Homecoming: A Look at Black Culture and Fashion Through Beyoncé’s 2018 Coachella Performance

Beyoncé’s Homecoming follows the singer on her journey to prepare for her iconic 2018 Coachella festival performance as the first Black woman to headline for the festival. In a voiceover for the film, regarding her plans for the highly anticipated performance, Beyoncé said, “When I decided to do Coachella, instead of me pulling out my flower crown, it was more important that I brought our culture to Coachella.” In her effort to bring Black culture to the historically white Coachella stage, Beyoncé decided to showcase the culture through a smaller lens: The Historically Black University. The first HBCUs were founded in the 19th century as academic centers specifically for free, Black people that were denied admission to predominantly white universities and institutions. Since then they have been safe havens for Black Americans, and epicenters of Black culture and tradition across the United States. One of the most distinctive qualities of Black culture at HBCUs is fashion and the way one carries themselves on campus, as well as using dress as a signifier of status. “African Americans have worn more fashionable attire as a way of showing status,” said James Durant, who works as assistant director of student engagement at Alcorn State University. “It dates back to slavery. Slaves who had rank and status on plantations wore more formal clothing compared to field slaves. As time goes on, we have assimilated clothing to financial and social status.” For Black people in America, not just HBCU students, clothes make the man. There is a belief instilled into the minds of African-Americans that in order to be treated well and with respect, one must look and act the part. This need to dress well is still evident on the campuses of HBCUs today, and many students claim that every day is like a fashion show. Cassandra Dickerson, a fashion merchandising professor at Morgan State University in Baltimore, Maryland said, “I think [fashion] is important because it’s more of an expression. So, we teach them that fashion is more than just about clothing, but it’s art, it’s music. It’s all of those things.” At many schools across the country, regardless of whether or not it is an HBCU, Black students use dress as a way to express themselves and their Blackness. However, at HBCUs, clothing has become such an integral part of the culture and traditions surrounding the schools, from Greek life to homecoming celebrations, something that Beyoncé was eager to capture with performance. Apart from the actual performance aspects of her Coachella set, Beyoncé focused diligently on the many costumes that were worn by the performers for both weekends. Working closely with Olivier Rousteing of Balmain, who designed every outfit worn for the performance, Beyoncé made sure the details in every article of clothing linked back to Black culture in a way that was both visually appealing and practical for the elaborate choreography. Throughout the performance, she alludes to four major themes through dress and performance: homecoming at HBCUs, historically Black fraternities and sororities, the Black Panther Party and Black Power, and the Egyptian queen Nefertiti. Thematically, Beyoncé’s Coachella performance was a recreation of a typical homecoming halftime show at an HBCU, complete with bleachers and a live marching band and orchestra. In the film, she includes clips of halftime shows at schools like Hampton University in Virginia and North Carolina A&T, showing where she drew inspiration for costumes and choreography. Beyoncé herself never got to attend an HBCU, but during her time in girl group Destiny’s Child, she said that they would rehearse at Prairie View A&M, an HBCU near her hometown of Houston, Texas. Beyoncé’s unique understanding of the culture surrounding homecoming parallels the experience of black people that live in cities like Atlanta, Georgia and Washington, D.C, where attending homecoming is something to look forward to every year.

In her performance, she made sure that the representation of homecoming was as realistic as possible. The majority of the orchestra was dressed in traditional, militaristic marching band dress, while others wore hoodies. Rather than a school logo, both outfits were emblazoned with a crest that read “Beyoncé 2018” as well as four symbols: a black panther, a fist, the bust of Nefertiti, and a bee. The black panther is clearly a nod to the Black Panther Party, as well as the fist, which signifies Black Power and was used as a greeting between Panthers in the 60s. The bust of Nefertiti is a recurring theme throughout Beyoncé’s performance, and it was used as a visual theme for the live Homecoming album cover and promotional movie poster. The bee simply represents Beyoncé’s fans, also known as the “beyhive.” The dancers were dressed in garments that merged the cultural significance of the Black Panthers with the flashy styles of dance leotards. In every outfit the dancers wore, they donned Panther-esque berets with Beyoncé’s crest embroidered onto the front. They always wore matching leotards, changing outfits nearly as frequently as Beyoncé did for each number. For the majority of the performance, they wore either pink or yellow leotards with fringed shoulders, matching the fringe of Beyoncé’s limited edition Christian Louboutin boots. This is a typical style of dance costumes, but the militaristic manner in which the dancers stood and carried themselves paralleled the demeanor of the Panthers during the Civil Rights Movement. These visual cues were never explained by Beyoncé in the film. However, she and Rousteing were able to use fashion and sartorial nods to visually express and represent Black culture and history in America.

In the first half of Beyoncé’s performance, she alludes to the National Pan-Hellenic Council (NPHC) through costume and performance choices. The NPHC, also known as the Divine Nine, is a group of nine historically Black fraternities and sororities founded at American universities throughout the 20th century. Beyoncé begins the performance in a cropped hoodie with the Greek letters Beta Delta Kappa printed and bedazzled on the front. The letters of this fictional fraternity are thought to represent her maiden name, Beyoncé Knowles, with the Delta representing her husband, Jay-Z, and the logo of his record company. Throughout the performance, Beta Delta Kappa “pledges” would come on stage, mainly during Beyoncé’s costume changes, and perform roll calls and step routines, rhythmic dances that involve chanting and stomping. They wore matching tracksuits with the Greek letters embroidered onto the track jackets. For members of Divine Nine chapters at both HBCUs and predominantly white institutions (PWI), wearing their Greek letters is a form of expression unique to Black Greek culture, a visual expression of the presence of Blackness in the white dominated arena that is Greek life at the American university. The Blackness of the Divine Nine and Greek life at HBCUs has recently become more popular within high fashion circles. For her Autumn/Winter 2019 collection, Grace Wales Bonner debuted a collection and art exhibition centered around Black culture, including a focus on Howard University. On her inspiration for the collection, Wales Bonner said, “I was inspired by Black intellectual dress at Howard University, the first Black university, and I started looking through a lot of yearbooks and identifying a lot of items, like a mac or a varsity jacket, and a specific type of wider tailoring.” Wales Bonner’s collection included suits and shirts with connections to Black history, culture, and mysticism, as well as letterman jackets and other signifiers of Black intellectual culture. There is so much culture and tradition running through the threads of things as simple as the Greek letters on a jacket. Each jacket holds its own history, a history of defiance and resistance, but also one of triumph and overcoming society’s hurdles. Although Beyoncé most likely included the fraternity members to further enhance her homecoming theme, what those jackets represent is much deeper than any performance.

The Egyptian queen Nefertiti is represented multiple times throughout Homecoming, in both fashion and art. The first costume Beyoncé enters the stage in is a shimmering cape with a depiction of the bust of Nefertiti embroidered on the back. She wears a bodysuit decorated with jewels and rhinestones, as well as a headdress that resembles that of Nefertiti’s. For both performances, she maintains the focus on HBCU homecoming by stylizing her name in Greek letters and adding the Beta Delta Kappa fraternity letters to the cape. However, by dressing up as Nefertiti, although there seems to be no connection between the Egyptian icon and the culture of HBCUs, Beyoncé draws a link between the two. In her Nefertiti costume, she emulates the power and stature of a Black queen, yet another example of Black people’s strong connection to dress and fashion, and how garments hold deeper meaning of rank and status for African-Americans. She could also be alluding to the Black “royalty” that have graduated from historically Black universities, many of which she quotes throughout Homecoming. She utilizes the words of great Black thinkers, writers, and artists such as Toni Morrison, Audre Lorde, and W.E.B Dubois, all HBCU graduates, to supplement her performance, as well as the film and her reasoning behind the thematic choices made for her Coachella set.

On the stage of a festival that was overwhelmingly white up until a few years ago, Beyoncé delivered a visual performance that elevated Black, intellectual culture and brought it to the forefront of American society. HBCUs serve as a hub for Black culture in America, educating some of the country’s most influential African-Americans since the 19th century, and Beyoncé is not the first person to bring the rich culture and significance of HBCUs to mainstream television and predominantly white spaces. Spike Lee did it with School Daze, and “The Cosby Show” spin off, “A Different World,” followed a new group of young adults as they navigated life at a fictional HBCU in Virginia. However, these films and television series’ tend to only be viewed by the people they depict, and often lack the range to cater to non-Black audiences. Due to Beyoncé’s worldwide recognition, along with the popularity of Netflix and their original films and series’, Homecoming was able to reach audiences, both in America and across the world, that may have never even heard of some of the universities mentioned throughout the film, let alone the cultural practices and traditions centered around HBCUs. Through visual performance themes, mainly depicted through dress, Beyoncé was able to share fundamental aspects of African-American culture with the world.

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