Dress code

A dress code is a set of rules, often written, with regards to what clothing groups of people must wear. Dress codes are created out of social perceptions and norms, and vary based on purpose, circumstances, and occasions. Different societies and cultures are likely to have different dress codes, Western dress codes being a prominent example.

Cannes Film Festival has a dress-code that requires men to wear tuxedos and women to wear gowns and high heel shoes.[1]

Dress codes are symbolic indications of different social ideas, including social class, cultural identity, attitude towards comfort, tradition, and political or religious affiliations.



In seventh through the ninth centuries, the European royalty and nobility used a dress code to differentiate themselves from other classes of people. All classes generally wore the same clothing, although distinctions among the social hierarchy began to become more noticeable through ornamented garments. Common pieces of clothing worn by peasants and the working class included plain tunics, cloaks, jackets, pants, and shoes. According to rank, embellishments adorned the collar of the tunic, waist or border. Examples of these decorations included, as James Planché states, "gold and silver chains and crosses, bracelets of gold, silver or ivory, golden and jeweled belts, strings of amber and other beads, rings, brooches, [and] buckles".[2] The nobility tended to wear longer tunics than the lower social classes.[2]

While dress codes of modern-day Europeans are less strict, there are some exceptions. It is possible to ban certain types of clothing in the workplace, as exemplified by the European Court of Justice's verdict that "a ban on Islamic headscarves at work can be lawful."[3]

The Americas

The indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast had a complex social hierarchy which consisted of slaves, commoners and nobles, with dress codes indicating these social distinctions. John R. Jewitt, an Englishman who wrote a memoir about his years as a captive of the Nuu-chah-nulth people in 1802-1805, describes how, after some time living there, Maquinna and the chiefs decided that he must now be "considered one of them, and conform to their customs". Jewitt resented the imposition of this dress code, finding the loose untailored garments very cold, and attributed to them a subsequent illness of which he almost died. He was not allowed to cut his hair, and had to paint his face and body as a Nootka would.[4]

Muslim World

Islam, founded in the 7th century CE, laid out rules regarding attire of both men and women in public. Gold adornments and silk clothes are prohibited for men to wear, as they are luxurious, but they are permissible for women. Men are also required to wear the ihram clothing while on Hajj, or annual pilgrimage to Mecca.

It is required in Islam for women to wear a hijab at all times when in public, as part of the Islamic standard of modesty.

Indian Subcontinent

Sikhism, which was founded in the Indian subcontinent around the end of the 15th century also requires a dress code. Male Sikhs, who are members of the Khalsa are required to wear a turban at all times.

Laws and social norms

Model of a nude beach in the DDR Museum, Berlin

Each country has its own set of cultural values and norms. Wherever you go these norms and laws regarding clothing are subject to change depending on the region and culture. For example nudity is something that changes in acceptability depending on where you are. In New Guinea and Vanuatu, there are areas where it is customary for the men to wear nothing but penis sheaths in public. Women wear string skirts. In remote areas of Bali, women may go topless. This is uncommon in more western countries. Although in America and some parts of Europe, there are nude beaches.

In the United States, The Gender Nondiscrimination Act prohibits employers, health care providers, and housing authorities from discriminating against people on the basis of gender.

Most developed countries have generally no rules regarding specific clothing in most public scenarios.

Private dress codes

A visual on what Black Tie dress code looks like.

Many places have their own private dress code; these organisations may insist on particular dress codes or standards in particular situations. Such as for weddings, funerals, religious gatherings, etc.


Canadian Deputy PM Chrystia Freeland with U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in Western dress code at a meeting.

Employees are sometimes required to wear a uniform or certain standards of dress, such as a business suit and tie. This may depend on particular situations, for example if they are expected to interact with customers. (See also International standard business attire)

In western countries, these policies vary depending on the industry with lawyers, bankers, and executives often wearing a suit and tie. Some businesses observe that anti-discrimination laws restricts their determining what is appropriate and inappropriate workplace clothing. Requiring men and women to dress differently at the workplace can be challenged because the gender-specific dress codes would be based on one sex and could be considered stereotypical.[5] Most businesses have authority in determining and establishing what workplace clothes they can require of their workers. Generally, a carefully drafted dress code applied consistently does not violate anti-discrimination laws.[6] So long as the dress code does not favor one gender over the other it is usually acceptable by law for employers to have a private dress code.[7]

In the United States, it is legal for employers to require women to wear makeup and ban men from wearing it. It has been argued that such a distinction in a dress code is not discriminatory because both sexes have rules about their appearance. An important court case that occurred in the U.S was the Jespersen v. Harrah’s Operating Co., which allowed for a workplace to require that female employees wear makeup while their male counterparts were banned from doing so. Darlene Jespersen worked at Harrah’s Casino for more than 20 years and found that the makeup and dress code was not only unattainable but degrading.[8] Jespersen found that the ‘Personal Best’ policy was not true to her natural appearance as it required a full face of makeup including foundation, powder, blush, mascara, and lipstick.[8] Jespersen stated that this policy “forced her to be … ‘dolled up’ like a sexual object, and … took away her credibility as an individual and as a person.”[8] In opposition men who worked at Harrah’s Casino were banned from wearing makeup, nail polish, and other traditionally female attires.[8] Judge Kozinski argued that hyperfemininity was a burden that only women employees suffered. Kozinski stated that the time, effort and expense was more of a hindrance than just being banned from wearing makeup.[8] However despite these efforts, in the ruling, it was decided that women did not have a larger burden in the requirements of the dress code but two judges disagreed and argued that makeup takes more time and money and that sex stereotyping occurred because women’s bare faces were seen as less desirable.

New Jersey Borgata Babes case

In New Jersey, twenty-one women sued the Borgata Casino Hotel & Spa for requiring them to lose weight and stay under a certain size to maintain their jobs. The women argued that the management would ridicule them over weight gain even if they were pregnant. The case was dismissed in New Jersey because the BorgataBabes program required that both men and women maintain certain body shapes and sizes. The "BorgataBabes contractually agreed to adhere to these strict personal appearance and conduct standards".[9] In 2016, Superior Court Judge Nelson Johnson dismissed the claims because the appearance standards were lawful. He also determined that the women could return to court for their claims of a hostile environment created by the management.[10] Workplace requirements for attire and appearance have been legal in the United States as long as there are similar requirements for both sexes.

Doe V. Boeing Corporation

Doe, who identified as being transgender and beginning the transitional process, found that her supervisors at the engineering company, Boeing Corperation, were uncooperative with her desire to wear feminine presenting clothing to work. She was warned against wearing, "obviously feminine clothing such as dresses, skirts, or frilly blouses" and from using the women's bathroom. This was even after her counselor recommended that wearing female presenting clothing would help with her transition. After a few warnings from her supervisors, Doe showed up to work wearing a pink pantsuit and was subsequently fired for violating the dress code. This prompted Doe to legal action. The Washington State Supreme Court ultimately upheld the decision made by Boeing and stated that the company had the right to determine what female identity looked like while at work.[8]

Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. R.G. &. G.R Harris Funeral Homes, Inc.

Aimee Stephens, a transgender woman, worked at the R.G. &. G.R Harris Funeral Homes and originally was dressing as a stereotypical male following the funeral home's male attire, but Stephens had intended to transition to female attire to better suit her gender identity. Thomas Rost, the owner of the funeral home, fired Stephens for not presenting herself as her natural born male assigned orientation and for dressing like a woman.[11] Stephens opened a case at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, stating discrimination based on sex and gender but the district court sided with the funeral home stating, "that transgender status is not a protected trait under Title VII".[11] In the Sixth Circut Court of Appeals, it was ruled that Stephens was unlawfully fired based on sex discrimination, which does protect transgender people.[12] The United States Supreme Court ruled in 2020 against firing someone for being homosexual or transgender, as being discrimination based on sex.[13]

Formal wear

In western countries, a "formal" or white tie dress code typically means tailcoats for men and full-length evening dresses with opera-length gloves for women. A most formal dress for women are full-length ball or evening gowns with evening gloves. "Semi-formal" has a much less precise definition but typically means an evening jacket and tie for men (known as black tie) and a dress for women. "Business casual" typically means not wearing neckties or suits, but wearing instead collared shirts, and trousers (not black, but more relaxed, including things such as corduroy). "Casual" typically just means clothing for the torso, legs and shoes. "Wedding Casual" defines yet another mode of dress, where guests dress respectfully, but not necessarily fancily.

Business casual

Business casual dress is a popular workplace dress code that emerged in white-collar workplaces in Western countries in the 1990s, especially in the United States and Canada. Many information technology businesses in Silicon Valley were early adopters of this dress code. In contrast to formal business wear such as suits and neckties (the international standard business attire), the business casual dress code has no generally accepted definition; its interpretation differs widely among organizations and is often a cause of sartorial confusion among workers.

The job search engine Monster.com offers this definition, "In general, business casual means dressing professionally, looking relaxed, yet neat and pulled together." A more pragmatic definition is that business casual dress is the mid ground between formal business clothes and street clothes. Generally, neckties are excluded from business casual dress, unless worn in nontraditional ways. The acceptability of blue jeans and denim cloth clothing varies — some businesses consider them to be sloppy and informal.

Education system

Many schools around the world implement dress codes in the school system to prevent students from wearing inappropriate clothing items to school and was thought to help influence a safer and more professional environment.

United States education

In 1996, former U.S. President Bill Clinton announced his support for the idea of school uniforms by stating, "School uniforms are one step that may help break the cycle of violence, truancy and disorder by helping young students understand what really counts is what kind of people they are." Many school districts in the United States took up the idea.[14]

Even though dress code was created to positively affect schools, a common held belief in the U.S. is that the rules actually impede on students' right to self-expression. There have been many court cases regarding school dress code, the first being the Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District. The case was held because students wore black armbands to protest the Vietnam war.[15]

Dress code violations

Non-communicative dress code violations in public schools are violations that are without implications of hate, gang-affiliation, etc.[16] Communicative dress code violations are violations of an explicit nature, where the clothing has implications of hate, violence, gang-affiliation, etc.[16] In cases where dress code rules in public school systems have been violated by non-communicative clothing, courts repeatedly legitimise dress code discrimination based on gender.[17] Amongst the transgender populations, gender based dress codes are primarily enforced against individuals who do not yet pass.[17]

Dress code backlash

Certain dress code restrictions in schools across North America are believed to be perpetuating sexist standards,

In March 2014, a group of middle-school girls from Evanston, Illinois protested their school's dress code, which prohibited them from wearing leggings to school under the pretense that it was "too distracting for boys." Thirteen-year-old student Sophie Hasty was quoted in the Evanston Review saying that "not being able to wear leggings because it's 'too distracting for boys' is giving us the impression we should be guilty for what guys do." In a Time magazine article covering the incident, Eliana Dockterman argued that teachers and administration in these schools are "walking the fine line between enforcing a dress code and slut shaming."[18]

On Monday, September 22, 2014, "about 100 pupils walked out of Bingham high school in South Jordan, Utah."[19] Students staged a walkout because more than a dozen girls were turned away from a homecoming dance for wearing dresses which violated the dress code rules.[19] "School staff allegedly lined up girls against a wall as they arrived and banished about two dozen for having dresses which purportedly showed too much skin and violated the rules." It is believed that this act was awkward and humiliating towards the female students, which spawned the walkouts.[19]

Canadian education

Dress code backlash

A Canadian teenager, Lauren Wiggins, was given detention in May 2015 for wearing a floor-length dress with a halter neckline. The punishment prompted Wiggins to write an open letter to the school's assistant vice principal at Harrison Trimble High School in Moncton, New Brunswick. In the letter, Wiggins concentrated specifically on the fact that females are often blamed for the behaviour of males, saying that if a boy "will get distracted by my upper back and shoulders then he needs to be sent home and practice self-control." She was then given a one-day suspension after writing and submitting the letter.[20]

See also


  1. "Is the Cannes Film Festival's dress code sexist?". thetylt.com. Retrieved 2019-04-08.
  2. Planché, J. R. (1847). History of British Medieval Costume: From the Earliest Period to the Close of the Eighteenth Century. C. Cox. pp. 28, 32–35.
  3. Langdon, Vedder Price PC-Esther; Maude, Jonathan. "Dress Codes and Religious Symbols at Work in the EU | Lexology". www.lexology.com. Retrieved 2019-03-17.
  4. A Narrative of the Adventures and Sufferings of John R. Jewitt, only survivor of the crew of the ship Boston, during a captivity of nearly three years among the savages of Nootka Sound: with an account of the manners, mode of living, and religious opinions of the natives.digital full text here p161 onwards
  5. "Employee Dress and Appearance". Society for Human Resource Management. Retrieved 27 September 2017.(subscription required)
  6. Thomas, Robin. "Dress Code Legal Issues". Personnel Policy Services Inc. Archived from the original on 14 March 2016.
  7. "Illegal Workplace Policies: Appearance, Dress Codes, and Grooming Policies". www.employmentlawfirms.com. Retrieved 2019-03-17.
  8. Ainsworth, Janet (January 2014). "What's Wrong with Pink Pearls and Cornrow Braids? Employee Dress Codes and the Semiotic Performance of Race and Gender in the Workplace". Law, Culture and Visual Studies. Dordrecht Springer. pp. 241–260. ISBN 978-90-481-9322-6.
  9. "Schiavo v. MARINA DISTRICT DEVELOPMENT COMPANY, LLC, NJ: Appellate Div. 2015 - Google Scholar". scholar.google.com. Retrieved 2021-02-26.
  10. NJ.com, Paige Gross | For (2019-05-20). "The 'Borgata Babes' who sued the casino a decade ago will get their day in court. Rules about their weight were discriminatory, they say". nj. Retrieved 2021-02-26.
  11. Eeoc v. Rg &. Gr Harris Funeral Homes, Inc., 884, October 4, 2017, p. 560, retrieved February 25, 2021, Argued: October 4, 2017
  12. "R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes v EEOC & Aimee Stephens". American Civil Liberties Union. Retrieved 2021-02-26.
  13. Higgins, Tucker (2020-06-15). "Supreme Court rules workers can't be fired for being gay or transgender". CNBC. Retrieved 2021-02-26.
  14. Bowen, Sherry. "Should Kids Wear School Uniforms?". EduGuide. Retrieved September 22, 2013.
  15. "School Dress Codes - FindLaw". Findlaw. Retrieved 2017-12-08.
  16. Herbon, Beth, and Jane E. Workman. "Dress and Appearance Codes in Public Secondary School Handbooks." Journal of Family & Consumer Sciences 92.5 (2000): 68-76.
  17. Smith, Natalie. "Eliminating Gender Stereotypes in Public School Dress Codes: The Necessity of Respecting Personal Preference." Journal of Law & Education; 41.1 (2012): 251-60.
  18. Dockterman, Eliana. "When Enforcing School Dress Codes Turns Into Slut Shaming". TIME.com. Retrieved 2015-11-16.
  19. Carroll, Rory. "Students protest 'slut shaming' high school dress codes with mass walkouts". The Guardian. Retrieved 8 December 2014.
  20. "High Schooler Lauren Wiggins' Letter Nails Exactly What's Wrong With School Dress Codes. They are often frowned upon". The Huffington Post. 14 May 2015.