A Philosopher's Blog

University Dress Codes

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on April 11, 2012
Dress code as seen at a London Club in the Soh...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My university, Florida A&M University (FAMU), recently adopted a dress code (or, to be more technical the trustees approved new dress standards). This code allows professors to prevent students from attending classes (or other functions) if the students are not dress appropriately. Previously only the school of business had a dress code.

There seem to be three main reasons for this code. The first is that it is taken as educational. That is, it is supposed to teach students what sort of dress will serve them best professionally and socially. The second relates to classroom order, namely it is intended to deter students from wearing clothing to class that could disrupt the class. The third is a matter of image, specifically that it is aimed at preventing students from wearing clothing that will make FAMU look bad.

While I have not (as of  this writing) been supplied with a list of banned attire, it does include “do-rags”, hoods, and the infamous underwear revealing “saggy pants.” Rumor also has it that tube tops and t-shirts with inflammatory language will also be banned.

As might be imagined, I am somewhat divided on this matter. However, I will endeavor to sort through the matter from a philosophical and professorial perspective. I will do so by looking at the reasons behind the code.

The first reason nicely matches Aristotle’s views of education. When discussing moral education, Aristotle notes that young people do not find a temperate life to be particularly appealing, so it is necessary to condition them to such a life. Doing so, he argues, will make it less irksome and hence it will be all the easier to ensure that they follow the right path throughout life. As might be imagined, many college students would prefer to not dress like professionals and prefer to be rather more casual. Also, some college students clearly prefer the now forbidden styles. As might be imagined, the job creators who will hire the students when the graduate will expect their employees to dress in appropriate ways. As such, the university would merely be extending its mission of conditioning students for the workplace by adding in control over their modes of dress. After all, the American education system has been training students to follow schedules, do boring work at the behest of others, obey petty authorities, stand in lines, and so on. What, it might be asked, is the problem with adding a conformity of costume to the curriculum of conditioning?

The obvious problem is, of course, that such an imposition seems to violate the liberty of the students. Since they are adults, there is a presumption in favor of their right to dress as they choose. Naturally, this should match the laws regarding public indecency (although those could be challenged as well). However, provided the students are not violating such laws, it would seem reasonable to not impose on their liberty. Unless, of course, the harm done by specific attire would morally warrant imposing on the liberty of the students. This takes me to the second reason.

The second reason does have some appeal. While I have never had a class actually disrupted by someone’s choice of attire, it does seem possible for this to happen-provided that the clothing was such that it would create a significant and lasting impact on the class. In all my years of teaching, about the most extreme reactions I have seen is having some students stare briefly at another student because of his/her choice of clothing. This has sometimes been followed by some whispering. However, this sort of “disruption” is nothing compared with the disruptive influence of personal electronics and people talking to each other in class. Naturally, students coming to class partially or fully naked would probably have a significant impact-but that is already covered, I think, by existing laws regarding public nudity. Because of this, I have never really considered improper attire a threat to my classroom-but my experience might be unusual. There is also the possibility that I am blind to the damage it has been doing in my classes.  If other professors’ classes (and mine) are, in fact, being disrupted by improper attire, then the code would make sense on this ground. After all, the disruption of class would harm the other students and thus warrant imposing on the liberty of the student whose attire is causing the disruption.

Of course, it could be countered that there are cases in which the student cannot be reasonably held accountable for the reaction of others. To use the obvious analogy to free speech, if a student says something that annoys, offends or otherwise bothers other students, this does not automatically entail that the student should be compelled to be silent. For example, if a student presents an argument in favor of God’s existence that really annoys some atheists in a religion class, it would hardly be right to silence the student because of this.

The obvious counter to this is to argue that the clothing being banned is not the clothing equivalent of a rational argument that bothers those who disagree. Rather, the clothing is on par with someone shouting vulgarities in class. If this is so, the code would seem sensible.

The third reason also has some appeal. While philosophers are supposed to be concerned with wisdom rather than with the “sights and sounds”, I recognize the importance of appearances when it comes to matters such as recruitment and reputation. For example, if prospective students and their parents see FAMU students dressed inappropriately for higher education, this might impact their decision to attend FAMU (although our enrollment has been at record levels). As another example, photos of the university that feature inappropriately attired students could also do damage to the school’s reputation. After all, reputation is often more about appearance than substance. Naturally, it might be countered that people should be more concerned with the substance than with the appearance, but that idea seems quaintly out of touch in a time when people assert that “perception is reality.”  In any case, if the damage done to the university by the inappropriate attire exceeded the damage done to the students by imposing on their liberty, then the imposition of the code would thus seem morally warranted.

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12 Responses

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  1. T. J. Babson said, on April 11, 2012 at 9:22 am

    Fake it until you make it.

  2. FRE said, on April 11, 2012 at 3:21 pm

    One would hope that a student dress code would not be proposed until an obvious need for one appeared. Unless that has actually happened, it would seen that the university is overreaching.

    As for using a dress code to teach students how to dress when applying for a job, that seems silly. When applying for a job, probably they should wear suits, or at least coats and ties. Dressing like that for classes would serve no useful purpose and could often be impractical.

    We seem to be becoming increasingly regimented and universities should not be contributing to that trend.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on April 11, 2012 at 3:39 pm

      There has been some discussion about the matter of dress, mainly in the context of the school’s image. Whether or not there is an actual harm that will be corrected is not entirely clear, however.

      • FRE said, on April 11, 2012 at 4:00 pm

        Dress codes, especially if impractical, can have a negative effect.

        Some years ago, I was in a bank in the La Jolla area of San Diego. The bank’s air conditioning had failed causing the bank to become oppressively hot. Even so, the bank employees continued to wear coats and ties while dripping sweat. Common sense would dictate that under the circumstances, they should remove their coats and ties. The fact that they did not do so led me to question the soundness of judgment of the bank management.

        If I were a student deciding which college or university to attend and it looked to me as though there were unnecessarily oppressive rules and regulations at a particular school, I would be less likely to attend that school. On the other hand, if too many students appeared sloppily attired, I would also have a negative impression.

        • Michael LaBossiere said, on April 12, 2012 at 10:42 am

          Some years ago an administrator wanted to mandate that faculty wear suits. As might be imagined, people pointed out that faculty (unlike administrators) generally need to walk outside to get to their classes, sometimes a quarter mile, in the Florida heat. Plus, there is the cost of having suits-I know I couldn’t afford to buy enough suits to wear one everyday, unless they were cheap suits. Plus, as a philosopher, a suit would burn my skin a bit.

  3. T. J. Babson said, on April 11, 2012 at 4:24 pm

    I think that if the students dress like they are serious and intent on learning there is a greater chance that they might actually learn something.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on April 12, 2012 at 10:44 am

      People did make that claim. To use an analogy, when I go to race for real, I dress for racing in my racing gear. If I am just training, then I wear my training stuff. If I am slacking a race, I’ll wear my training stuff. So, it does make sense that the attire can impact the attitude. Of course, it can be argued that people can learn just as well even when they are wearing sweats or do rags.

  4. magus71 said, on April 11, 2012 at 6:04 pm

    This is perhaps the first time in history that a culture has decided that how people dress is not indicative, in some way, of the type of person they are.

    But I do not agree with this. I see it the same way I do language: The constant use of course or imprecise language can create course, imprecise people.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on April 12, 2012 at 10:48 am

      Many people still judge by attire-actually, most people do. The youth have always dressed in “defiant” ways that displeased their elders. In the 1950s it was one style, in 2012, another. Apparently even the youth of Socrates time displeased their elders with their attire.

      • magus71 said, on April 12, 2012 at 12:17 pm

        I’m really not sure what the style is now. I believe there is a concensus that clothes don’t matter, at least at a philisophical level.

        “Denim is the carefully calculated costume of people eager to communicate indifference to appearances.”


        • Michael LaBossiere said, on April 13, 2012 at 9:29 am

          Styles seem to vary, as always, between the various student groups. I see a fair amount of the classic college student: jeans & short sleeved shirt. There are also some sharp dressers: I have a few students who are way better dressed than I am (fitted clothing, high end watches, dress shoes, etc.). Of course, there are also folks who wear the “statement” clothing to show that they are “outsiders” or “cool.” While the fashions have changed since I was in school, the categories are unchanged.

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