A high school in Paulding County told girls they had to wear dresses under their graduation robes, leading to complaints and now a policy change, Even advertisements for graduation gowns feature female models in pants .

Dresses at graduation: Paulding students question mandate and win

I graduated high school in the era of rotary phones, bad perms and icy mocha lipstick. Yet, I was allowed to wear pants under my graduation robe at my strict Catholic high school. I opted for a snazzy green and white pants and jacket ensemble. 

I was surprised to learn senior girls at Hiram High School in Paulding County were told they had to wear dresses to graduation because “societal norms are that females must wear dresses to formal events,” as one young woman explained on Instagram. 

Most of the social media comments in response to the school’s policy went something like this: “What year is this? What century are we in?” 

The Paulding County School District heard and heeded the complaints and lifted the dresses-only rule. Girls can now wear black pants.  Paulding County spokesman Jay Dillon told me Thursday: 

This was a case of a dress code that had been in place for years, and had never been questioned or challenged until now, but on consideration of the students' issue with the dress requirement, it is time for an update. As you noted, the students' request to wear pants has been accommodated, provided the pants are black.

We have also asked other Paulding high schools to make the same accommodation if they are not already (there have been no other issues at other schools), and graduation dress codes will be updated accordingly. 

I asked Dillon why Paulding specified pants color since students were wearing graduation robes over their outfits anyway. He responded this morning: 

They do wear robes, but we talk about dress code for a variety of reasons with students: 

-- For some this is their first formal event and discussions about appropriate dress continue to help students grow up into responsible young people.

-- We want the ceremony to continue to have the pomp and circumstance that the reflects the meaning of graduation.

-- Gowns only go down so far, so we try to maintain a uniform look to the ceremony.

Over the last few weeks, I have seen the usual flurry of stories on girls and dress codes, many related to prom wear. The New York Times had a good story in April about dress codes, noting:

In the U.S., more than half of public schools have dress codes. Students are beginning to push back on ones they deem discriminatory, challenging rules against buzz cuts, shirt dresses and hair extensions. In 2014, a group of New Jersey high schoolers created #iammorethanadistraction to push back against their dress code and four years later, it continues to be an active hashtag. Change.org lists over 500 dress code petitions in their database. 

School administrators complain about the time devoted to monitoring what students wear to school, dances and proms. Here’s an easy solution: Get rid of dress codes that target girls and reduce them to distractions. Even kindergartners have been censured for spaghetti straps.

To the young women of Hiram High School, good for you for challenging the status quo. You should be able to step into your future in whatever you want. 

As student council president at my high school, I addressed my graduating class. I recall telling classmates we were fortunate to be born at a time when women could choose their futures. 

They should be able to choose their attire, too.

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About the Author

Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.