Of the Limits to the Authority of Society over the Individual’s…Wardrobe?

When I was in middle school, I looked completely different compared to now. My hair was different, I wore glasses every day, I was shorter, but most of all I was still pretty much a child. I used to be super skinny, so my limbs were like little sticks and the line panning from my shoulders to my hips was a straight one.

Nevertheless, this didn’t stop my vice principal from calling me out in the hallways and telling me my shorts were “too short.” Fingertip length, he explained, before he told me that my two layered tanktops were too showy. When I asked him (a little brashly) what on Earth I was showing off, he merely laughed and said I was just trying to get away with breaking the dress code.

An inappropriate outfit.

The dress code! Also known as one of the most frustrating aspects of a female student’s educational experience. Typical dress codes prohibit students from showing undergarments, wearing clothing that advertised profanity or drugs/alcohol and most of all, “showy” clothing. What showy clothing meant was never actually clearly defined for us, and in turn became the most subjective part of the code. For some administrators, as long as underwear and rears were covered, you were okay. For most of them however, if your tanktop straps were not “two fingers width” or your shorts didn’t come down to where your fingertips did, you were far too inappropriate for the classroom and thus punishable.  In this case, inappropriate meant distracting.

If we followed a Mill-ian perspective, would dress codes be legitimate at all?

John Stuart Mill

According to John Stuart Mill, As soon as any part of a person’s conduct affects prejudicially the interests of others, society has jurisdiction over it.” In other words, as soon as the actions of one person are potentially or actually harmful to others, punishment is justified.

In that case, why on earth are girls getting sent home or put in detention for dressing a certain way? When a young girl wears a tank top with her shoulders on display, how is that harmful to anyone else? After all, harmful acts involve “encroachment on [others’] rights; infliction on them of any loss or damage… falsehood or duplicity in dealing with them; unfair or ungenerous use of advantages over them; even selfish abstinence from defending them against injury—these are fit…[for] punishment.Wearing clothing that’s a little more revealing (and sometimes not even that, but simply in violation of the dress code) doesn’t do any of that. No one’s rights are being restricted, no one is being injured, or stolen from, or damaged. And yet a huge number of girls are penalized for tight leggings and denim cutoffs.

Of course, in practice, that’s really not why girls are being punished and shamed for what they wear to school. If you ask any school administrator that upholds a strict dress code, their main contention (as mentioned before) is that it’s just too distracting for the male students. The further implication? Boys just ‘can’t control themselves around girls’ bodies. Therefore their wardrobes are harmful. Mill explains that “no person is an entirely isolated being….if by his vices or follies a person does no direct harm to others, he is nevertheless (it may be said) injurious by his example; and ought to be compelled to control himself, for the sake of those whom the sight or knowledge of his conduct might corrupt or mislead.” Just by being seen by their male classmates, the girls are breaking a rule.

From my old middle school's dress code.

From my old middle school’s dress code.

But is that really a reason to restrict what girls can wear? Is it their fault that the boys would be ‘distracted,’ or the fault of the boys for supposedly having such little control of themselves? From Mill’s perspective, shouldn’t the boys be taught to develop their faculties of perception, judgment, discriminative feeling, mental activity and even moral preference” rather than coddled by rules made because adults consider them impulse driven? As for the girls, aren’t schools just tamping down their individuality by limiting how they can dress? Mill says that “that it is only the cultivation of individuality which produces, or can produce, well-developed human beings,” and that “ Human beings owe to each other help to distinguish the better from the worse….They should be for ever stimulating each other to increased exercise of their higher faculties…[no one] is warranted in saying to another human… that he shall not do with his life for his own benefit what he chooses to do with it.”


In other words and not Mill’s semi-longwinded ones, we should allow and help people to grow and develop into individuals. What’s more, the idea of punishing girls based on dress codes is dubious in legitimacy, as the harm being done is unclear and most likely not nearly as bad as administrators make it out to be. While there definitely is a line between what’s appropriate and inappropriate to wear to school, the status quo is limiting and restricting to young girls. That’s besides the fact that telling girls they should start dressing to accommodate the male gaze at an early age has a disturbing message. However, that’s a totally different blog post.

4 thoughts on “Of the Limits to the Authority of Society over the Individual’s…Wardrobe?

  1. This is a great post and legitimizes all of the thoughts that girls who are subjected to ridiculous dress codes have had. I have seen girls brought to tears for getting in trouble when what they are wearing breaks the dress code, their shorts are an inch above their fingertips or a skinny tank top strap, when in reality it was something decent to be wearing. Boys only seemed to get in trouble if their was an inappropriate logo on their shirt or if they were wearing a wife beater tank top. The way you referenced Mill’s writings perfectly explains how unreasonable these standards are. It squashes individuals when what they are wearing does no harm to anyone else.


  2. I really agree with what you said, especially for public schools. I went to a private school, where we had a very strict dress code and teachers telling us they could enforce it however they wanted since the state did not give us funding. This went along with being allowed to do random locker checks. I think that part of attending school though, whether public or private, means that you have to be willing to adhere to rules put in place by a higher power. It stinks, but most students are not yet adults and must conform to the rules put in place by the adults who act in lieu of parental authority at school.


  3. As a male, I never personally had any issues with my school’s dress codes. However, it was very common for girls at my school to be called out in a similar manner about their clothes, and sometimes were even forced to wear a double XL t shirt to cover themselves if they were repeatedly broke the rules. My school never exactly explained why the dress code was in place, but nothing about the fact that inappropriate clothing was distracting to boys was ever referenced. I agree that this could be the case, and that most dress codes are far too serious, but I believe there is some merit to having them. If a girl wears “inappropriate” clothing at a young age, it is realistic to assume that she will continue to do so later in life. It is of course subjective in saying what clothes are in fact inappropriate, but it’s generally assumed that shorts that are too short and shirts that show too much skin fall under this category. It was unnecessary to make girls wear embarrassingly large shirts to cover themselves, but enforcing the code to teach girls how to dress “appropriately” is necessary.


  4. I really liked this article. As someone who attended private school for my entire life and wore a uniform every day, I can totally relate. At my school, you were given a detention if you had your shirt untucked, which I think Mill would agree is totally ridiculous.


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