Morehouse Bans Women’s Clothes

Morehouse, the top historically black college for men, has issued a new dress code of which Bill Cosby will approve but gays groups do not.

Since he was named as president of Morehouse College in 2007, Robert M. Franklin has stressed the importance of defining education broadly, well beyond courses. He has been talking about the social and ethical obligations of those who are studying at the elite historically black college. Of late he has been calling for students to have “five wells” — to be “well read, well spoken, well traveled, well dressed and well balanced.”

Last week, the idea of being “well dressed” became much more specific, with the start of an “appropriate attire policy,” under which Morehouse is joining a small group of colleges that have in recent years adopted dress codes. Morehouse’s policy is generally being well received by students — and college officials stress that 90-plus percent of students are already in compliance. But the policy is getting some criticism from gay students over the idea of regulating dress, and specifically for banning the wearing of women’s attire.

Here are some of the policy’s features:

  • 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. (Morehouse educates only male students.)

William Bynum, vice president for student services at Morehouse, said that the clothing rules are part of a broader agenda to develop students’ minds and “social consciences.” He said that Franklin, the president, has pushed President Obama’s idea that there should be “no excuses” for black men in an era when one of their own has been elected president of the United States.

Even the opposition from gay groups has been mild.

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.”

Webb is right, of course.  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 their 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 more than 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 contemporaries.

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.

FILED UNDER: Education, Gender Issues, Race and Politics, , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Alex knapp says:

    You wouldn’t know it to read the article, but the vast majority of tranvestites are straight, not gay, though granted drag queens are more likely to go out on a day-to-day basis in drag.

  2. Derrick says:

    I’m actually a Morehouse grad, and while the dress code has gotten much more lax over the past 20 years you would still see a substantial number of students in a suit walking around campus. I’ve been hearing about the dresses thing for a few years now from other alumni, and while I’m completely ok with the number of gays students the dresses is a little much. I for one am glad to see a bigger emphasis on the stricter dress code for gay and straight a like.

    And I have to say I’m a bit surprised by your knowledge of the school, James. I think you hit in on the head with the VMI/Citadel comparison. In many ways its as much about leadership as it is about getting an education.

  3. anjin-san says:

    I grew up in the 60’s & am a big believer in individual freedom. However, there is a time and a place for everything, and this dress code sounds like a good step. If you want to be sloppy, do it on the weekend.

    My experience is that if people look sharp, they perform better.