the uncomfortable history of hoodies
How the most basic and beloved of American garments became both a symbol of racial injustice and an exclusive runway collectible.
Vetements spring/summer 17. Photography Mitchell Sams.
In September, Whoopi Goldberg appeared on The View wearing a $1,050 hooded sweatshirt designed by obsessively followed French fashion collective Vetements. It was printed with the words "MAY THE BRIDGES I BURN LIGHT THE WAY" (which, interestingly enough, is not an ancient proverb as I'd assumed, but a line delivered by 90s teen nihilist Dylan McKay of Beverly Hills 90210). Goldberg told New York magazine, "If I could have worn a shirt that said, 'Don't fuck with me,' I would have." She had recently premiered her transgender modeling show, Strut, on Oxygen and would soon announce her likely departure from The View. Whoopi out.
But her clothing choice was fascinating for reasons other than what it suggested about her career. Namely, Whoopi had interrupted The View's usual hour of inoffensive cap-sleeve dresses and smart-casual blouses with one of the most loaded everyday symbols of America's economic and racial divide. Like bell-bottoms in the 1970s, the hoodie has become, in the 2010s, a kind of sartorial shorthand for our national social struggle.
It hasn't always been this way. Champion, the activewear brand, produced the first hooded sweatshirts in the 1930s, to protect warehouse workers in upstate New York against extreme wind and cold. Athletes soon adopted them, and so did basically anyone who has ever ventured outside during winter in the Northern Hemisphere. In 1976, Sylvester Stallone punched meat carcasses in Rocky while wearing a hooded sweatshirt that represents the garment's Platonic ideal: simple, utilitarian, classic heather gray.
Meanwhile, in New York City, the hoodie was fulfilling another purpose during the early years of hip-hop. Graffiti artists, a vital force in the culture's establishment in the 1970s, began wearing hoodies to safeguard their anonymity while out tagging walls and subway cars. The hoodie became a different kind of protective garment, creating a cover for outlaw activities.
"It was just a part of the early street, grunge look," hip-hop historian Halifu Osumare told me. "And it's fascinating to see how that street culture has been co-opted and commercialized as high fashion." She noted that since the 1970s the hoodie has transitioned from something deliberately nondescript to an oft-embellished status symbol for celebrity hip-hop artists. (In 2006, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London acquired a jewel-encrusted hoodie owned by Sean "Puff Daddy" Combs for its permanent collection.)
By the 1990s, major American fashion brands like Ralph Lauren and Tommy Hilfiger, inspired by hip-hop culture and its moneymaking potential, were integrating athletic-style streetwear pieces into their offerings through diffusion lines like Polo and Tommy Sport. It was a move that meant sublimating the hoodie's associations with underground creativity and low-level criminality into a desirable aura of "urban" cool.
In February 2012, 17-year-old high school student Trayvon Martin was shot dead in a gated community in Florida while wearing a hoodie. Moments before, the shooter, George Zimmerman, told a 911 dispatcher that the young man in "a dark hoodie, a gray hoodie" looked like a "suspicious guy." In the following days, FOX News personalities Geraldo Rivera and Bill O'Reilly both blamed Martin's death on his choice of clothing, adding fuel to a now-raging debate over the hoodie's role in racial profiling. "He was wearing a hoodie, and he looked a certain way. And that way is how 'gangstas' look," said O'Reilly. By mid-March 2012, the hoodie had become an emblem of both American racism and the fight to end it. Thousands gathered in New York for a Million Hoodie March. On Instagram, LeBron James posted a picture of the Miami Heat in hooded tracksuits captioned with #WeAreTrayvonMartin, #Hoodies, #Stereotyped, and #WeWantJustice.
Osumare suggests that two figures bookend our cultural associations with the hooded sweatshirt: Trayvon Martin and Mark Zuckerberg. One represents the ongoing demonization of young black men, while the other, who habitually wears a hoodie to his company's annual shareholder meeting, has become an ironic icon of nerdy, normcore style — and a multibillionaire. The hoodie, she added, is "a quintessential symbol of the relationship between street culture and capitalism" and one that is now woven into the fabric of American racial injustice.
The hoodie isn't a new icon of that injustice — see: David Hammons's wrenchingly direct 1993 artwork In the Hood — or one that's yet lost its power — see: Hillary Clinton's suggestion, last year, that for many people "the sight of a young black man in a hoodie still evokes a twinge of fear." But it's a garment that we continue to wear both in defiance and also because, through it all, it's somehow never lost its cool.
Text Alice Newell-Hanson