What Not To Wear: Morehouse Edition.


The new Morehouse College dress code — or rather, attire policy, since a dress code tells people what to wear, not what not to wear — includes the following provisions, according to Kay Steiger at Campus Progress:

• Caps, do-rags and hoods are banned in classrooms, the cafeteria and other indoor venues. Do-rags may not be worn outside of the residence halls.

• Sunglasses may not be worn in class or at formal programs.

• Jeans may not be worn at major programs such as convocation, commencement or Founder’s Day.

• Clothing with “derogatory, offensive and/or lewd messages either in words or pictures” may not be worn.

•  “Sagging,” defined as “the wearing of one’s pants or shorts low enough to reveal undergarments or secondary layers of clothing,” is banned.

• Pajamas are banned in public areas.

•  Wearing of “clothing associated with women’s garb (for example, dresses, tunics, purses, handbags, pumps, wigs, make-up, etc.)” is banned.

The general idea behind the attire policy seems to be to recreate some bygone era in which Morehouse men matriculated in natty suits and bowler hats. Morehouse VP for student services William Bynum told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution: “This is necessary, this is needed according to the students,” he said. “We know the challenges that young African-American men face. We know that how a student dresses has nothing to do with what is in their head, but first impressions mean everything.”

I don’t understand what this worry about “first impressions” has to do with putting into practice a policy that affects how men who see each other every day dress. It seems to assume that adult black men won’t know how to dress appropriately for different situations unless mandated to do so. But even more worrisome is that the Morehouse administration seems to think telling students to pull up their pants (or, to wear pants) is more important than addressing the issues faced by the college today. As Frank Roberts argues in a commentary for The Root:

Turning Morehouse College into a playground of men with cardigans and bow ties will not substantively increase the institution’s rapidly declining graduation rates (at last check, only 64 percent of Morehouse men graduate within six years). Nor will it help to reverse the college’s long-standing inability to attract superstar black faculty in the humanities or social sciences. (I doubt that a new undergraduate “dress code” would be appealing to the likes of Bell Hooks or Cornel West.) Nor will it beef up the resources that one would expect to find on the campus of a purportedly “elite” college (such as better library holdings, laboratories or facilities).

Roberts also knocks the ‘women’s garb’ bullet point as a symptom of the refusal of blacks to talk about “the sizable presence of gay men within our community, including (and perhaps especially) at institutions like Morehouse.”

His point is well illustrated by Bynum’s explanation that the provision was targeting a small group: “We are talking about five students who are living a gay lifestyle that is leading them to dress a way we do not expect in Morehouse men.”

While I doubt the cross-dressing provision will greatly affect most Morehouse students, gay or straight, I think it’s important to be clear about one thing: cross-dressing is not a sign of sexual orientation. However, Bynum’s comment is a sign that the school isn’t making (or trying to make) much progress on its problems with homophobia.

In 2002, Morehouse student Gregory Love was beaten with an aluminum baseball bat by fellow student Aaron Price, after looking in the shower stall Price was using. Price said he was protecting himself from unwanted sexual attention from Love when he began a rant about all the ‘fags’ at Morehouse, went to his room to dress himself, and returned with a bat to attack Love. Price was expelled from the school after the attack, and given a 10 year sentence for aggravated assault and battery (but acquitted of committing a hate crime). His sentence was lowered to 7 years in 2006.*

And in May 2008, the Los Angeles Times shadowed Michael Brewer, an openly gay Morehouse student as he struggled to promote a week of gay rights events on campus, and went on to ask the question: “Can the Morehouse man be gay?”

If Bynum considers homosexuality a ‘lifestyle’ that leads men to dress in women’s clothing, it’s unlikely that the school wants to produce gay Morehouse Men, or even men who are gay allies. Additionally, treating clothing that has been traditionally associated with young black men like there’s something fundamentally wrong with it is classist, and it reinforces bigoted ideas about the man wearing baggy jeans. This attire policy is, at best, simply the laziest possible way of preparing Morehouse students for the future. At worst, it’s a sign that Morehouse isn’t so much worried about preserving its great legacy as preserving the look of it.

* It’s been brought to my attention (and rightfully so) that using one incident of a homophobic assault on a student as an indictment of an entire school is wrong. I didn’t mean to say that Morehouse is a place wholly intolerant of gays, but rather that, based on Bynum’s statements, he, and by extension the administration, isn’t doing much to mitigate homophobia there. For the record, I went to an HBCU with a significant gay population and understand there is nuance everywhere: homophobia can exist in a place where gay people thrive.

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  • keke

    “This attire policy is, at best, simply the laziest possible way of preparing Morehouse students for the future. At worst, it’s a sign that Morehouse isn’t so much worried about preserving its great legacy as preserving the look of it.”

    You hit the nail on the head. Excellent point!

  • That line is FIRE, both substantively (good point) and stylistically (nice play on the word “look”).

  • If Morehouse is such a bloody oppressive, hateful place for gay men, as many of you people who’ve never stepped foot on the campus would like to suggest, why are there so many gay students there? So many gay staff and faculty? Or does that just not fit into the convenient narrative you want to make?

  • You have got to be kidding me. I think this analysis is slightly over the top. There is nothing absolutely wrong with a private institution trying to ‘upgrade’ its standards even if it is with something as simple as an ‘attire policy’ (call it whatever you want). Black people in recent times have been their own worst enemies. Someone tries to do something, and you point out the other problems not been addressed. At least it is a step in the right direction.

    As an HR professional that has traveled through a significant amount of colleges and univerities to recruit talent, first impression does matter. The culture of the campus is reflected by the students. Noone will put $$$ into an institution to solve the other problems that you outlined, if it can’t even be respected as face value.

    Not saying the new policy will fix all of Morehouse’s problems. But I don’t see it making anything any worse. So how about giving it a chance before tearing it down. Amd people wonder why we can’t grow as a people. Everyone has an opinion but how far has that gotten us.

    If you don’t like the rule that much, discourage your friends from going. But I guarantee you that Morehouse will still attract those who like the rule and and atmosphere it will foster.

  • Christa

    The dress code kind of sounds like the guys will be all retro indie hipster-like, which is a look I totally support. But the rationale is all wrong.

  • quadmoniker

    But the policy doesn’t just say that Morehouse men should wear suits for job interviews or if they’re the student representatives at an alumni dinner. It says they can’t dress the way they want to at all, which, don’t you think, is a bit heavy-handed for adults? I can’t imagine what my college experience would have been like had the administrators tried to tell the women on my campus not to wear pajamas to class or to, you know, shave their legs and wear makeup because that’s what women are expected to do. The world is the world, but college is college, and I can’t imagine a more self-destructive policy for Morehouse.

  • Yes, a private institution does have a right to set their own dress codes – however for the new code -especially the last forbidding women’s clothing – seems to be targeted at specific demographic to be released NOW at a time when more gay people, transexuals/intersex, heck alternative dressers, are in the public eye seems to be less than progressive and almost as if the administration is trying to make a statement about who they believe should be a Morehouse man.
    “At least its a step in the right direction” Umm, after witnessing all of the students in their new school uniforms still attending failing schools, I wouldn’t endorse the whole conservative clothing naturally leads to higher academic standards and performance.

    And no, the dress code may not worsen any of their current problems – its just like with the various civic codes/laws banning baggy jeans, the n-word, the Confederate flag – it does make you scratch your head and wonder “don’t you have something else you need to be focusing upon?”
    “Amd people wonder why we can’t grow as a people.” – just a pet peeve of mine – black people consist of various subsets representing different backgrounds and opinions. Not agreeing forces the creation of new ideas and methods that can complement each other (best ex. I can think of – Malcolm’s any means necessary with MLK’s passive resistance). So the fact that not all Black people agree with each other isn’t the tragedy people make it out to be.

  • steve

    Well a gay student was beaten with a bat only about 7-8 years ago, and the president only just allowed a gay student group.

    There are alot of gay people THERE, but is it a comfortable environment for them? yea right.

  • Nice post Shani-O. I’ve been out of college since the 90s, so to me Morehouse has been more of an adjective than a noun. The ‘Morehouse Man’ is right up there with a lot of other iconic ‘looks’ that we think about when, as Frank Roberts wrote, the truth is that Morehouse is a college with its own set of needs and aspirations it surely would like to meet. I’m glad that I didn’t have a dress code in college but then I don’t know that we needed one: it seemed to be about common sense and representing for yourself. Seems a bit condescending that grown/nearly-grown folks need a checklist but if that’s how Morehouse is going forward then let the buyer’s dollar decide. They’ve gotten a ton of publicity and refreshed relevance through this so I’m sure that’s a step forward for them.

  • I wasn’t adhering to a dress code in high school, why the hell would I start adhering to one in college? I have sense enough to know that different occassions call for different outfits. That should be taught at home, not college.


  • Not saying the new policy will fix all of Morehouse’s problems. But I don’t see it making anything any worse.

    um, what exactly does it make better?

  • the black scientist

    “Additionally, treating clothing that has been traditionally associated with young black men like there’s something fundamentally wrong with it is classist, and it reinforces bigoted ideas about the man wearing baggy jeans.” (i don’t now how to italicize)

    I’m not sure I understand this part. baggy jeans are a relatively recent (and for a large part, former) phenomena, so can we really say they’re traditionally associated with young black men? but also, how is treating baggy jeans as though something’s wrong with them, even if they are associated with young black men, classist?

  • Sorry, just saw this.

    Yes, I think it’s safe to say that baggy jeans are associated with young black men…check out this post by Filthy:


    I may not have explained it well (and it’s possible that I made a logic leap), but if it follows that baggy jeans are associated with young black men, and young black men are associated with a lack of education and crime (which are functions of poverty), then targeting baggy jeans as an unacceptable style of clothing means you’re going after something associated with poor education and crime (and thus, poverty). There’s nothing technically wrong with a 20-year-old of any race wearing sagging pants to class, but the associations being made are troubling. Thoughts?

  • the black scientist

    no worries, i just saw this :)

    i see what you’re saying. maybe it’s true that if we were to survey people, they’d mostly associate baggy jeans with black men.. maybe? and black men with poverty.. it is a pretty big leap for me but i can see how one could make it.

    i guess my point is people can be against baggy jeans without being classist. ya know.. like, it could be a fashion preference. or maybe they’re racist and their hate for baggy jeans is somehow associated with their feelings towards black men (assuming they associate the two) but it doesn’t trickle down to the whole poor education, crime and poverty part. know what i’m saying?

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  • Mike

    I don’t understand why a man want to were a dress at a “male” institution……some (cross dresser) will argue that they are real men …then why would they want to dress in REAL women’s clothing…..oxymoron if you ask me…..they could easily find a more liberal school environment that doesn’t have these restrictions…..What is the world coming to when schools have such backlash for setting their own standards…..

    • brandi

      Maybe some folks are going to college to get an education, not to be told what to wear. Are we still in middle school?

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