clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

A high school’s dress code for parents sparked backlash. The principal is standing by it.

Critics say the code smacks of respectability politics.

A mother and child stand together outside a school building.
In an April 9 letter, James Madison High School’s administration banned parents from wearing clothes like ripped jeans, leggings, and bonnets.
Getty Images

James Madison High School’s dress code for parents sparked a huge backlash after it was announced in April, but the principal of the Houston school is standing by the controversial policy.

Announced in an April 9 letter, the dress code bars parents from visiting Madison High wearing ripped jeans, leggings, short-shorts, mini dresses, or tops that expose cleavage. A number of other items, including hair bonnets, rollers, and pajama pants, have been banned as well.

In a statement to Vox, Principal Carlotta Outley Brown said she was compelled to implement the policy after one parent visited campus in a sheer top that exposed her breasts and a second walked in wearing low-cut jeans that exposed thong underwear. After a third parent arrived to school “in her night shirt and a cloth head wrap with rollers in her hair and flip flops,” Brown said that she decided to implement the dress code that had been in place at a previous school she led for 15 years.

The policy there never became headline news, and Brown said that it has only attracted media attention now because a parent told the press she had been ousted from campus because of her attire. The principal said that staff tried to help the parent but did not want her walking the halls in a shirt that “you could clearly see through.”

After this dispute, Brown explained in a schoolwide letter that she was implementing the parent dress code to help children understand the appropriate clothing to wear outside the home. The dress code has been criticized, including by Houston-area officials, for being racist and classist, as obscene clothing does not appear to be the sole focus. Madison High School serves mostly low-income families of color, and some of the items on the banned list, such as hair bonnets, disproportionately target black women’s grooming practices. But Brown denied that the policy had any racist or classist intent.

“This is not about race, creed, or color and especially not about socio-economic status,” she said. “It is about elevating standards for students who will go out into the world in the near future and seek opportunities for themselves. I do not want them to face possible barriers.”

Critics of the dress code say that the lingering effects of “respectability” politics may be the driving force behind it. These politics suggest that if black people look, speak, or behave in ways that line up with white middle-class values, they can somehow elude racial bigotry. But the new dress code also reveals how out of touch Madison High’s administrators may be with current trends in education. After all, the administration is policing how parents and students look during a time when the nation’s most progressive school districts have determined that dress codes enforce outdated race, sex, and class norms. It has also likely alienated families when administrators across the country are boosting parent outreach to lower student dropout rates.

Madison High’s dress code is more of the same institutional oppression

The Madison High dress code is sparking debate because it targets parents and students alike. Beyond that, it doesn’t particularly stand out for its specific policies; nearly all of the items the school now bans have appeared on dress code lists for decades. The 1965 student handbook from Broward Senior High School in Hollywood, Florida, barred “hair scarves, curlers, clips or other hair setting paraphernalia.” The school dress codes of yesteryear also singled out torn clothing, short skirts, and athletic wear as no-nos, which undercuts the idea that students and parents today simply don’t know what constitutes appropriate school attire.

In the United States, families and schools have clashed over dress since at least the 1800s. And the earliest dress codes served little purpose other than forcing black and Native American students to racially assimilate. More than a century ago, schools with majority black and brown students prohibited ethnic dress, long hair on boys, bright colors, jewelry, and sensuous fabrics, lest their “primitive” nature emerge.

Dress codes have also traditionally targeted girls and gender nonconforming students of all backgrounds. With the exception of men’s undershirts, nearly every item Madison High School has banned is associated with girls and women, which means the code plays into the historic framing of women’s bodies as distractions to men. Black girls and women are particularly vulnerable to such characterizations: According to the National Women’s Law Center 2018 “Dress Coded” report, the bodies, hair, and hair accessories of black women are most likely to be scrutinized.

Increasingly, parents of black students have fought back against dress code politics. Last year, Nicole Williams publicly objected when school officials duct-taped her seventh-grader’s skin to hide the flesh exposed by her ripped jeans, and the parents of twin sisters Mya and Deanna Cook defended their daughters when a Boston-area charter school disciplined them in 2017 for wearing braided hair extensions. Given how often students and parents are appearing in the news to criticize dress codes, one wonders why Madison High decided that policing what entire families wear to school was a good idea.

Instead of withdrawing the new policy, however, Principal Brown has doubled down on it. As she explained to Vox, she told radio station 97.9 The Box last week that she implemented the code because parents had shown up to the school dressed indecently. She also noted how her upbringing as the daughter of a teacher and military colonel shaped her views on dress.

“My mother told me to never go outside the home looking like you’re in the home, like you’ve gotten out of bed,” she said. “You go out and you look presentable.” Along with the idea that “as an African American, you have to work twice as hard as anyone else,” as former President Barack Obama has told black students, the idea of looking presentable to gain social acceptance is old hat to African Americans, many of whom grow up scrutinized for how they look in ways that white people simply are not. Slain black teenager Trayvon Martin, for example, was implicated in his own killing for wearing a hoodie in the rain.

During The Box interview, the principal acknowledged implementing the same dress code at a different school, but she did not accuse the parents there of dressing obscenely. Rather, she expressed her belief that the path to a college education “starts with how we present ourselves.” Yet, the research on dropout rates is clear: The more parents are involved in school, the greater the odds their children will graduate. Suggesting that parents must fit a preconceived idea of “presentable” to set foot on campus is unlikely to shore up enough goodwill to incline families to spend any more time at Madison High than necessary, if at all. As it is, schools that serve predominantly low-income families have lower rates of parent engagement since it’s tough to turn up to PTA meetings while juggling jobs, transportation, and childcare. With its dress code, Madison High has, perhaps, given its parents another hurdle to cross.

But Brown has a different view. She told Vox, “I am not asking them to dress up; just come in a presentable manner and not night clothing or inappropriate clothing.” She said that parents can dress how they like in the carpool line, but to step onto school grounds, they need to be dressed appropriately. She added that she wants families to care as much about their children’s academic performance as they do about this new dress code.

Respectability politics influence dress codes and perceptions of black students

Much of what Brown has said about dress codes is wrapped up in old-school respectability politics. African Americans as varied as Booker T. Washington, Madam CJ Walker, Miles Davis, and even Prince believed that how black people carried themselves in public mattered a great deal. Looking good, they believed, challenged white supremacist ideas about black people’s character. Appearing well-groomed and well-dressed countered the idea that black people were less capable, less attractive, or even less moral than white people.

A’Lelia Bundles, Madam CJ Walker’s biographer and great-great-granddaughter, wrote that when the businesswoman first started her groundbreaking hair company in the early 1900s, black women had little choice but to follow white beauty and apparel standards.

“It was an age when the morals of even the most respectable black women were questioned and sullied by racist stereotypes,” Bundles wrote. “As a result, middle-class black women in particular placed tremendous pressure on themselves to conform to Victorian behavior and dress.”

Black men haven’t been immune to this pressure. The late jazz trumpeter Davis, born in 1926, dressed in fashionable suits and designer clothes not only because he enjoyed style but also because he wanted to be taken seriously as a musician.

“He was conscious that people were looking at him,” his bandmate Marcus Miller told the New York Times in 2016. “And the clothes were so important back then, particularly in the ’40s and ’50s, because this was an era when black artists were fighting to be recognized as more than simple entertainers. It was like, ‘We’re going to be as sharp as possible and we’re going to command respect.’”

Looking dapper did not help Davis in 1959, when New York police ordered him off a sidewalk in front of a jazz club where he was rehearsing. Davis tried to explain his role at the club, but the exchange ended with police beating him. He was a well dressed, college-educated black man from an upper-middle-class family, but respectability politics did little good.

The idea that dressing a certain way will help African Americans transcend racism has persisted for generations, in spite of the fact that it is just not true. If anything, respectability politics are a form of victim-blaming that hold the marginalized accountable for the ill treatment they receive rather than institutional forms of oppression that devalue some people and exalt others. Given how they unevenly target certain families along class, gender, and racial lines, restrictive dress codes are tools of such oppression.

Students and their families shouldn’t have to prove themselves worthy of respect

Students and parents don’t show up to school to prove they’re worthy of equal treatment, and neither need to make a point to dress well to receive a public education. Principal Brown suggested that parents need to be examples for children by showing them what’s acceptable to wear in a professional setting. But as Lisa Frack, the president of Oregon’s National Organization for Women, pointed out to Vox in September, not every child is going to work in a bank or a law office. Some may be artists, auto mechanics, work from home, or end up living in a country like China, where pajamas in public are completely common.

In 2015, Oregon NOW devised a “model dress code” to prevent discrimination and disruption. It allows short-shorts, tank tops, leggings, and other items schools have banned. The dress code has been adopted by schools across the country with no reported upticks in misbehavior or other problems. It turns out that what students wear doesn’t hinder their ability to learn.

Moreover, how parents dress doesn’t make them good or bad examples for their children. Instead of applauding adults for taking an active role in their children’s education, the school’s policies shame them using the very same tactics that have repressed young people and their families for generations. By focusing on appearance, the administration has forgotten what matters most: that students and parents are showing up to school at all.

Want more stories from The Goods by Vox? Sign up for our newsletter here.

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.