Dear Admin, It’s Time to Address the Dress Code

Is showing your shoulder a crime? After a year of online school, we all have questions about the explosion of rules we were acquainted with at the beginning of the year. While it differs in each division, the most common and easily enforced rule is the dress code. For 10-12, the dress code is the most relaxed with the allowance of ripped jeans, hats, and tank tops. Essentially, you just have to be covered from your armpits to 2 inches of your legs with straps or sleeves. For 8-9, the dress code includes the coverage of shoulders to mid-thigh, including undergarments. Despite the extent of the dress code, we all know that it is by far the most controversial rule at Albuquerque Academy. As Alyssa Portnoy ‘23 put, “It’s offensive, [and] it continues a stigma. Not only does it pretty much only apply to girls, but it’s ridiculous.” 

The current 10-12 dress code was established a few years ago after a semester-long experiment of students working with Dr. Lenhart, the 10-12 division head. As a former Academy student, Dr. Lenhart’s own experiences led her to “feel very strongly that students’ voices had to [collaborate] together in building the dress code.” That’s why, in comparison to other schools or even other divisions, the 10-12 dress code especially tries to avoid language rooted in sexism or racism. Despite these changes, many students believe that we still face the unintended consequences of the dress code.

The root of the dress code’s problems stems from its purpose. Mr. Anderson, a 10-12 dean, struggles most with this question as he explains that, “fundamentally we are trying to establish a policy that promotes an institution of learning where a level of professionalism is expected.” Similarly, Mrs. Short, a dean in 8-9, further explains that the dress code is to “present almost a workplace-like atmosphere in a sense that we’re here to learn first and foremost.” There is, however, a large disconnect between the intended purpose of the dress code and its effects in practice. After becoming a national champion in speech and debate for giving an originally written speech about the dress code, Addison Fulton ‘22 explains that  “A lot of the time, the dress codes’ purpose is, unintentionally, a relic from a time where women’s bodies were considered so dangerous to societal health as a whole that they had to be controlled. So the unintended purpose [of the dress code] is to keep a lid on specifically women and other marginalized groups’ self-expression, even if that’s not what the people who originally created the dress code think that’s what the dress code is.” So, while unintentional, the very idea of a dress code is limiting womens’ self-expression and participation in the workplace.

The controversy behind the dress code begins with its origins. The purpose of this rule, professionalism, originates from the ancient idea of what constitutes the professional class. From the very beginning, this definition was limited to aristocratic white men, representing an exclusive, patriarchal, and racist society that continues to inform the basis of today’s rules. With a progressive shift in society, how do we create a standard of professionalism for everyone else? In 1973, the blatantly sexist answer was given in the Idaho Supreme Court’s decision to actively prohibit women’s right to wear pants: “The wearing of… slacks or pantsuits by female students results in a detrimental effect on the morals of the students attending the school and upon the educational process; …wearing slacks and pantsuits results in unsafe conditions and safety hazards at the school [and] leads to… an increased amount of physical contact and familiarity between boys and girls in school surroundings.” In practice, this ruling creates a legal precedent for victim-blaming. Female-presenting students are told that their clothing is to blame for “unsafe and hazardous conditions” involving men. Fortunately, from shocking ankle socks, high neck collars, to scandalous pantsuits, our allowance of self-expression has increasingly become less sexist. While these rules may seem archaic now, they were justified with the same standard of professionalism as the current dress code. Rather than encouraging a productive work environment, this definition of professionalism measures women’s clothing to the standard of male comfort. This fundamental, but tacit, understanding of professionalism has shaped women’s participation in the workplace. Dr. Michael Anne Sullivan, a 10-12 history and humanities teacher equates this phenomenon to “breaking into the club.”  “As more and more women enter the workplace, they adopt masculine standards of dress to be taken seriously to break into the club,” she explains. The foundational purpose of our school’s dress code shapes the way our female-presenting students see themselves not only at school but also in their future professional spaces. The dress code teaches people who identify as female at a young age that their success depends on their ability to conform to male standards. 

So, how do these dangerous implications impact our own school environment? An anonymous male junior’s worst experience with the dress code was “In eighth grade [when] I wore ripped jeans and one teacher said ‘you need to get those taped up’ and then I didn’t get them taped up.” However, in another  experience with a teacher, Zoe Beck ‘23 says she was told: “[she] looked like [she] was going clubbing during…class.” Personally, a teacher has also approached me while getting my shoe tied by asking me, “How would your mother feel with you dancing around like that in such short shorts?” God forbid I tie my shoes in the presence of males. Adam Blanchard, another male junior’s, worst experience with the dress code is, “Honestly being told to take off my hat or a hood. [I’ve] never actually been truly dress coded, just not to wear a hat because that’s pretty much the only rule that applies to men’s fashion. Not even a serious talk, just told to take off my hat.” Even Mr. Anderson admitted that 100% of the people he dress-codes for clothing are female. The dress code systematically targets female-presenting people, compromising their comfort and participation in educational environments.

If anything, the dress code prevents Mrs. Short’s idea of learning first and foremost. Those who identify as female are disproportionately “distracted” from their work environment when middle-aged teachers, who we are supposed to trust, make comments rooted in the sexualization of our bodies. How would their children feel about them commenting on the clothing of minors? Given its history, the dress code not only makes women uncomfortable in our own academic environments but also quite literally limits our participation. While we have all broken the dress code, the anonymous junior and Adam have never faced academic repercussions, whereas Zoe, me, Bella Tolk ‘24 who was, “taken out of class” and Anodyne Smith ‘24 who was, “stopped in the hallway and made 10 minutes late to class to talk about the dress code” have felt the dress code’s effect on our academic careers. Female-presenting students are not only specifically targeted by the dress code and its interruptions in our academic lives, but we are also addressed in a much different manner when out of the dress code. I highly doubt that a teacher would use a mother’s opinion to shame a male. This is why Addison’s speech was specifically written to point out that “women’s issues with dress codes are not just ‘but I want to wear a crop top.’ They’re indicative of a really deep societal issue with how we treat women in academic and professional spaces.” The message our institution projects through the dress code upholds a culture of over-sexualization and victim-blaming. In the words of Madison Konker ‘24, “If you…can’t control yourself…then there’s something wrong with you, not my body.”