of uniforms and social conformity—perhaps types of knowledge and skills but not the one that most universities care about or should care about for most programs.

    And quite frankly, universities fail when students lack a basis in psychology and sociology and critical analyzing skills so that they can see through the social-normative structures of “dress,” and thus subsequently allow such social-normative structures of “dress” to penetrate into their beliefs about the thoughts of other individuals in absurdly prejudicial ways. Colleges should teach critical self assessment which necessarily includes critical assessment of social and psychological structures. And such should help people see through preconceived and uncritical notions about “dress.”

    On the original post were guidelines about hoods, caps, “saggy-pants,” etc., which though not wholly-becoming from my viewpoint, they are not distracting or preventing learning in any degree, except perhaps in a lab but that is wholly different story. There may be some classes where wearing certain attire may be fitting if there is a stated goal of training for a certain persona or skill, but most classes from the humanities and psychology and sciences have, surely, as their main intention to gain a certain understanding of self and world or to gain the tools to pursue such an understanding, and clothing plays no factor in those pursuits (except, probably, in some underhanded psychological ways—which again should be analyzed and understood the best we can). Which means that you have now instated a dress policy that is wholly tangential to the aims of such classes, and an individual should see this as an empty gesture and bureaucratization policy that is absurd for the issue at hand—and feel rightly resented or singled out by such a policy.

    Most universities today are not small, concerted efforts to produce one type of student but have wide swaths of students and programs pursuing very disparate goals and desires; and some universal “dress” code does not make sense.

  14. Also, hoods and “saggy-pants” are obvious not about “distraction,” say in the way that nudity is or the girl with a low-hanging shirt and skirt is to most guys in the room, which means the ban comes not from distraction but from social normalizing of “smart” or middle-class dress. The banning of such and the enforcement of such is going to be more distracting for the university and for students who feel their “way-of-being” is being encroached upon because someone rejects who they are in a manner that has nothing to do with whether they are doing “better” than the next person over in the class—and they are right in that assessment.

  15. Lyndon,

    True-saggy pants are not really much of a distraction anymore-they are common enough that people rarely look twice (at least on campus). The ban on such clothing seems to be focused on training students to dress for the business world.

  16. Mike, I just read your comments above (somehow I had skipped them earlier) and there are some difficult issues there. Most students do probably need that kind of training and encouragement to wear professional clothes and behave professionally and “socially”, to do those things that most employers will require of them.

    I guess I worry that if our universities take that kind of ‘socialization’ process as such an important goal so as to create a blanket policy they lose focus on the acquirement of certain skills and knowledge that should really be their goals in transforming young people, especially in something like philosophy (and similar subjects). To have a school policy that one does not enter the philosophy lecture or seminar unless one is dressed a certain way is something that every upper-level undergrad and graduate student should call “b.s.” on as a useful production of what such a class is about. I would hope as a student or as a lecturer I would ignore such inconsiderate requests; and be appalled at any professor who tried to enforce such.

    Furthermore, the proposed policy changes, as outlined above, do not say that everyone should wear suit-and-ties, that is, dress professionally, but instead they are something along the lines that this kid can wear the trendy khaki-shorts, sandals, and t-shirt but this other kid cannot wear the equally trendy saggy pants and “hoody,” and thus it becomes policy geared not towards dressing people professionally but regulating on some other grounds. These are policies saying that all kids should dress as white, middle-class young people instead of like black, poor, inner-city kids; which may help create a culture reproducing certain middle class “values” or certain kinds of attitudes in these individuals, but that is an absurd way to achieve such, if I may say so. Under such policy proposals we should not pretend that we are teaching kids to dress “professionally”; of course certain schools may actually require professional attire though that does not seem to be the brunt of the discussion here.

    There are certain social advantages to be gained by dressing in these middle-class ways, and (maybe) even more to be gained by having been raised in a certain “middle class environment” that meant that these individuals never desired to dress in the other “thug” ways to begin with. The capacity to be reflective on one’s own attitudes, habits, relationships to the world, perceptions in the world, and to gain the capacity to change one’s self to more empowering behaviors and appearances is important and should be something all university students become more capable of: bureaucratic policies are shortcuts that obviate the need for self-reflective thoughts and self change in lieu of top-down forced (re-)socialization processes. This kind of thing is necessary for primary education; it is something that should be looked down on at the university level. But maybe that is only in my perfect world.

  17. One more thought burning in my head,

    I guess there is a sense in which reproducing “normal” middle class values and standards will probably endear one to (middle and upper class) employers; learning the standards and procedures that this ilk expects in each other makes one’s self more approachable by such people. Encouraging people of “lower class” and of certain non-privileged appearances and behaviors to take on the appearances and behaviors of the more privileged classes is preparing people for the business world, in a broad sense.

    That line of approach feels empty to me, for multiple reasons and because I am aesthetic non-realist. One problem is the non-critical individual or employer who cannot separate an individual’s work output from the way they look (given their appearance is not affecting that output). I am even more disturbed by individuals who are going to judge the worthiness of an individual based wholly on dress and not based on possible work output at all. That is not to say that in many social instances we do not navigate the world through such judgments, only that I see nothing intrinsically good in how we go about such or that teaching people to play these “games” and to reproduce these judgments is good; though it will benefit the “bad dresser” if they take up such practices. I would rather we be teaching those employers and individuals who require such reproductions to be self-critical about such empty processes, or to be critical about normal reproductions that are empty of value (except for the value of reproducing “normal” appearance).

    One more thing on bureaucratic processes, there is a need in such large systems as universities for a process of getting an ID, using that ID for meals, filling out papers for graduation, etc.; learning to navigate these bureaucratic processes does probably help many students mold to the world. I find that to be a tangential benefit and also one that will rise up necessarily under any large institution; such bureaucratic navigation should be nowhere close to a main benefit of college education, from my account. There are plenty of better ways to teach such skills to individuals and it is a shame that success and failure of students is tied to such, either within college or outside.

  18. swallerstein (amos)


    I agree with the general tenor of what you say.

    I wonder how one would justify the dress code to
    the low income students whom it affects.

    Could one give them a satisfactory explanation without seeming either patronizing or classist (and racist in a US context)?

    I’m sure that any intelligent low income student is already very aware that if he or she dresses in a middle class manner, he or she will be more readily accepted by the powers that be.

    In fact, I would wager that most low income student do not dress in a middle class manner precisely as a sign of rebelliousness against
    an order of things which sees them and their way of life as “lesser” and in which even if low income people (or those from outsider groups) adopt middle class dress/habits, they will in general not be as successful as those from a middleclass milieu.

    Now, I think that that order of things is precisely what should be discussed and criticized in philosophy.

  19. What about graduation ceremonies? Are students going to be allowed to wear just any old thing they please, and they will do if permitted. That would turn something serious into a farce. I can’t remember if it were obligatory to wear the traditional cap and gown at my university but so far as I remember everybody did. I would say that anybody wishing to attend his/her graduation or post graduate ceremony dressed only in a highly bizarre and attracting manner just has not caught on concerning the necessities of times and places for things.

  20. Lyndon,

    Excellent points. As you note, the fashion requirements can be seen as reflecting certain values at the expense of others.

    On the one hand, I can sort of see the value in “fashion training”-however, I’m not sure that a dress code is needed to provide such training. On the other hand, I’m more concerned that students learn how to think than with whether they are meeting the visual needs of a certain class of people.

  21. swallerstein,

    Quite so-when I was a college kid, it was common for kids to adopt a certain style to be “rebels” against the establishment. I would assume the same is true today. Interestingly, the rebel styles of today are often cleverly marketed and net a nice profit for the man.

  22. Don,

    Cap and gown at my school. I do favor people sticking with the tradition, mainly as a matter of respect for the seriousness of the accomplishment.

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