Although they have continued to provoke some controversy, school dress codes have become commonplace in primary and secondary schools.
But at the college level, dress codes would seem very anachronistic. So, when I came across a small item that suggested that a student dress code had been proposed but not adopted at Purdue University, I was intrigued. I could not find any articles that substantiated that small item, but it indicated that the dress code proposed at Purdue was modeled on one adopted by Illinois State University, and I did find the following article on ISU’s dress code, which was narrower in scope than what the initial item implied. In September 2007, Jodi S. Cohen’s article “Illinois State Department Relaxes Stiff Dress Code” appeared in the Chicago Tribune:
“Illinois State University marketing students no longer will get kicked out of class for wearing flipflops or jeans. But dressing down could lead to a lower grade. Under pressure from students, College of Business faculty nixed this week a mandatory dress code, instead suggesting that students adhere to business casual dress standards or risk a reduction of up to 10 percent on their final class grade. Students also can lose points for other unprofessional conduct, including reading a newspaper or answering a cell phone during class.
“’Just like if they don’t want to do their homework or be in class for a quiz, we can’t force them to do those things. But there are consequences that affect their grade,’ said Tim Longfellow, chair of the marketing department of ISU in Normal.
“The dress code, which began this semester, banned jeans, cargo pants, shorts and leggings.
“’Clothing that works well for the beach, yardwork, dance clubs, exercise sessions and sports contests are not appropriate for professional appearance,’ according to a letter sent to marketing students last month. Students who didn’t comply risked getting kicked out of class or getting a zero on any work submitted that day.
“Students complained that it was expensive to buy clothes they otherwise wouldn’t need until after graduation. Student government leaders argued that the policy violated the Student Bill of Rights, which states students have ‘the right to be free from any mandatory dress code.’
“Dave Horstein, the student government president, learned that it’s easier to change clothes than to change university policy. ‘Some people still have an issue because they could lose points,’ he said. ‘This is as far as I could get it changed.’”
Something must have been in the air in the fall of 2007. On October 10, 2007, Paula Wasley’s article “Professors Must Dress Up or Face a Dressing-Down at Tri-State U” appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education. The article begins:
“Faculty members at Tri-State University, in Indiana, are hot under the collar about a stringent new dress code for professors and staff members.
“The new ‘personal-appearance policy’ at the private, nondenominational university bans spandex, scuffed shoes, hats, shorts, baseball caps, skirts or pants worn below the waistline, Croc-type shoes, blue jeans, Mohawk hairstyles, facial piercings, visible tattoos, “the observable lack of undergarments,” cross-gender garb, ‘dental art,’ clothing with logos or designs ‘in direct conflict with the culture and ethos of TSU,’ and ‘the use of coloring agents outside the spectrum of natural hair coloration.’”
Then, on Oct. 26, a follow-up piece, “Indiana’s Tri-State University Drops Draconian Dress Code, and Mohawks Are Back,” also written by Wasley, appeared in The Chronicle.. In providing background, the body of the article largely repeats the first article, but the opening and closing paragraphs are of interest:
“Administrators at Tri-State University, in Indiana, committed a grave fashion faux pas this month by attempting to impose a stringent new dress code on faculty and staff members — which they then hastily rescinded after faculty grumbling attracted unwanted attention from The Chronicle. . . .
“’The dress code was intended to “elevate who we are as an institution’ said David Finley, the university’s vice president for academic affairs, not to alienate employees. In its stead, said Mr. Finley, administrators will review with faculty members what wardrobe best befits a Tri-State professor.”
In trying to determine how widespread student dress codes might be on college campuses, I came across the following list at CollegeXpress. It claims to identify colleges and universities that have dress codes:
Bethune–Cookman University (Daytona Beach, FL)
Bob Jones University (Greenville, SC)
Clearwater Christian College (Clearwater, FL)
Illinois State University (Normal, IL)
Louisburg College (Louisburg, NC)
Morehouse College (Atlanta, GA)
Northland International University (Dunbar, WI)
Paul Quinn College (Dallas, TX)
Pensacola Christian College (Pensacola, FL)
Thomas Aquinas College (Santa Paula, CA)
University of Florida (Gainesville, FL)
World Harvest Bible College (Columbus, OH)
Yeshiva University (New York, NY)
Aside from the religiously affiliated institutions, I have not been able to confirm that student dress codes actually exist or are enforced at the other institutions on the list.
But student dress codes are enforced at a fairly large number of colleges and universities in other nations. For instance, the following two graphics provide guidelines on appropriate dress for male and female students at the International Medical University in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia:
I can’t envision such a dress code being embraced by very many of the students, or by very many faculty, at my university. Some faculty do routinely wear suits, but they are largely segregated into certain disciplines. In fact, in most cases, it is a tip-off that a male faculty member has his eye on an administrative position if he starts wearing suits to his classes and to committee meetings.
When I was job hunting after I completed my Ph.D. in the late 1980s, I noticed that the faculty at the institutions at which I interviewed seemed to dress in inverse proportion to how well they were compensated. I’d like to pause in order to add the caveat that I was interviewing for English positions. But, if almost everyone was wearing sport coats and ties, or suits, the salaries and benefits seemed to be at the low end. On the other hand, if most of the faculty dressed very casually (and some even sloppily), the salaries and benefits were typically more generous.
To carry this correlation forward, as my salary and waistline seem to have increased in tandem, my own dress has really deteriorated. If I were on a reality show, I would be categorized as someone who desperately needs a makeover. I can imagine the “personal-appearance expert” tsk-tsking and absent-mindedly wondering out loud, “But where should one start? Where in God’s name should one start?”