Judy Berman at Salon:
Looking back on some of things I thought were a good idea to wear in college, I have to cringe. Culled mostly from thrift stores, my wardrobe involved everything from layered slips worn as skirts to a garish pair of faux snakeskin boots with four-inch platform heels. For a while, my personal motto was, “Every day is Halloween.” But now that the slips have disintegrated and I only keep the shoes around for costume parties, I wouldn’t trade my memories (or photos!) of the fun I had in them for the world. College is a time — and, for some, the only time, between the parental regime of childhood and the repressive dictates of the working world — to figure out who we are and will be, to push our self-images to their logical extreme, just to see what sticks. Clothing is a small but essential part of that process.
That’s why it’s so disheartening to hear that Morehouse College, an all-male, historically African-American school in Atlanta, has instituted a dress code banning this kind of experimentation. The “Appropriate Attire Policy” dictates that students refrain from wearing caps, do-rags, sagging pants, “clothing with derogatory or lewd messages either in words or pictures” and sunglasses (“in class or at formal programs”). Most controversial is the college’s decision to outlaw “clothing usually worn by women (dresses, tops, tunics, purses, pumps, etc.) on the Morehouse campus or at college-sponsored events.”
Now, a few of these guidelines make sense: It’s disrespectful to wear sunglasses in the classroom, where you’re expected to be paying attention to the professor and participating in a discussion with classmates. And depending on how “clothing with derogatory or lewd messages” is defined (and who defines it), that may also be a wise call. But what about the do-rags, sagging pants and ladies’ clothing? Who is that hurting?
Well, for one thing, the drag ban isn’t aimed at what you might assume: preventing frat bros from their typical, occasionally minorly offensive, Homecoming-season cross-dressing hijinks. CNN quotes Dr. William Bynum, Morehouse’s vice president for student services, as saying, “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.” Bynum also claims that, when he discussed the new policy with Safe Space, the college’s gay group, “Of the 27 people in the room, only three were against it.” It’s interesting, then, that Safe Space’s co-president, in an interview with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, calls the drag ban discriminatory. In fact, he says, “Some believe that this restriction is what the entire policy is correlated around.” It’s notable that while most items on the list are banned solely in academic or public buildings, it is now impermissable for Morehouse students to dress in women’s clothing anywhere on campus — even in the privacy of their own dorm rooms.
Morehouse, the HBCU (historically black college/university) in Atlanta, is cracking down on those silly gays who think a college campus is the appropriate place to express themselves. “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,” says Dr. William Bynum, vice president for Student Services. And what happens if you do show up to class wearing a cute Marni number? You’ll be asked to leave. Keep doing it, and Morehouse will suspend you. The change comes “from the vision of the college’s president” Robert Michael Franklin, Bynum tells CNN, “who wants the institution to create leaders like notable graduates Martin Luther King Jr., actor Samuel Jackson and film director Spike Lee.”
Couple this knee-jerk response with Morehouse’s recent firing of an employee who made fun of that fabulous gay wedding, and we’re not sure what to think of the school’s feelings towards the gays. (Morehouse’s Bynum insists the policy change came after he met with Morehouse Safe Space, the campus’ gay organization, which voted to OK the policy change. “Of the 27 people in the room, only three were against it.”)
It’s all part of President Franklin’s “five wells” campaign. He wants students to be “well read, well spoken, well traveled, well dressed and well balanced.” That’s reasonable. And admirable! But if the trade off is a policy that’s so strict it clamps down on a student’s ability to express his gender identity, we can’t get behind it.
Is wearing pumps in class really going to distract from academia? Only if Morehouse contributes to a campus that ostracizes those individuals. Or they could teach tolerance and acceptance. You know, like that Martin Luther King Jr. fella.
Scott Jaschnik at Inside Higher Ed:
The only vocal opposition to the new rules has come from some gay students on campus. Kevin Webb, co-president of Safe Space @ Morehouse, a gay-straight student alliance, said that under Franklin’s leadership, the college has been more committed to equity for gay students than ever before, and that “as an openly gay student, I feel privileged to have matriculated now.”
Webb said that gay students are divided about the dress code. But although he will not have to change his style, he said he was bothered by the new rules.
For many gay students, fashion is an important part of self-definition, he said. “Once you try to stop people’s expression, everything that is unique about people is going to start to crumble, and you will produce robots, and we wouldn’t want that, would we?”
A few gay Morehouse students do dress in women’s clothing sometimes, and Webb said that should be allowed. While all Morehouse students are covered by the new clothing policy, Webb said he was bothered that a specific rule singled out a style popular only with some gay students. “I think this borders on discrimination,” he said. “While someone can say that it applies the heteronormativity of other students in terms of do-rags and sagging of pants, I can also say that there are gay people who sag their pants and wear their do-rags, but you don’t find people here who identify themselves as straight walking around in feminine garb.”
If male students wear feminine clothing, he asked, “what impact does it have on how intelligent they are, their grade point average and how much community service they do?”
He also questioned the idea that someone who wears more formal clothing is necessarily a better person. “We are focusing too much on the exterior,” he said. “If you put a clown in a suit, he’s still a clown.”
Bynum, the Morehouse vice president, said that he met with Safe Space before the policy went into effect, and he noted that many of the students there supported the change. He said that the policy isn’t about gay students, but about standards for all students. “Morehouse is completely supportive of our gay students. This isn’t about them, but about all students.”
Tim Cavanaugh at Reason:
So while I’ll fight like hell for all-male Morehouse College’s right to enforce its “Appropriate Attire Policy,” I’m skeptical that this is something any institution can control. According to this CNN story, courtesy of Drudge, the school’s new dress code includes some restrictions I wholly applaud, including a ban on wearing hats indoors and pajamas in public. It also prohibits cross dressing.
According to a school official, of the school’s 2,700 students, only a handful — all of them homer-sexuals — are going drag. “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,” says vice president for Student Services William Bynum.
Morehouse is a private school, and it goes without saying that there are countless other colleges for men with a real commitment to fabulousness. Bynum says the campus gay organization voiced no objection to the policy, and presumably living with 2,700 young hunks is enough of a schmaltz barrel that giving up black taffeta is a small price to pay.
Still, it must be noted that the policy is against nature. Men want to dress up like women. You can pass all the rules you want, but men will find a way.
One can be intelligent and dress like a slob — or someone of the opposite gender. Conversely, one can dress like an executive and still be a fool.
But Franklin is carrying on a longstanding tradition at places like Morehouse. Because it was harder for a black man to be considered intelligent or worthy of respect, a culture developed where black men of a certain station tended to dress much better and pay more attention to his manner of speaking than white men of similar status. It’s not as true as it was even twenty years ago — it’s been half a century since Brown and a generation since the Civil Rights Act of 1965 — but vestiges of that tradition remain. Most black professionals in their 50s or older still tend to pay more attention to their clothing and public image than their white counterparts.
Franklin, Cosby, and Obama clearly want to keep this culture alive. They realize that young black men running around with their underdrawers showing not only hinder their own chances for advancement but reinforce negative stereotypes.
Beyond that, Morehouse sees itself as something unique. Being a “Morehouse Man” is more akin to being a graduate of the Citadel or VMI than of, say, one of the Ivies. It’s a brand, not just an institution of higher education. And they want Morehouse men to project an image of success and professionalism. And, it would seem, manliness.