by David Kinane
Within the PF community, there is a norm that one must wear formal clothing at tournaments.
Unfortunately, a norm like this is damaging to many. I’m not going to define formal clothing because that is precisely why these dress codes are so damaging. When they are enforced, coaches have to make a judgement on which clothes are appropriate and which are not. Often times, this creates an oppressive framework that serves to marginalize groups because of unequal enforcement. Forcing womxn to feel uncomfortable in high heels or forcing a low income student to spend hundreds of extra dollars on clothing is something largely recognized as bad.
If this norm is so destructive, why do most debaters follow it?
Numerous debate programs across the country require their students to adhere to a certain dress code. Even for schools that don’t specify their dress codes, this expectation of formal attire is perpetuated by schools that DO have them, so other schools follow.
Because of the nature of PF, there tends to be an emphasis on presentation and professionalism, so dressing in a more casual manner risks losing more rounds, thus creating a race-to-the-bottom where most people try to look as professional as possible.
Despite my partner Jake and I dressing down in front over 100 judges this season, we’ve managed to be relatively successful, and haven’t received any negative comments about our attire. Unfortunately, this is probably because Jake and I are straight white males who are definitely less likely than others to receive comments about how we dress, as marginalized groups are held to a different standard when it comes to acting professional. These cognitive biases within judges appear to punish marginalized groups more frequently for how they dress. For example, a sweatshirt on me could be seen as casual, but a sweatshirt on a womxn could be seen as unprofessional.
With this in mind, how do we effectively make a transition without forcing people to face unequal treatment along the way?
This is where the complexity of such a transition arises. On face value, dressing down could send a signal to marginalized debaters that they also can dress down without backlash because the standard is changing. However, having only non-marginalized debaters make the transition could further serve to marginalize people within the community, as dressing down would be something only non-marginalized debaters can do.
I want to make it clear- the point of this is NOT to say all people should not dress formally- for many formal clothing can be a way of empowerment and make people feel more confident competing. But, the notion that we ALL must follow these dress codes is one that damages our community and needs to be talked about.
I don’t have a perfect solution, but in order to have any solution, we need to recognize that there is a problem. So, talk with coaches, competitors, judges, your team, anyone. If a judge makes a comment on how someone is dressed in the room, say something. Ask the NSDA to create something in the bylaws outlining how dress should not affect the decision in a round. Email tournament directors asking them to create free-choice clothing rules or to let judges know at tournaments that dress should not affect how they evaluate the round. These institutional changes could allow for a better environment for such a switch to occur.