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Freedom of Dress: State and Private Regulation of Clothing, Hairstyle, Jewelry, Makeup, Tattoos, and Piercing


Gowri Ramachandran


Southwestern Law School


Maryland Law Review, Vol. 66, p. 11, 2006
FSU College of Law, Public Law Research Paper No. 177
Georgetown Public Law Research Paper No. 872324

Abstract:     
This article proposes a legal right to free dress, encompassing clothing, hair, jewelry, makeup, tattoo, and piercing choices. Neither speech rights nor equal protection provide an accurate account of the importance of self-presentation; instead a new theory of freedom of dress is needed, drawing on its unique location at the blurry border of the personal (as an exercise of control over the physical self) and the political and cultural (as the performance of social identity). Four of the most important applications of this theory are found in public schools, private workplaces, prisons, and direct state regulation. These settings require different balances of individual appearance choices against other interests.

In the workplace, employers should be required to reasonably accommodate employees' dress choices. Even in the absence of a distinct statutory right, conceiving of freedom of dress as a fundamental right would make viable disparate impact and "sex-plus" claims affecting dress under Title VII. On the street, the paucity of important countervailing state interests supports reviewing infringements on the freedom of dress with strict scrutiny and subjecting them to narrow tailoring requirements - rather than treating dress merely as an adjunct to speech. In schools, too, strict scrutiny is appropriate; carving out freedom of dress as a liberty for students may be easier even than carving out student liberties like speech. In prisons, a reasonable accommodation approach is appropriate, but with a much narrower construction of reasonable accommodation than in other settings.

Number of Pages in PDF File: 84

Keywords: appearance, clothing, dress, identity, identity performance, discrimination, postmodern, queer theory, feminist, employment, public school, transgender, transsexual, nudity, body modification, prisoner rights

JEL Classification: J2, J7

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Date posted: December 29, 2005  

Suggested Citation

Ramachandran, Gowri, Freedom of Dress: State and Private Regulation of Clothing, Hairstyle, Jewelry, Makeup, Tattoos, and Piercing. Maryland Law Review, Vol. 66, p. 11, 2006; FSU College of Law, Public Law Research Paper No. 177; Georgetown Public Law Research Paper No. 872324. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=872324

Contact Information

Gowri Ramachandran (Contact Author)
Southwestern Law School ( email )
3050 Wilshire Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90010
United States
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