Special Session Summary Implications of Imposed Dress Codes For Consumer Behavior, and Consumer Behavior Implications For Understanding the Effects of Dress Codes

Terence A. Shimp, University of South Carolina
[ to cite ]:
Terence A. Shimp (1996) ,"Special Session Summary Implications of Imposed Dress Codes For Consumer Behavior, and Consumer Behavior Implications For Understanding the Effects of Dress Codes", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 23, eds. Kim P. Corfman and John G. Lynch Jr., Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 76-77.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 23, 1996      Pages 76-77



Terence A. Shimp, University of South Carolina

Unlike the limited selections available to older baby boomers and pre-boomers, elementary and secondary school children today dress in a vast array of clothing fads and fashions. Baseball caps, team jackets, the west-coast grunge look, gang colors, preppy styles, expensive sneakers, boots, and t-shirts emblazoned with slogans are just some of the items that provide school children a means of self-expression and enable social groups to distinguish insiders from outsiders. In one sense, this panoply of clothing options represents the best of democratic ideals, with each individual given the freedom to express him or herself subject to limits imposed by norms of decency, cleanliness, and safety.

There is, however, a potential downside to this opportunity for full self-expression. School officials contend that the way students dress can lead to disruptive behaviors, inordinate competition among students for informal "best-dressed awards," disciplinary problems, and violence stemming from gang-related clothing symbolism and more general incidents of thievery. Strict dress codes have been implemented or are under consideration throughout the countryBsupposedly to accomplish such goals as reducing gang violence and recruitment activities, minimizing fashion competition and discrimination, and enhancing the quality of the educational experience by creating a stronger sense of educational purpose and removing disrupters such as violence and other miscreant behaviors.

The imposition of strict dress codes, including, at the extreme, mandated uniforms, might be viewed as abridging school children's constitutional right to freedom of speech. Nevertheless, in the desire to improve student behavior in the classroom and to curtail disruptive and violent behaviors, many school districts have either imposed dress codes or are contemplating the imposition of such codes. For example, the New London school district in Connecticut banned the wearing of baseball hats. The Long Beach, CA school district now requires all students from kindergarten through eighth grade to wear uniforms. Chicago is contemplating a uniform dress code policy for its 400,000 plus public school students. California recently passed legislation that allows public schools to require students to wear uniforms so as, according to the governor, to rid schools of gang colors and symbols.

The participants in this session brought a variety of theoretical and disciplinary perspectives to bear in analyzing the rationale for, the likely success of, and the individual-level and social implications of mandated dress codes. David Jamison, University of Florida, confronted the issue from an anthropological perspective. The guiding hypothesis for his presentation was that the use of dress is not just a broad-based status indicator, but, rather, is a way of measuring and interpreting the nuances of group identity. Based on field work conducted in a middle school in Florida where a dress code had recently been imposed, he posited that brand idolatry was pervasive among these students, who identified their beliefs and feelings through a series of essays about their views on the imposed uniform policy and on clothes in general. A consistent pattern of brand veneration and a propensity to relate the possession of brand name clothing to personal/group characteristics such as "coolness" or "in-ness" was inherent in the essays. These findings reflect a desire among students to possess branded clothing as a way to establish or support personal identity and group belongingness. The rationalization for school uniform policies was conceptualized as an attempt by school administrators to eliminate or reduce boundaries within the student body that have formed as a result of the possession, or inability to possess, the requisite "totems," that is, branded clothing. Anthropological theory on the use of symbols in maintaining social boundaries was also discussed.

Deborah Roedder John, University of Minnesota, examined the meaning of brand names to children. Several guiding questions directed her presentation: How do children view movements to restrict their freedom to express themselves through clothing? In particular, what do brand names mean to children and adolescents in their development as social beings? Do children and adolescents use brand names as part of the social tapestry? The presentation examined the meaning of brand names for children of different ages and overviewed an ongoing study of brand name meanings to children ranging in age from 8 to 16 years. The study examined well-known brand names, such as Nike and Levi, and the effect these names have on children's product impressions and impressions of peers who own such items. It was posited that the imposition of dress codes might lead to other types of signals, such as language or hairstyles, to supplant branded items as the indicators of social status and belonging.

Melanie Wallendorf and David Crockett, University of Arizona, scrutinized the implementation of dress codes from a sociological perspective. Primary attention focused on the likely impact of dress codes on symbolic expressions of race, class, and gender. The authors questioned whose interest is asserted through the implementation of dress codes. They hypothesized that the greater the potential for class, or wealth-based conflict, the greater the felt need among school officials and some parents to blur class distinctions, and, in turn, the stricter dress codes will be. Wallendorf and Crockett questioned whether even the strictest dress code can completely mask class distinctions and predicted the likely redirection and reemergence of symbolic expressions of class in schools implementing dress codes. They further asserted that students will use dress code exemptions, variable items, and boundary challenges to reestablish class, wealth and group identities. They also addressed the potential benefits of dress codes and posited that the greatest benefit is reaped by the coalition of teachers, administrators, and parents. School dress codes serve to reassert authority over a population that often questions authority. The codes also serve to reestablish a sense of community by refocusing group identification away from unsanctioned groups onto sanctioned groups. Also, adherents of disciplinarianism benefit from dress codes. Parents and taxpayers, frustrated with the rise (or perceived rise) in violence, can point to dress codes as a symbolic demonstration of a more disciplined (and thus better) learning environment. Finally, local school administrators and school boards, often frustrated in attempts to discipline undesirables, believe they have a new weapon at their disposal.

Terry Shimp, University of South Carolina, analyzed nationwide articles in magazines and newspapers and classified into seven issue categories the prevailing arguments in favor of or in opposition to the imposition of dress codes: (1) School-Related BehaviorsBuniforms will sharpen kids' focus on learning and declare that street behaviors and attitudes are unacceptable in school; (2) Parent-Child RelationsBuniforms will reduce parent tension by cutting arguments with teenagers over what to wear to school; (3) Crime & Violence ImplicationsBuniforms will reduce violence by decreasing gang influence and assuaging pressure on kids to steal, sell drugs, or skip school to earn spending money so they can dress "right"; (4) Social Impact ImplicationsBuniforms unify students, rather than dividing them by social class or other demarcations; an opposing view is that uniforms do not stop competition and fighting; kids will compete over sunglasses and shoes if not jeans, jerseys, and jackets; (5) Economic Impact ImplicationsBproponents argue that uniforms will reduce clothing expenses; opponents assert that less-privileged families will be unable to afford uniforms; (6) Child-Development ImplicationsBuniforms teach kids that there is more to a person than clothing; an opposing view is that uniforms encourage conformity and therefore undermine cornerstones of American education such as creativity and independent thinking; and (7) Freedom & Dignity ImplicationsBuniforms lessen kids' individuality or interfere with students' rights to exercise free expression.

The school dress-code issue is an area ripe for consumer research. Whereas consumer researchers traditionally have studied fully volitional behavior, the present issue is one of constrained consumer behavior. Moreover, whereas most consumer research involves theorizing and testing of the antecedents of consumer behaviors, the focus of the dress-code issue is more a matter of the consequences of that behavior. For example, what implications will dress codes hold for considerations such as child safety, family relations, and the quality of the learning environment? Is it probable that imposed dress codes will not accomplish the salutary objectives that school officials and politicians have in mind? Presently there is virtually no scholarly research on this topic. Public policy is being directed by opinions and emotions. Consumer researchers have as much, or more, to contribute to the understanding of the issues surrounding the imposition of dress codes as any other group of social scientists. Quasi experimentation and ethnographic field studies would seem especially appropriate methodologies for examining the tough issues involved. Regardless of methodology, researchers must be especially mindful to carefully conceptualize the putative causes and effectsBfor example, exactly what is a dress code? What behavior(s) reflect effectiveness, or lack thereof, of dress codes? Great care also must be taken to rule out potential confounds that covary with the imposition of dress-code policiesBsuch as intensified disciplinary action, curriculum changes, and physical-plant improvements.