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...But for Black Working Men Dressing for Success Always a High-Stakes Scenario


By Jackson F. Brown | @JacksonFBrown | with thanks to NewBlackMan (in Exile)

Friday, January 12, 2018.


Of course, Hollywood would protest its own structural inequality with a retreat to sartorial conservatism. So don’t be confused by the all-black garb worn by men at Sunday’s Golden Globes. Far from a nod to tradition, black symbolizes solidarity with the (mostly) women who’ve highlighted the film industry’s rampant sexual misconduct in recent months—capping off 2017’s wildfire #MeToo movement with the safest fashion diktat possible.


Donald Glover and David Oyelowo best stash those fashion-forward brown velvet Gucci and printed, purple D&G numbers from Globes past back in their respective closets and dust off the penguin suits. Trust that the irony won’t be lost on black male professionals facing their own sartorial dilemma outside Tinseltown.


While the Mark Zuckerbergs and Tim Cooks of the world sport hoodies and Nikes to the office and sartorial standards across industries likewise trend toward the casual, it would appear that many a black male administrator, donning traditional dark suits, tie pins, and pocket squares, has missed the memo. The optics of one’s leadership—especially for black male leaders in primarily white institutions—most certainly matter, but at this critical sartorial moment, a reality check is in order: dressing too formally for one’s occupational context turns otherwise respectable attire into a spectacle.


Encountering a black male professional in, for example, innumerable college towns across the U.S. can be as rare as finding a black male lead in a Hollywood rom-com. And as 2009’s Henry Louis Gates, Jr. arrest-tuned-Beer-Summit incident suggests, it’s no secret black professionals face disproportionate scrutiny and challenges to their legitimacy in the face of these demographics. On some level, fastidiously keeping the bowtie symmetrical and a lint roller on standby are as much measures of self-preservation as preening.


Let’s not forget, “dressing for success” in the Zuckerberg sense produced a fatal outcome for Trayvon.


To fellow black males, the motivation for this trend is clear. Formal attire makes a readily legible claim about one’s respectability and legitimacy in the way the mustache served for an earlier generation of black men as a symbol of their manhood, particularly in light the Jim Crow custom of labeling black men as “boys.” In our current moment, however, such black male claims to legitimacy are valid yet inconsequential if they are made at the expense of a broader acceptance of black men in our workplaces and communities.


After all, whether organizing a Black Student Association solidarity march or managing an academic office, to which even professors arrive in Polos and denim, neither job necessarily requires a cashmere sport jacket or a herringbone vest. In fact, overly formal fashion runs the risk of not only socially isolating black males from their more business-casual-inclined colleagues (“He thinks he’s too good for this job.”) but also creating a relational gulf between black males and their primary clients—on university campuses, students. “Dressing for success” in the conventional sense could, in other words, actually hinder one’s job performance and career objectives and prospects.


Certainly, professionals chasing the dream of a corner office in an executive suite should dress to look the part if they are so inclined. And, for college instructors, study after study has indeed indicated a correlation between students’ initial perception of faculty members’ credibility, competence and knowledgeability and the formalness of their dress.


Moreover, there is admittedly something to be said for high personal fashion standards and, indeed, a refreshing awe in spotting a finely groomed, formally attired black male at a primarily white institution—like experiencing Denzel Washington’s dramatic entrance in his latest action thriller. But encounter that Sunday suit in one too many HR symposiums, budget briefings, or staff potlucks, and one begins to wonder for what one’s colleague is compensating.


My generation of black Xennials learned the primacy of professional attire early on. I gathered my education perusing my parents’ walk-in closet: my dad’s institutional garb, pale dress shirts and dark slacks, lined uniformly on one side, the silk tongues of his numerous neckties slung over two hangers wedged in the corner, his “regular” clothes—sweaters, tube socks, T-shirts—relegated to the top shelf, out of my reach.


Such formative impressions are not easily forgotten, much less dismissed. I admit it was my father, his dogged yet weary devotion to maintaining formality and order as a black male administrator at a secondary educational institution, I saw in the mirror, myself, each time I slipped a half Windsor to my Adam’s apple before work. But a new cultural climate suffuses our educational campuses and corporate offices these days, one that is collaborative and accessible rather than didactic and buttoned-down. It’s high time black men—and Hollywood—got wind of the change.



Jackson F. Brown is a senior administrator in Black Studies at the University of Texas at Austin, and a contributing and advisory editor for Literary & Visual Arts Journal.


Golden Globes Fade to Black to Protest #MeToo

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