Free the sports bra: Title IX confusion and dress code reform in Fowler Center

Pictured: Fowler Center on Texas Avenue. Photo courtesy of The University of the South’s Flickr.

By Claire Crow
Executive Staff

Walking into a classroom, everyone, men and women, have most likely received a scathing glare from a professor at some point for not abiding by Sewanee’s class dress policy, and rightfully so. The Sewanee ‘Dress Tradition’ section on the University’s website clearly defines the class dress policy, and students typically follow it. 

However, in Fowler Center, not everyone has received orders to put a shirt on, change clothes, and not everyone has been told that their cropped workout top is a bra. Only women have been told those things, including myself.

After being ordered by a Fowler staff member to change out of my shirt, which showed an inch of my stomach (not to mention, my legs were fully clothed in leggings), after seeing two shirtless men walk right by other staff members that same day, and after realizing how many of my female peers have too experienced the orders as I had, I came to the conclusion that a Title IX violation was in the works. 

In short, Title IX is a federal civil rights law which provides freedom from issues of any discrimination on the basics of sex. Until recent weeks, certain Fowler staff members only enforced a “dress code” on women, and they did not appear at all concerned with how male gym goers dressed. 

If a woman is told by a staff member that her sports bra is too revealing or her shirt is not appropriate, yet a shirtless man is free to roam in the same space as the woman, then this “dress code” only targets a woman because of her sex and anatomical figure. This “dress code” violates Title IX. 

But what exactly was this “dress code” which certain staff were pointing to? For an unknown amount of time, the only sentence on Fowler’s website that addressed gym attire was vague and brief. The policy was: “wear proper training attire, particularly appropriate shoes and shirt, at all times.”

Let’s dissect that. From afar, this sentence sounds fairly reasonable. But if you think about it a little more, what exactly does “appropriate” mean? What if appropriate means one thing to one person, but another person has a completely different idea of the term? 

Also, according to the policy’s phrasing, gym users must wear a shirt and shoes, but technically someone could have shown up with no pants on and they would have been in “dress code.”  

My point is not to solely critique one little sentence that most students never even encountered in the first place. But if staff members wish to enforce a policy, the policy should be visible, clear, specific, and should not discriminate on the basis of sex. 

After the help of Sewanee’s Title IX coordinator Dr. Sylvia Gray, a new dress code now lives on Fowler’s website and states: “Wear proper athletic training, sport, or swim attire, particularly appropriate shoes, tops, and bottoms, at all times. Exceptions to the dress code include when players are engaging in a University team game or practice. Offensive language (including profane language or slogans on any attire), disruptive and/or disrespectful behavior will not be tolerated.” 

In addition, women can now workout in a sports bra or cropped top if they so choose, because sports bras and cropped tops fall under “tops,” and men can still be shirtless. Now, the only enforcers of the revised dress code at Fowler Center are the two directors of athletics. 

I harbor no resentment toward Fowler Center or the people who work there whatsoever. Fowler is a sacred space to me. Because I, too, work there, work out there, and participate in the volleyball program, I pretty much spend more time there than I do in my own dorm. To me and many others, having a gym that promotes well-being, equality, and safety is a very important part of our Sewanee experience, and I feel that the new dress code not only reinforces these ideals, but brings our community one step closer to inclusivity.


  1. Good on you! So often dress codes are largely focused on policing women. You’ve done excellent work helping usher Sewanee into the 21rst century!

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