Where did “No Shirt, No Shoes, No Service” Come From?

Where did “No Shirt, No Shoes, No Service” Come From?

You’ve probably seen that sign hanging above a restaurant door. You know, the one that says “no shirt, no shoes, no service”? Or, if you’re like the author of this post, you saw a guy take off their shoes on a bus, only to have the bus driver pull over and try to kick him off (this true story was the inspiration for our post). Even weirder, this particular phrase seems almost unique to the United States. So where does the concept of “no shirt, no shoes, no service” come from?

Where did “No Shirt, No Shoes, No Service” Come From?

Alright, so the reason our alliterative business-denying phrase came about is almost as cynical as you might think. Some would tell you it’s a health thing, because bare feet and whatnot drag germs around. Heck, at first glance, perhaps they’d have a real argument. Early “no shirt, no shoes, no service” signs had a little tag reading “By order of the Board of Health.”

Except, even today, there’s no federal or state law stating you have to wear shoes in a restaurant. So the “Board of Health” those signs were referring to probably didn’t mean the government, though they’d want you to believe that. 

Now, it was important that we fronted that before telling you the dates, because “no shirt, no shoes, no service” didn’t start picking up until the 1950s and 60s. Shoes were definitely ingrained into American culture way before the 1950s, and we would have figured out that shoes were a health thing way before the 50s if they were an actual problem. Basically, the timeline doesn’t really add up for “no shirt, no shoes, no service” being about health concerns. 

Plus there’s no law about shoes and health, so there’s another nail in that coffin. 

But guess what was picking up steam in the 60s? If you guessed “civil rights,” you’d be right. Though, depending on the state, “no shirt, no shoes, no service” may not have picked up steam until the 70s. The 60s and 70s also marked the American Counterculture Movement

No Shirt, No Shoes, No Service Was a Reaction

We made a big deal out of these alliterative signs popping up around the same time as the Civil Rights Movement and the Counterculture Movement for a reason. That’s because the prevailing theories hold that these signs arose as a reaction to these movements. 

Remember that there was, and is, no federal law prohibiting you from not wearing shoes. However, there is federal law preventing you from discriminating on race, gender, etc. Private businesses cannot deny you service for, say, not being white. This is known. 

But, private businesses can deny you for not wearing shoes or shirts. Keep that in mind as you read on. 


So, we should probably make sure we’re all on the same page regarding the Counterculture Movement of the 1960s and 70s. Namely, we’re talking hippie culture. You know, dudes with long hair, sometimes forgoing shoes, the rise in the use of psychoactive drugs like LSD. 

You may, or may not, know much else about Counterculture in the 60s and 70s. Nobody should fault you for it, since that’s just the stereotype for hippies in the American mindset. But the movement was incredibly progressive, and laid a lot of groundwork for civil society today.

Chiefly, the Counterculture Movements during this time provided more momentum for the Civil Rights Movement. It also laid foundation for discussions around sexuality and championed women’s rights. Oh also there was the whole protest of the Vietnam War.

The long short of it; this movement was about anything but the status quo. Any of us would agree that America has historically had problems with moving on from the status quo. In fairness, pretty much every country has issues with it. 

Anyway, the key we mentioned was the shoe thing. “No shirt, no shoes, no service” was likely, in part, an attempt to shut down hippie culture. We should clarify that it was an attempt by individual private business owners. 

Don’t believe us? Look at this newspaper clipping from Eugene, Oregon in 1972:

“Hippies have taken over the north end of town and the business people don’t like it. They have signs saying shoes and shirts are required–no entrance to bare feet.”

Civil Rights

So, you know that in 1964, America made a long-time-coming leap in the way of civil rights. That’s right, we’re talking about the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Of course, not everyone was on board with everyone having equal rights. Heck, a lot of people still aren’t on board with it now.

But with the passage of the Civil Rights Act, businesses could no longer turn away customers for the color of their skin. 

But they could turn them away for something else.

See, it’s no secret that in the 1960s, shoes were a sign of wealth. Not everybody could afford them, and if you couldn’t afford shoes, you didn’t wear shoes. Here’s the thing, it’s also not a secret that historically (and currently) minority communities are much poorer. 

Prime example, according to the US census, about 12.5% of the American population was African American in 2018. Logic would hold that, in an equal society, about 12% of people below the poverty line would be African American. Turns out that number was 21.4%. You can get more breakdowns of how poverty isn’t equally distributed here. Our point is that the demographics of poor people doesn’t line up with the demographics of the rest of America.

So, businesses used “no shirt, no shoes, no service” as a way to sidestep anti-discrimination laws. Technically, they weren’t discriminating against marginalized groups, they were discriminating against people who didn’t have shoes. It just so happened that not having shoes meant you were poor, and it was way more likely you wouldn’t be rich enough to own shoes if you were part of a minority group. Thus, businesses were able to maintain a racist status quo, without really saying so.

Discriminatory signs aren’t fun, so here are some fun sign typos.