2015 Voices

A look back at 2015's biggest dress code controversies on TODAY

This article is part of “2015 Voices,” a special series of essays and interviews with newsmakers behind some of TODAY’s biggest moments of the year.

Four months ago, 18-year-old Sylva Stoel became a viral sensation when she was reprimanded at her retail job at J.C. Penney for wearing shorts to work, an apparent violation of company policy, and a story that got people talking about what women should be allowed to wear in professional settings.

Since then, dress codes at both schools and workplaces have been in the news nearly nonstop, and young women in particular are speaking up about policies they feel are unfair.

TODAY.com caught up with Stoel, a popular feminist blogger who lives in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, to see what she thinks about the conversation.

@queenfeminist/Twitter
Sylva Stoel was sent home for wearing these shorts to her job at J.C. Penney.

"It's funny that my red shorts caused the amount of outrage that they did," Stoel said of the outfit that got her sent home. "The whole ordeal opened up my eyes to not only the power of social media, but also to how controversial the dress code debate truly is."

"The issue of misogyny at school and in the workplace is so often relegated to the shadows, so I think it's revolutionary that an army of girls are using social media to shed light on important topics, such as sexism in dress codes," she added.

Stoel hasn't been in touch with her old employer — "only to collect my paycheck" — but she has found a new job baby-sitting, where she gets to wear whatever she wants, she said.

Here are a few other dress code controversies that caught our attention this year:

These 'horrendous' dress code punishment pants

Courtesy of Lydia Cleveland
Administrators at a Virginia school got rid of these sweatpants after a student protested.

When one student at a Virginia high school protested the administration's "punishment pants" — a sweatsuit students who violated the dress code had to wear if they didn't have a change of clothes, she got action.

We covered Lydia Cleveland's story in September, and the teen told us that the school has since ditched the sweatpants and "is working on equal enforcement" of dress code policies among male and female students. "It all seems to be going well from my perspective," she said.

'Prom gown panel' prompts uproar at Connecticut high school

NBC
Administrators from Shelton High School formed a panel to judge whether some students' prom dresses, like this one, were appropriate.

At Shelton High School, some students were outraged to find out, just days before the dance in May, that they wouldn't be allowed to wear their dresses to the prom. A "prom gown panel" was formed to decide whether students' dresses were appropriate — more than 30 of them weren't.

The school told TODAY.com that it has updated its dress code for the new school year so it's explicitly stated that prom attire must fall within the guidelines.

The battle over leggings

The new(ish) trend of leggings as pants isn't going over well in some schools.

In April, a young woman's Facebook post went viral when she wrote about her little sister being sent home from high school for wearing leggings underneath a baseball-style shirt. And students at a Cape Cod high school weren't happy when the school updated its dress code this year to ban leggings and yoga pants unless worn underneath a skirt or dress, or with a long top.

... and shoulders and collarbones

Courtesy of Kristy Kimball
A school official said this dress worn at a Utah school dance by Gabi Finlayson violated dress code rules about shoulder strap width.

Some schools sparked criticism for dress codes that targeted a particular part of a woman's body — like shoulders or collarbones, for example. That's what happened when Stacie Dunn's daughter, a student at a Kentucky high school, got in trouble for wearing a tank top and sweater that failed to cover her collarbone. Dunn called the school's decision "ridiculous" in a rant on Facebook.

And earlier this year in Utah, a teen girl was told her dress for a school dance violated the dress code because the straps didn't cover enough of her shoulders. Students in New Jersey also protested dress codes this year, with one carrying a sign that said, "'Shoulders are so hot' -said no one ever.'"

So even as some schools reassess their dress codes, it's clear the debate is far from over. In the meantime, here's our guide to how to handle the "wardrobe wars" with your kids.

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