Schooling the Body

Dress codes enforce a vision of girlhood by telling girls what to wear. 

For more than six generations, girls have been sent home (and denied education) for violating a dress code. The rules change over time, but the belief that girls' bodies are trouble remains constant.

Some girls' bodies are treated as more trouble than others. This is particularly true for girls of color and working-class girls.

Breaking barriers, girls fought back and claimed the right to love their bodies in all shapes, colors, and sizes.

1905

Girls didn't wear corsets under these shirtwaists. This was considered very scandalous.

Central High School, unknown location, 1905

Central High School, unknown location, 1905

Courtesy of Library of Congress, LC-DIG-hec-16372

1925

Legs...

Rolled stockings exposed bare legs.

Girls got detention for wearing new fashions to school.

Hine Junior High School, Washington, D.C., 1925

Hine Junior High School, Washington, D.C., 1925

Courtesy of Library of Congress, LC-DIG-npcc-13062

1945

...legs...

Girls shocked adults by wearing bobby sox. Too much leg!

Laura Fitzpatrick, New York City, 1945

Laura Fitzpatrick, New York City, 1945

Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture; gift of her children in memory of Laura Fitzpatrick

Now

Shoulders, collarbones, short skirts, and torn jeans—they all cause trouble! The personal is political.

Model Jillian Towson, 2017

Model Jillian Towson, 2017

Photographer: Ashley Marie Marsh

When I arrived at school...an administrator came up to me and told me that "this is my last warning"...I felt really embarrassed because who isn't embarrassed when getting dress coded in front of people?

I felt like that the way administrators dress code us is inconsistent...it's extremely embarrassing...and makes me want to go home and change instead of focusing on what is being taught in class.

—Jilly Towson

Jilly Towson's School Outfit, 2017

Jilly Towson's School Outfit, 2017

https://www.si.edu/sidedoor/ep-16-dress-coded