Looking Classy

Male students at the historically black university are encouraged to wear suits on the first day of class. If they don't own a suit, they can choose from a closet of donated business wear.

August 24, 2015

Peek into most college classrooms and it’s not uncommon to find students dressed in shorts, T-shirts or sweatpants. But when the academic year begins today at Dillard University, faculty are expecting to see far more professional attire, as male students are encouraged to don suits and ties for the first day of class.

The initiative is an effort by the university and its upperclassmen to make sure other male students at the historically black institution are accustomed to wearing a suit and tying a tie by the time they graduate. That's a style of dress that officials said many male students are unacquainted with when they first come to campus.

“The thing that is most encouraging about this entire endeavor is that it is 100 percent student generated,” Demetrius Johnson, dean of student affairs, said. “It’s not a program that the university said we needed to do. It’s the upperclassmen saying, ‘I need to make sure first-year students understand something I didn’t three years ago: the importance of knowing how to tie a simple knot in a tie.’” 

­The annual initiative has been a concentrated effort at Dillard since 2012, and was the idea of the university’s “senior gentleman” at the time, a student named Jerome Bailey. Also known as Mr. Dillard, the senior gentleman is a campus leadership position shared with a female student known as Miss Dillard. Bailey began encouraging all male students to wear suits on the first day of class in an attempt to “to elevate the standard for the appearance and image of Dillard men.” (There is not currently an equivalent student-run effort for women on the first day of class.)

The effort that year was delayed a week by Hurricane Isaac, but when classes resumed, a large number of male students did arrive on the New Orleans campus wearing full suits or other kinds of business attire.

In a video promoting the effort at the time, Bailey acknowledged that it was likely that not all male students owned a suit, and so he asked them to borrow one or to wear polo shirts and khakis instead. Since then, the university has assembled a large shared "closet" filled with donated professional attire for students to use. The clothes are mostly donated by faculty members, university officials and upperclassmen.

Johnson, who estimates that he has donated five suits and about 50 ties and belts in the last year to the closet, said while the initiative is focused on encouraging students to wear suits on the first day of class, the effort is really a year-round project at the university.

“As a historically black university, we have a number of first-generation, low-income students,” Johnson said. “And we want make sure that everybody is prepared for the world after graduation, and one of the ways we do that is to make sure that every man knows how to tie a tie. It may seem outside of the bounds of what you do in a college environment, but serving a population of students where there may or not may be a father in the home or one who works in an a industry requiring a suit, we want to make sure our students know how to represent an institution and themselves upon graduation.”

The current senior gentleman, Dakarai Moton, who is now in charge of organizing the event on the first day of class, said that recently there's been a more troubling reason some on campus want to see male students dress in suits: the number of unarmed black men who are shot by police. "There is a hope that this would help black men look like less of a threat to those who think that," Moton said. "For me, though, it's still mostly about readiness and dressing for success." 

The university also organizes a program called Ties That Bind, in which male students are taught by faculty and staff how to tie several types of tie knots. Some fraternities on campus require their members to wear suits every Tuesday and encourage other students to do the same. Faculty and staff members help promote the first-day-of-class initiative on university social media accounts. Johnson said about 40 percent of men now wear suits and ties on the first day of class.

“On the first day now, there are suits everywhere on campus,” Johnson said. “And it’s a fantastic look.”

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Jake New

Jake New, Reporter, covers student life and athletics for Inside Higher Ed. He joined the publication in June 2014 after writing for the Chronicle of Higher Education and covering education technology for eCampus News. For his work at the Chronicle covering legal disputes between academic publishers and critical librarians, he was awarded the David W. Miller Award for Young Journalists. His work has also appeared in the Bloomington Herald-Times, Indianapolis Monthly, Slate, PBS, Times Higher Education and the Australian. Jake studied journalism at Indiana University, where he was editor-in-chief of the Indiana Daily Student.

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