While the latest conversations around dress code have focused on skirt length and boot height, taking an inclusion standpoint makes a much more pressing set of issues clear. Gendered dress codes can perpetuate the principles of rape culture and create painful experiences for the vulnerable population of students who identify outside of the gender binary. These power dynamics and exclusions directly contradict Deerfield’s values and mission, and community members have a responsibility to advocate for a gender-inclusive or all-gender dress code.
The role of a gendered dress code in supporting rape culture — an environment in which sexual violence is normalized based on ideas about gender — is well-documented in existing academic literature and mainstream media. Time Magazine’s investigation of over 100 testimonies from girls and young women, collected by the Everyday Sexism Project, is one such example, as is the Berkeley Political Review’s study on the topic. As these projects make clear, a gendered dress code sends a strong message to young women that their bodies are distracting or dangerous, that harassment and violence are inevitable, and that they deserve to be judged, mistreated, and harmed based on their clothing choices. The Justice Department and RAINN, among others, have thoroughly debunked the myth that victims, rather than assailants, bear responsibility in these situations. Instead of a gendered dress code, the solution to sexual violence lies in thoughtful programming around healthy relationships, affirmative consent, and sexual assault awareness, as is continually evolving thanks to the health curriculum and the Student Life Office.
Critically, a gendered dress code further marginalizes those students who identify outside of “boy” or “girl,” or who are in the process of a gender transition. As PFLAG’s statistics on gender identity amongst adolescents show, this population is already more vulnerable to serious bullying, mental health struggles, and resultant academic and social issues.
If we hope to live up to our mission and our commitment to “valuing and affirming all identities,” as stated in the Strategic Plan for Inclusion, we must create an all-gender dress code that does not enforce the gender binary or force students to choose between two options that do not reflect their identities. If part of Deerfield’s mission is to help young people find the most genuine articulation of their identity, as many teachers believe it is, then we must make space for students of all genders, not just boys and girls.
Certainly there is a conversation to be had around professionalism and preparation for the conventional standards of certain workplace attire. This legitimate purpose of a dress code can be accomplished with an all-gender dress code, and indeed is already underway at a number of Deerfield’s peer schools. Phillips Exeter Academy, for instance, shifted its gendered dress code in 2015 to an all-gender code that allows students to wear, for class, a blouse, polo, collared shirt, sweater, turtleneck, dress, or ethnic attire, and bans athletic wear.
Though one of the oft-cited obstacles to creating an all-gender dress code is the assumed abandonment of coat and tie, we ought to seriously reexamine this tradition in light of our commitment to inclusion. People clad in clothing other than coat and tie carry out necessary, innovative, valuable work every day, from the technology startups which many students will join in their futures to the labor which makes our institution function. Additionally, confident as we are that all students, not just males, will lead a changing world, we should hold all our students to the exact same standard of dress.
We have an opportunity and a responsibility to lead the way on issues of gender inclusion. Though we have lagged behind in the past, as in the case of coeducation, we are not bound to do so going forward.
Moving forward, students should build on the momentum of the thoughtful collective organizing represented by the girls’ grade letters to advocate for a new dress code, one which fully embodies our values as an institution and seeks to include and affirm the greatest range of identity possible. I am confident I am not the only teacher or graduate who will support these efforts.
Anna Gonzales, Heather Liske, Julie Schloat