Effects on Conformity and Nonconformity to Gender-Role Expectations for Dress: Teachers versus Students

By Workman, Jane E.; Johnson, Kim K. P. | Adolescence, Spring 1994 | Go to article overview

Effects on Conformity and Nonconformity to Gender-Role Expectations for Dress: Teachers versus Students


Workman, Jane E., Johnson, Kim K. P., Adolescence


Many schools have regulations that prohibit students from wearing certain articles of dress. Dress is defined by Roach and Musa (1980) as the total arrangement of all outwardly detectible modifications of the body itself and all material objects added to it. Thus, an earring would properly be classified as an item of dress. Some dress regulations are applied uniformly to both male and female students as in the case of regulations that prohibit students from wearing shorts ("Pupil protest . . .", 1988). Others are applied to either males or females. For example, one school required boys to wear their hair at a "conventional length" while girls were not allowed to wear extremely tight or short skirts (Hambleton, Roach, & Ehle, 1972). The basis of some dress codes appears to be tied to traditional gender-role expectations for dress ("Students' attire . . .", 1979). Because regulations are not always applied uniformly, as in the case of male students but not female students being prohibited from wearing earrings, they sometimes evoke controversy (Allis, 1989; Mullen, 1985; Stafford, 1987).

The controversy over young men wearing earrings is reminiscent of the 1960s controversy over men wearing long hair. Long hair on men was viewed as a challenge to the status quo and was assumed to reflect a lack of self-discipline (Simpson, 1973). When males first began to wear their hair long, many people reacted negatively because the appearance did not conform to traditional masculine role expectations (David & Brannon, 1976). To some people, long hair and femininity seemed synonymous (Plumb, 1967). Perhaps regulations concerning young males wearing earrings reflect a similar phenomenon. Therefore, the purpose of this study was to examine the effects of conformity and nonconformity to masculine gender-role expectations for dress, specifically the effects of wearing and not wearing an earring, on evaluations of a male student by teachers and students.

Theoretical Framework

It is impossible to look at an object or person without identifying it as something. Instead of treating all objects or persons as different, individuals group them into cognitive categories based on their similarities (Rosch, 1973). Included in these categories are expectations for appearance and behavior. Two fundamental bases for categorization are gender and age (Horn & Gurel, 1981). For example, when a person is categorized and a gender label applied, such as masculine or feminine, others may behave toward that person on the basis of the expectations they hold for individuals so labeled. The cluster of expectations for behavior of individuals in a particular category is called a role (Chafetz, 1978).

Beliefs exist in every society concerning the roles that are appropriate for each gender (Rosencrantz, Vogel, Bee, Broverman, & Broverman, 1968). According to Basow (1980), gender-role stereotypes demarcate the behaviors and appearance to which each gender is expected to conform. Thus, males are expected to have a different appearance from females. Expectations for appearance can influence social interaction because they serve as standards by which to conform, against which to rebel, or with which to evaluate others. When males conform or do not conform to these expectations, it may affect how others perceive them.

Role theory would predict that conformity to gender-role expectations is rewarding, both to those who hold the expectations and to those who conform because it facilitates social interaction (Stryker & Stathem, 1985). However, conforming to gender-role expectations can be complicated by contradictory expectations originating from different reference groups. For example, expectations for appearance of an adolescent male from peers may include adopting a traditionally feminine item (e.g., an earring), while expectations from teachers may include maintaining a traditionally masculine appearance. In a school setting, wearing an item of dress that conforms to peer expectations may enhance social acceptance and opportunities for social interaction.

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