Uniformity Isn’t the Only Reason Organizations Enforce Dress Codes

By  | 

I was recently married, and my husband is in the armed services. While military life isn’t quite what Army Wives would have you believe, there are definitely some aspects I have had to get used to. One of these is the dress code. Recently I went to the PX (think a T.J. Maxx with Wal-Mart prices) on our new base, and encountered a woman being turned away from the door because her midriff was showing. When I say “showing” I mean her tank top had ridden up about two inches. She did not look inappropriately dressed at all — clearly she had just thrown on her tank and jean shorts to do some shopping — yet she was being told she was in violation of the rules.

This was not the first time I had come into contact with strict military clothing restrictions. While my then-fiance was still stationed in Hawaii, I flew there so we could get married and honeymoon on the islands. While there, I ended up — apparently — being in violation of the dress code not once, but twice.

The first time happened shortly after the wedding, when my husband, some friends, and I went to a bar on the Naval base. It was country-themed, with a huge floor for line dancing, so I dressed accordingly: high-waisted skater skirt, polka-dotted crop top, Keds, and bandana headband. When showing our IDs to the bouncer, he stopped me and said, “Ma’am, you’re going to have to pull your shirt down or your skirt up.”

Now, this was the first time I had had any exposure to the dress code. My husband, not being known to wear crop tops himself, had not yet told me about it. I was understandably confused; barely an inch of my lower rib cage was showing, and my skirt was not short by any standard. Not wanting to cause a scene, I pulled down my shirt and was let in.

My second violation was pointed out when we went to the on-base golf course. I had on pastel shorts from the Gap and a white tank top. Not a spaghetti-strap tank, mind you (which would not have been a violation anyway), but a thick-strapped, loose fitting, high-neckline shirt. The man checking people in took my husband’s ID, wrote us down to tee off, then looked at me and said: “Ma’am, that type of shirt is not allowed here.”

I believe my jaw might have involuntarily dropped open. I looked down at my shirt and back up at him, saying “Tank tops? Or white shirts?”

Not amused by my sarcasm, he informed me that tank tops were not allowed and that to be let on the course I would have to buy a shirt in their shop or go home and change. Excuse me, sir, if I don’t want to buy a $50 Puma polo just to play golf. Needless to say, we did not play golf that day.

My point with sharing these examples is not to say that the military needs to take away its dress code. I understand that there is a necessity for uniformity: it makes things easier to regulate, tampers jealousy, and creates a global standard for all active military and their families. Women are not the only ones who have regulations. Men most certainly cannot be found in cropped off short-shorts. My point is that uniformity is not, truly, the only reason women have their clothing choices regulated.

Personally, I have no problem with the way other people dress. They’re expressing their individual style, wearing what they find comfortable, or dressing up for a special occasion (like going to a country bar). I would never call a woman “trashy” for wearing a tight-fitting dress or 6-inch heels, and I certainly wouldn’t say that lewd behavior toward a woman dressed that way is justified. Believe it or not, women DO NOT dress the way they do for the benefit of men or other women. 

When an organization’s dress code seeks to put a stop to those “trashy” fashion trends, they are encouraging uniformity, yes, but they are also saying that a woman showing her midriff, or her shoulders, is inviting inappropriate attention. That somehow the way she dresses makes it her fault men sexually harass her.

Let me explain. The US military continues to have a terrifyingly high number of sexual assault cases each year, yet thousands more go unreported. They are not, by any means, the only organization that has the same problem. This is a huge issue, and one that will not be solved easily because victims are encouraged to keep their assaults quiet. Dress codes like the one the military has in place are there not just for uniformity, but to discourage sexual assault.

If this doesn’t seem ridiculous to you, let me put it another way. In an episode of How I Met Your Mother, Marshall seduces Lily by showing her his calves. Take a look at this quick clip from the episode:

The scene is hilarious because a woman put into a sexual frenzy by the sight of a man’s legs seems ludicrous. Yet, when a woman goes to report a rape, one of the questions she is asked is “What were you wearing?” As if the sight of her bare shoulders caused a man to force himself on her. Telling women what they can and cannot wear to discourage sexual assault is telling them that, somehow, it is their fault when it happens.


So, do I think the military and other organizations with similar dress regulations need to take those regulations away? No. Like I said before, I get why they’re there. What I am saying is the reasons behind those dress codes need to change. Instead of encouraging women to cover up to prevent rape, let’s encourage men to be respectful. Instead of saying “cover your midriff” let’s say “don’t catcall someone on the street.” Only when we acknowledge the problem can we change the perspective.

Morgan McMurray (@mcflurrybatman) is a freelance copywriter and blogger based in Savannah, Georgia. She spends her time writing, reading, and attempting to dance gracefully. She has also been known to binge-watch Netflix while knitting scarves.

 Featured image courtesy of [Florian Ramel via Flickr]

Morgan McMurray
Morgan McMurray is an editor and gender equality blogger based in Seattle, Washington. A 2013 graduate of Iowa State University, she has a Bachelor of Arts in English, Journalism, and International Studies. She spends her free time writing, reading, teaching dance classes, and binge-watching Netflix. Contact Morgan at



Send this to friend