Across the campuses of historically Black colleges and universities, students have a reputation for making strong fashion statements, especially in the fall during the storied HBCU homecoming. Year-round, the fashion statements on HBCU campuses often tell a story as significant as the history of the institutions.
Before the Civil War, education was all but a pipe dream for most Black Americans as access to education was prohibited in most states, and Black students were not welcomed at existing colleges and universities—both public and private. HBCUs emerged in the mid-1800s to give Black Americans the higher education they were historically denied.
Today, HBCUs are seeing heightened enrollment, with a 30% increase in college applications between 2018 and 2021—even as the number of undergraduate students nationwide dropped nearly 10% during the COVID-19 pandemic. Considering HBCUs’ majority Black student populations, people consider these campuses to be overall safe spaces in regards to racism—despite recent bomb threats. These institutions promote school spirit and foster unity as communities that offer belonging and hold rich traditions.
A major part of the sense of community and tradition at HBCUs includes fashion and self-expression through style. Stacker explored the cultural and historical significance of fashion on HBCU campuses.
Elaine Nichols, a curator at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, told Stacker fashion isn’t just about aesthetics on HBCU campuses today, explaining that dressing up is a “historical strategy” Black Americans use for protection and to be treated with respect.
“Projecting an image of an upstanding and dignified person outside of the home offsets societal stereotypes of Black people as unkempt, lazy, dirty, and overly sexualized people,” Nichols said. “Dressing up demonstrated that African Americans were like other hardworking American citizens and were worthy of being taken seriously.”
Continue reading to learn more about the influence of history on HBCU fashion and the impact of student style on the fashion industry.
You may also like: Where school segregation is still happening across the US