In 2018, Beyoncé Knowles-Carter gave a momentous performance as the first Black woman to headline a Coachella festival. Her marching band, majorette and fraternity-themed dancers, and “Beta-Delta-Kappa” yellow and pink hoodie immediately signaled one of the artist’s primary inspirations – contemporary style derived from Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU).
From the music videos and performances for Destiny’s Child’s 2004 “Lose My Breath” to her 2008 “Single Ladies (Put a Ring On it),” much of the choreography Knowles-Carter has employed since 2008 contains a mixture of various HBCU majorette dance styles. Beyoncé even dresses mostly in highly decorative leotards and bodysuits for almost every performance since the I Am…Sasha Fierce era, reflecting HBCU majorette and band culture, and the broader HBCU style gamut. Essentially, her Coachella performance, now documented through Netflix, gave HBCU style (and the general community) an incredible and permanent platform for audiences to feel encouraged to understand this style’s impact on the broader fashion system as well as its unique role as a vehicle for Black ingenuity, creativity, and empowerment.
Most recent examples of HBCU style documented in media are synonymous with the critically acclaimed work of Spike Lee and television shows such as A Different World. These early examples directly took what was happening on HBCU campuses, making them mainstream sensations that allowed those who went to HBCUs to feel seen, while inadvertently influencing younger generations to apply to these universities. Analyzing and defining the specific components of HBCU style is incredibly nuanced because the assessment depends on the decade and an understanding of what influenced Black youth culture at a given time. Looking at the photography series W.E.B. Du Bois incorporated in his Exhibit of American Negros for the 1900 Exposition in Paris, there were several photographs of mainly women students sitting on the steps of a campus building of what would eventually be renamed the HBCU Clark Atlanta University, dressed in the high style of the turn of the century, wearing their elegant shirtwaist and skirt ensembles and decorative feathered hats. Du Bois intended to visually highlight Black Americans’ progress in education, business, and general aspects of society, while simultaneously attempting to dispel racial tropes around the Black Community. The way these subjects and Du Bois dressed was influenced by fashion based on Eurocentrism and in line with respectability politics. Fashioning oneself in clothing that correlated to the broader oppressive White community was how some sought to encourage them to see Black bodies as equal, “normal,” productive citizens according to White standards. This notion is very consistent in the Black experience throughout the decades. Even during the rise of “prep” style on predominantly White college campuses during the 1920s and thereafter, those elements trickled into HBCU campuses. To note, “prep” style emulated, integrated, and subverted traditional British tailored fashions like tweed jackets or contemporary golf-inspired ensembles at the time. In a Morehouse assembly photograph of then young Martin Luther King, Jr., he and his peers are clearly dressed in the very tailored equivalents of what was worn on majority White colleges.
During the 1960s, as youth culture was influencing the broader country rapidly, factions in the Civil Rights Movement emerged, hoping to succeed at the same goal in their way, including the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), founded in 1960. Formed by a collection of Black students initially from colleges in the South, their experiences while protesting played an essential role in their transformation from falling in line with the NAACP and SCLC factions of the movement, both of which promoted wearing along the lines of “Sunday Best” attire. The SNCC instead integrated denim overalls, coveralls, and blue-collar apparel styled with natural hairstyles like afros. As they were protesting, they found “Sunday Best” and conservative dress excessively restricting. For instance, after experiencing a sit-in, the protestors would have to go straight to salons to achieve their previously primped hair and sometimes buy new clothes, both obliterated by food thrown at them. In her acclaimed book, Liberated Threads: Black Women, Style, and the Global Politics of Soul, Tanisha C. Ford wrote, “SNCC members were finding that to maintain the respectable body was difficult and that being respectably clad did not protect. SNCC women often participated in multiple protests…which made the process of beautification emotionally and financially taxing.” Through these practical and theoretical lenses, there was a style shift happening on HBCU campuses because of the success of SNCC. Certainly, that shift continued with the evolution of the Black is Beautiful movement that persisted into the 1970s.
It was not until the late seventies and eighties that a change in HBCU campus-style dramatically occurred into the more eclectic representation identified in the previously mentioned television and film references. With a new generation of students, many of whom, like my parents, were children born during the height of the Civil Rights Movement, creating an identifiable HBCU style essentially allowed students to exchange clothing languages of their own. Students from cities, like Lincoln University alum and my mother, born and raised in Philadelphia, would evoke extreme edginess with popular styles many associate with the 1980s, including popped polo collars, bamboo earrings, gold jewelry, and color-coordinated outfits. This was in contrast to those coming from rural areas, like my father who also attended Lincoln, and wore more unvarnished outfits when they arrived. Fashion on campuses, perfectly captured in Spike Lee’s 1988 School Daze, costumed by the incredible Academy Award winning designer Ruth Carter, or A Different World, was like a customs port for Blackness. The diversity of style amplifies the notion that Black people are not monoliths; HBCU’s were vehicles to enhance students’ appreciation of where they hail from and the communities they want to build in the future, not to change their original essences. From here, students would mix and meld their styles together, creating something new.
Another important note that would be remiss if not mentioned is the power of the rising Hip-hop and new wave of R&B artists at the time influencing HBCU campuses. My mother, Sheila Bayne, said, “once Salt-N-Pepa had the asymmetrical hairstyle, everyone had it on campus.” Music, film, and fashion had this symbiotic relationship that was amplified significantly on HBCU campuses. Many of these entertainers were regular performers at HBCU homecomings across the nation; thus, they directly influenced style on HBCU campuses. Additionally, athleisure was a prime style foundation. Clothing like tracksuits, colorful sneakers, sports jerseys, and hoodies were a part of Hip-hop style; therefore, that influence was also prevalent on HBCU campuses at the time. As previously mentioned, early “prep” styles on white campuses subverted British sportswear and athletic wear into campus fashion, which, to a degree, matriculated on HBCU campuses. But as the rise of Black athletes in the N.B.A. and N.F.L. dominated news cycles and popular culture, their personal taste immediately resonated with the youth.
Today, style on campuses still evoke that eclectic melting pot as it once had several decades before, but the difference is access to money. From the time my parents went to school to today, Black people have a slightly higher economic foundation. Instead of buying a knock-off to try to assimilate with peers, today, more can afford authentic luxury pieces. Also, to a degree, there seems to be a more conservative approach to fashion on HBCU campuses in recent years, bringing it full circle to earlier respectability political implications that persisted in the first half of the twentieth-century and prior. In the article “Why students in Historically Black Colleges and Universities have Amazing Style,” Jalisa J. Jones wrote, “While HBCU dress codes are very similar to dress codes at other schools, HBCU administrators and students alike maintain a stricter expectation of dress. These raised expectations exist in part because respectability politics dictate a different, higher set of standards for black colleges and their students.” Black experiences across all professional fields remain confronted with racism and microaggressions, constantly battling against historical stereotypes. For many HBCUs, they believe encouraging students to wear more conservative styles, like suiting, cardigans, or stilettos, on a quotidian basis will translate into their adult lives, ideally creating a protective layer from the chastising White gaze. As seen on many campuses, students emit their individuality, and many still adhere to more relaxed athleisure and sportswear. However, there is unequivocally a collective influence from HBCU administrations to ensure their students are fashionably prepared for what lies ahead of them.
Over recent decades, HBCU culture and style matriculated into the inspiration boards of fashion companies and entertainment across the system in various ways, ranging from celebratory to disrespectful. Furthermore, there are a handful of entities that speak to the impact of HBCU culture. By way of Beyoncé, Olivier Rousteing, creative director for the historical French label Balmain, designed a Coachella-inspired line that continued to extenuate the same admiration for HBCU culture as was executed in the costumes he designed for Knowles-Carter to wear during the aforementioned performances. That was a one-off venture Balmain pursued, but there are also designers and companies who consistently use their platforms to preserve HBCU style. Torch Sportswear and Legacy.History.Pride are two companies among many that are uplifting and reinventing those traditions. These companies provide a range of activewear and athleisure, vintage and originally designed, to touch the increasingly mobile lives of the students they serve and those who admire HBCU culture.
There have been instances where HBCU culture and dress were taken out of context and misappropriated. More recently, in early 2020, Ralph Lauren released a pair of printed trousers consisting of the Phi Beta Sigma brand on the pant leg. Phi Beta Sigma is one of the Divine Nine Black Greek Organizations. These fraternities and sororities are pillars of the Black Community owing to generations of philanthropy, public service, and empowerment that their members provide. These implications only amplify the systemic white-washing and erasure of Black excellence that persists in our collective culture. Even though Greek lettering is associated with whiteness, the Divine Nine organizations were created to establish a space for Black people to give back to their community in ways White Greek organizations would never do. Therefore, taking the Phi Beta Sigma brand without the fraternity’s consent sits within the racist pitfalls of the fashion industry.
All things considered, there are many access points to discussing HBCU style and its impact, which continues to persist into the future. The evolution of its spirit from respectability politics to individuality, to a mixture of both today, highlights that the Black experience is extraordinarily vast and only aims to build a community that empowers its members into levels of success that were not historically afforded to them.
 Rhonda P. Hill, “Fashion Culture | W.E.B. Du Bois’ Exposition des Nègres d’Amérique Transformed the World’s View of Black in America,” Edge Fashion Intelligence, modified Feb. 04, 2021, accessed June 14, 2021. https://edgexpo.com/2021/02/04/fashion-culture-w-e-b-du-bois-exposition-des-negres-damerique-transformed-the-worlds-view-of-black-in-america/
 “Introduction,” Ivy Style Exhibition at the Museum at FIT, modified 2013, accessed June 14, 2021. http://sites.fitnyc.edu/depts/museum/Ivy_Style/default.htm
 Barbranda Lumpkins Walls, “Remembering the Life of Martin Luther King Jr.,” AARP, modified January 2017, accessed June 14, 2021. https://www.aarp.org/politics-society/history/info-2016/martin-luther-king-jr-remembered-photo.html#slide1
 Tanisha C. Ford, Liberated Threads: Black Women, Style, and the Global Politics of Soul (The University of North Caroline Press: Chapel Hill, 2015), 68.
 Ibid, 75.
 Jalisa Jones, “Why Students at Historically Black Colleges and Universities Have Such Amazing Style,” Racked, modified May 8, 2017, accessed June 15, 2021. https://www.racked.com/2017/5/8/15427174/hbcu-style
 Amira Rasool, “Torch Sportswear Is Preserving the Legacy of HBCU Fashion,” Teen Vogue, modified July 30, 2018, accessed June 15, 2021. https://www.teenvogue.com/story/torch-sportswear-hbcu-fashion-merch#:~:text=Vogue%20Magazine%20alumni%20Andre%20Leon%20Talley%20and%20Black,Carolina%20Central%20University%20and%20Ruth%20attended%20Hampton%20University%29.
“Tahir Murray: Building a Fashion Brand Inspired by HBCUS,” CFDA, modified Jan. 14, 2021, accessed June 15, 2021.