Dressing for Success? Should HBCUs have dress codes?

Young Students at Howard wearing the latest 1920s fashions

In 1904, a young student named Isaiah Hardeman arrived on the campus of Tuskegee Institute late in the sleeping hours of the night.  Tired from his 500 mile journey, Hardeman went to sleep on the stairs of the Academic building.  After waking up early in the morning he inquired where he could find Booker T. Washington.  Impressively, when other students looked at this young ambitious yet unrefined aspirant, Hardeman recalled, “While I was waiting for Mr. Washington one of the young men at work in the office gave me a suit of HIS OWN clothes, AND two shirts!!”

Ralph Ellison

Indeed these students understood the importance a first impression makes.  Even though we would like to think otherwise, the reality is appearance matters.  At Historically Black Colleges and Universities, students have ALWAYS been taught the importance of professionalism, decorum, and of dress.  Take Ralph Ellison, for example, Ellison, the author of Invisble Man and Shadow and Act, while at Tuskegee was known for his “dashing style and fashion sense.”  More importantly, the underlassmen looked up to Ellison and learned what it meant to be a gentleman and a man of renowkn just by how Ellison carried himself.  One student recalled, “He was straight out of Esquire Magazine, his blue serge uniform was crisply tailored, his slacks contrasted smartly with his coats and his hand-tied bow ties and two-toned shoes were beyond the sartorial range of most of the other students.”

Schools like, Howard, Spelman, Hampton and Morehouse instill in their students from day one, the importance of dressing for success.  These ideals are not without controversy.  Within the past few years, Hampton and Morehouse have drawn considerable attention to their strict dress codes and traditions of “telling students” how they should dress.  Several incidents at both institutions drew negative national attention when Hampton’s school of business put heavy restrictions such as no “dreadlocks, cornrows, or colored hair.”  While Morehouse (along with Hampton, both private institutions) banned students from wearing women’s clothing and high heels.

Both these institutions have built strong reputations of teaching students how to be professional, and “respectable.”  When both incidents hit the media, one of the main points of contention asserted that these institutions were stripping students freedoms of expression away.  So we want to know, are these “proper attire” policies beneficial to students in the long run, or are they an infringement on personal expression?  What would schools like Spelman, Morehouse and Hampton lose if they were to relax thier dress codes in return?

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2 thoughts on “Dressing for Success? Should HBCUs have dress codes?

  1. I think that it is extremely important particularly African American students to uphold their professionalism and attire at all times. Especially in cases of first impressions because it takes seven other encounters to change that first impression. Furthermore assumptions are already made before you open your mouth so making sure it is positive is an advantage. Attire vary in regard to settings and the message you would like to portray.

  2. I attend Tuskegee University and proudly assert that we, the students of this prestigious institution, have much pride in our appearance. I have heard from former professors that the Tuskegee student’s pride in his/ her’s physical appearance is like none seen elsewhere. This pride not only originates from our greatly immortal history, here at Tuskegee University, but also an even stronger pride in our people as whole. We respect the Tuskegee Experience and remain humble to live as a part of it. Therefore, my response to your post is quite simple: If HBCU’s enforce a dress code, then all of the dedicated labor, sacrificed lives, and earned prestige will be neglected and indirectly considered unworthy. What I mean is… to tell a student what to wear because your school has prestige,is to tell a student that their mind can not understand that said prestige. To enforce such a rule will keep the students from rightly understanding the very reason as to why they should walk, talk, act, and think with status; the students will not have the experience of maturing and becoming cultivated to show the world why their school is important, just by the way they carry their person. All in all, I am grateful to my HBCU Experience because mother Tuskegee has nurtured me into a fortunate, humble, and apt woman.


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