Season 1 and 2 spoilers ahead.
Last weekend, I finally settled in to consume all of Netflix’s Dear White People’s second season in a single sitting. If you’re unfamiliar, the show — based off the movie of the same name — is about a group of Black students who are navigating their way through the social and academic politics at Winchester University (a predominantly white institution, or PWI). As the characters scuffle amongst themselves and struggle to find comfort, personally and socially, within a foreign and uninviting space, their evolving style choices reflect their inner lives.
Before we get into the clothes, allow me to set the scene: Armstrong-Parker House used to be the only residence hall on campus dedicated to Black culture and fellowship. But in Season 1, Winchester’s largest donors demand that Armstrong-Parker House be integrated and threaten to pull funding if the school does not comply. In a contentious town hall meeting about whether to do so, an all-white dorm mysteriously goes up in flames, meaning the decision is made for them: Amstrong-Parker House must take in the displaced white students.
In Season 2, the Black residents, who used to find solace within the confines of Armstrong-Parker, are struggling to co-mingle with the new white residents. Now, their former refuge is like every other space on campus, where they’re forced to abide by what makes their white peers comfortable. And, let’s not forget, this is college: The characters have their own personal dramas to deal with.
The style arcs that take place in Season 2 tell a parallel story of growth, challenge and change. The characters’ sartorial choices betray their dreams and worries alike, their clothing acting as double agents, shielding them from microaggressions while simultaneously permitting access. The women and men of Armstrong-Parker prove that Black fashion within the Winchester University Black Caucus is as idiosyncratic and individualized as Blackness itself. Below (in no particular order), an appreciation of their style.
Colandrea “Coco” Conners
If Olivia Pope were a college student, she’d be Colandrea “Coco” Conners. Coco’s style is a direct reflection of her personality: cosmopolitan, calculated and surprising. Since she came into the picture in Season 1, Coco has been running away from her upbringing on Chicago’s South Side — and its associated stereotypes — by planting her aspirations in upper-class achievements. From her bodycon dresses, pinstriped button-downs, pleated skirts, spray-painted fake “Louboutins” and Malaysian Remy hair extensions, Coco uses style to minimize questions surrounding her humble upbringing and propel herself into elite circles.
Her style is a deafening soliloquy about her aspirations to escape the clichéd stereotypes of Black womanhood, and yet by the end of season 2, after being on the verge of becoming a trope, Coco’s ambitions begin to extend to the greater good. She organizes a Black Caucus sit-in of right-wing pundit Rikki Carter, whose incessant dog-whistle politics surrounding affirmative action have emboldened white supremacists on campus.
Colo’s style doesn’t change in the obvious way of her peers, but she becomes more relaxed as well as more compassionate and supportive of the Black women around her — and what’s more stylish than an attitude adjustment?
In Season 2, Joelle is the self-proclaimed Kelly Rowland to light-skinned Samantha White’s Beyoncé. But she spends Season 2 breaking through the barriers of colorism to shed being Sam’s “runner-up” and come into her own. Her style, meanwhile, is peerless. Joelle’s personal wardrobe is as unapologetically Black as she is. She wears print and statement earrings to announce her presence in a place she sees as constantly overlooking her. Her bravery also presents itself in her prioritization of comfort and utility of sleek leather jackets over the tartans, sweater sets and pleated skirts of her classmates. Joelle is comfortable and confident in her skin and with herself — she’s merely waiting for the rest of the university to catch up.
Reggie’s style exists at the intersection of the two worlds he inhabits: the collegiate world and the revolutionist one. As the son of a former Black Panther, Reggie often overcompensates for his choosing a predominantly white institution to gain the approval of his dad. Though he was a shoe-in at the Mecca of HBCUs, Howard University, Reggie chose Winchester because its computer science program is unparalleled.
In both seasons, Reggie wrestles with the many ways to navigate this world of unspoken code. He makes it apparent to his white counterparts that he is the smartest in the room, yet he kowtows to his father in his inability to divulge that he was almost killed by a police officer in Season 1.
Reggie lives the double consciousness W.E.B. DuBois speaks of in The Souls of Black Folk: He’s constantly aware of how white people view him — particularly white women. In the beginning of his Winchester career, he kept his white environment at ease by sticking to the uniform of a nerdy computer science major: a button-down tucked into jeans secured by a belt. Reggie has since undergone a complete style overhaul, injecting Black cultural markers of hoodies, Cuban link chains and the leather outerwear he dons like artillery into his style regime. Reggie’s style is a byproduct of living the double-consciousness. However, through processing his trauma, Reggie is able to shed literal and figurative layers to open up and accept that his Blackness is not defined by his baccalaureate experience.
The charming, overachieving, stuffily-dressed former student body president costumes himself in only the best to hide the angst that accompanies his status as a privileged legacy student. The first season found Troy dressing for the career of a politician in stale blazers, chinos and ties. His image as a student leader and golden boy was shattered, however, the moment he shattered (literally) one of Hancock Hall’s glass windows with a shovel in anger during the Season 1 finale.
Season 2 presents another side of Troy. As he seeks a new path outside of Capitol Hill and the respectability politics of his abrasive father, he finds a new wardrobe in the process. He swaps out his $150 Brooks Brother ties and chinos for crew neck sweaters, denim button-downs and relaxed jeans as he further explores his passion for comedic writing. While still well-coordinated and well-dressed, Troy Fairbanks’ newfound style is a byproduct of his peregrination inward. As he makes amends with those whom he’s hurt, Troy gets to the reality of who he is. Troy was lost in the process of sustaining his father’s dreams of financial grandeur through social acceptability. Luckily, he woke up and found his own dream.
Despite being a bit daft when it comes to subjects such as racism and its covert operations in Season 1 (she has only acknowledged the school’s overt racism twice: once when the campus satire magazine, Pastiche, held a Black-themed party to which members of the school community showed up in blackface; and later, during the kidnapping of her dog, when the kidnapper left a note referencing the white dog and Kelsey’s deep complexion as the motivation behind the crime), Kelsey Philips is on top of her game in the personal style department.
As one of the few students of Armstrong-Parker to come from means, Kelsey’s wardrobe is a giant nod to her suburban upbringing. (She wears a lot of pearls and sweater sets.) Nevertheless, thanks to her addition of modern elements, her style has Instagram-worthy components: crystal barrettes on berets, plaid straight-legged trousers (that actually look good), mohair cardigans (perfect for today’s 90s redux) and structured jackets. Her best accessory, however, is the aforementioned kidnapped emotional support pooch, Sorbet. I hope they reunite soon.
Kelsey’s style in season 2 has morphed in the aftermath of the police brutality on campus. In the weeks following the fateful house party, Kelsey has traded in most of her cardigans for an assortment of berets, which she decorates and dons to multiple Black Caucus events — including the Rikki Carter sit-in. Kelsey, who has intersections of her own being a seemingly conservative West Indian woman who identifies as a lesbian, is proof of how one’s ideologies can expand and change with experience. Unfortunately, her experiences were in the forms of witnessing racial trauma and having her canine companion abducted. Nevertheless, these two scenarios were catalysts for her to reevaluate how her oblivious approach to politics and covert racism have affected those closest to her and the campus community at large.
From topics of great seriousness like police brutality, abortion and colorism to the trivialities of college life and how divided Black people are about how to eat grits (sugar on mine), Dear White People examines what it means to be Black in the most quasi-liberal of spaces — and how dressing allows and defers access into certain spaces. The show’s characters seem to explore their own versions of this right along with the viewer. Season 2 showed an evolution of their internal discoveries, which makes me all the more excited for Season 3. How will the characters change next semester? And how will they dress as a result?
Photos via Netflix.