Louisiana Prom Ban Raises Issue of Fair Dress Codes


News this weekend that a Louisiana School told a girl she could not wear a tuxedo to her prom seems discriminatory on the basis of sex. The Louisiana prom issue also raises concerns about how fair dress codes are that ban items by sex. What is the offense today (versus the 1950s) of a girl wearing a pantsuit for a dress-up occasion like a prom versus a dress?

Carroll High School in Monroe, La., told an honor student who is lesbian that she must wear a dress to the senior prom, not the tuxedo she planned to wear. The school’s principal told the press that the issue is not about sexual orientation, but is an issue of following the dress code. He reportedly told her mom “girls wear dresses and boys wear tuxes, and that’s the way it is.” As a result, the girl has opted to skip the prom. That principal clearly did not see pictures of Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt wearing his and hers tuxedos to a red carpet event a few years back, or other celebrity females who have worn designer tuxedos.

This is not the first school to make headlines for enforcing a “gender-exclusive” dress code. In 2013, Sultana High School in Hesperia, Calif., crowned a lesbian homecoming queen, who appeared at the game in a suit and tie. So the school imposed a strict gender-based dress code at future semi-formal or formal school events.

Both situations, however, raise the question of what is the dress code trying to enforce – 1950s attire? School dress codes are generally written to serve two basic purposes, or should: Protecting safety and preventing attire that could be offensive or distracting and thereby affective student behavior or performance.

Most schools write their dress code in a non-discriminatory manner, and a non-sexist ones. Many schools have bent over backwards to be gender neutral in the way their rules are written and enforced. That seems fair and nondiscriminatory, unlike the Monroe and Hesperia examples.

One Southern California high school specifically reminded students that the dress code would be enforced on Halloween too. Two students were sent home that Oct. 31: One dressed as a Klansman; the other a boy dressed as a Hula dancer. In the first case, the issue was being offensive and provocative to others, similar to wearing a shirt with a racially offensive slogan. The second one violated the school rules against wearing shirts with spaghetti straps (it could be argued that the coconut bra he had on also violated rules about exposing undergarments). The gender-neutral rules did not say only girls could not wear thin-strapped tops, and the treatment was perceived as fair.

The top offenses or school dress code elements that need regular enforcement on campuses, according to a small survey conducted by the Christian Science Monitor, included:

  • Wearing hats or hoods in school, unless for religious purposes,
  • The acceptable length of shorts and skirts,
  • Bare shoulders or chest skin (Some schools specify no tank tops for any sex, whereas others specify minimum strap widths, thereby eliminating spaghetti straps or strapless garments without making the rules sexist),
  • No sunglasses in class,
  • Leggings are not pants and are considered the same as tights or bare legs,
  • Clothing with symbols, colors, accessories or messages that could imply gang affiliation,
  • Clothes with messages, slogans, or symbols that are derogatory towards racial or religious groups, sexual, or promote any contraband (e.g., drug related)

These are all easily applied to either sex. So are rules against garment parts that are spikes, chains or weapons. They clearly fit the safety issue of not allowing any weapons on campus.

One other issue addressed by many school dress codes is saggy pants barely covering the crotch for boys. Some schools state that boxers must be covered. Gender-neutral dress codes merely say no underwear can show.

Would a school throw a boy out of a dance for wearing a dress? Probably. But what about ethnic attire, like a formal Scottish kilt, a Kurta dhoti or Arabian thobe? They probably would not for fear of being discriminatory. Would they require students who typically wear cultural garb to wear a tuxedo to the dance? Many cultures have their own idea of formal wear and that does not involve a bow tie or cummerbund.

Likewise, what the schools in Louisiana and California would find acceptable for girls to wear to the prom (and lets face it – how much cleavage is acceptable to show) would not be acceptable in large parts of the world. Girls do wear pants and pantsuits that range from very casual workout wear to very formal, so allowing them at a dance seems more appropriate than a lot of the deep V-cuts and side boob shown at many formal events of late.

School dress codes should involve common sense and rational reasons for the rules (like safety). The Louisiana prom ban on girls in tuxes raises the issue of establishing fair dress codes for this century versus antiquated notions more than 60 years old.

By Dyanne Weiss

Christian Science Monitor
U.S. Department of Education
Christian Science Monitor

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