Hip-hop is both the voice of alienated, frustrated youth and a multibillion-dollar cultural industry packaged and marketed on a global scale. Hip-hop is also a multifaceted subculture that transcends many of the popular characterizations used to describe other music-led youth cultures. One of the important considerations about hip-hop is that since its conception in the early 1970s, hip-hop has arguably become more potent and efficient in galvanizing black social identity than the civil rights movement of the 1960s.
The evolution of hip-hop has developed from a self-conscious rumination of words and music to an obstinate expression of contemporary urban life through corporal gestures and apparel. From the beginning, hip-hop fashion has been on a trajectory of relentless flowering. Developments have been primarily in the men’s wear sector; early clothes were functional and included conventional items—multicolored appliqué leather jackets, sheepskin coats, car coats, straight leg corduroy or denim jeans, hooded sweatshirts, athletic warm-up pants, mock turtle-necks, and sneakers and caps. Less functional items included designer jeans and moniker belts, gold jewelry, Kangol caps, Pumas with fat laces, basketball shoes, and oversized spectacles by Cazal.
Baggy apparel shapes that disguise the contours of the body were introduced in the 1980s. During the early 2000s, the archetypal hip-hop look consisted of baseball caps emblazoned with insignia from the Negro leagues and football teams and well-known fashion designers. Woolen beanie hats and bandannas were worn singularly or together. Goose down jackets or other foul-weather outerwear teamed with hooded sweatshirts. During the late 1990s the ubiquitous oversized white T-shirt, basketball vests, and hockey shirts became staples of the expression. Baggy denim jeans or camouflage cargo pants worn in a low-slung manner, backpacks, combat- or hiking-styled boots or sports shoes were complemented with tattoos and shaved, plaited, or dreadlocked hairstyles. Initially hip-hop women’s wear consisted of inconsequential looks that reflected contemporary women’s wear and were accompanied with items such as Gloria Vanderbilt jeans, bamboo earrings, Fendi and Louis Vuitton handbags, name chains, midriff tops, bra tops, short skirts, tight jeans, high boots, straight hair weaves and braids, tattoos, and false fingernails and oversized gold jewelry. In addition, some women wore apparel that consisted of items similar to those worn by men during the 1990s. Female rappers such as Lil’ Kim and Foxy Brown displayed provocative apparel and outlandish sexual gesturing that would eventually become a raison d’être for hip-hop women’s wear.
From within the postindustrial environment, hip-hop has emerged as an articulation of an affirmative “otherness,” which is at times unpopular and misunderstood by politically conservative and socially moralistic groups, and especially by those who regard the modernist, anti-pluralist perspective to be sacrosanct.
Consequently, hip-hop tends to be unpopular with establishment agencies who wish to censor the expression and supervise the conduct and morals of the young; however, hip-hop is understood by mass media agencies and is exploited as a symptom of the volatility between the pull of materialism and the stagnancy of the urban underclass. The precarious state of this condition forces hip-hop to become a project concerned with the mastery of urban survival, and therefore has a global appeal that is demonstrated in hip-hop from New Zealand, Japan, Africa, France, and Great Britain.
A centrifugal force, hip-hop has contributed to the conceptualization of an alternative perspective in the wider society; this includes materialism, manners, morals, gender politics, language, gesture, music, dance, art, and fashion. Hip-hop music and fashion have attained an essential position in culture, though they oscillate on the periphery of conformity and general acceptability, but because of the notion of outsider status, and building upon the popularity of rock music, hip-hop has been admired and emulated by teenagers of most ethnicities and social classes.
Where Hip-hop Began
Hip-hop has at times become synonymous with a constellation of products in the luxury goods market, though such a situation would have been absurd at hip-hop’s genesis. Hip-hop was formed in the culture of the basement parties that took place in the Bronx in New York City. These parties became formalized when the DJs Kool Here, Grandmaster Flash, and DJ Starski began to play at impromptu parties in parks, streets, and community centers. Jamaican DJ Kool Here, the credited founder of hip-hop break-beats based his Herculords discotheque system on the Jamaican reggae sound systems that played in Jamaica and New York. The art form of rapping emerged as the way of communicating narrative to the audience. Rapping is similar to “toasting,” a long-established feature of reggae music.
Toasting and rapping are delivered in the style of the African oral tradition. The DJ, or toaster in Dance-hall, and the MC, or rapper, in hip-hop are the progeny of the African griot (storyteller), each offering a narration of everyday events.
A NEW YORK HOME BOY IN THE MID-1990S
The wearer is dressed in iconic mainstream American classics, a white T-shirt, and Levi’s 501 jeans. Either he is ignorant of that or his other clothes and the way he wears them are chosen to offset their status: Kan-gol golf hat, Nike sneakers, and the ubiquitous boxer shorts.
However, the key device of the display is achieved in wearing boxer shorts with jeans in a manner that the elastic edge of the boxer shorts peeps over the jeans waist causing the designer branded elastic to be visible. As a consequence the jeans are restructured, to the extent that the form of the pants begins to affect the wearer’s stride. Bundles of fabric collect around the lower legs, causing bulk and restrictive movement. This precarious way of wearing jeans creates the foundation for the expression.
It is from rap and music video that followers are able to determine and validate their assumptions about their lifestyle decisions, including apparel expressions. Followers of hip-hop have created apparel expressions that are comparable to the utterances of hip-hop music. Hip-hop fashions reflect the energy and resonance of the urban experience while omitting illusory signs that demonstrate the metamorphosis of the subaltern individual into street luminary.
Influence on Other Styles
“B-boy” and “Flyboy” were designations used to differentiate those focused on music and dance, and those who were focused on fashion. B-boys and B-girls were the former, and Flyboys and Flygirls the latter. B-boys have derived their designation from break-dancing. Break dancers dressed in sportswear like Puma sneakers, Adidas track pants, T-shirts, and padded nylon or leather jackets. They specialized in making poetic, gravity-defying acrobatic and explosive body-popping movements to the accompaniment of the interrupted, repeated, and overlaid phrasing of break-beat recordings.
The subtrends that followed break-dancing became the forerunners to rap-influenced fashion. For example, there are direct correlations to the fashion associated with hardcore rap, gangsta rap, and Afrocentric/cultural rap.
The B-boy expression has successfully crossed the subcultural divide. Skate boarders, who are predominantly white, also embraced much of the B-boy expression and have adapted it for their lifestyles. The Daisy Agers were exemplified by rappers De La Soul, who drew on the Afrocentric characteristics demonstrated by various black consciousness movements since the 1960s. Neo-Panthers, Afrocentrics, Sportifs, and Gangstas represent developments that enjoyed widespread followings. Indeed these characterizations contain apparel objects that demonstrate complicity in virtually every diaspora expression since hip-hop defined itself during the early 1980s. Many of the fashion objects utilized by the 1980s B-boy were affirmations of the pre-1980s. Much of the gangsta expression borrowed from the 1970s pimp style, while the mid-1980s look of the archetypal B-boy fused a Black Panther aesthetic with a sportswear look flavored by Jamaican Rude Bwoys. B-boys and Flyboys have succeeded as a result of the intercultural exchange between “the cultural imperatives of African-American and Caribbean history and identity” (Rose p. 21).
During the mid-1980s and early 1990s, hip-hop fashion gathered importance as hip-hop music became successful around the world. As a consequence, B-boys are no longer black and working class.
The genesis of fashion hip-hop had been skillfully articulated by the B-boys of the 1970s who created a path for subsequent hip-hop groupings (Daisy Agers, New Jacks, Sportifs, Nationalist [neo-Panthers]), who all added their own unique expressions to the fashion. As unofficial designers, such groups breached and corrupted many of the extant propositions about fashion and provided the template that a new generation of hip-hop fashion wearers should have committed. Like hip-hop music, hip-hop fashion edits, samples, repeats, unites, and creates new fashions—sometimes from nonsense and sometimes from deep-felt sentiment that defines the bona fide experiences of hip-hop wearers. In many instances B-boys are found to have enthusiasm for mainstream fashion labels. A feature of hip-hop fashion expressions is a predilection for American, Italian, and English designer labels such as Tommy Hilfiger, Ralph Lauren, Gucci, and Burberry. For the B-boy, consumption of clothes is part of a rite of consumption and exhibition which reaffirms the formula, “I am = what I have and what I consume” (Fromm p. 36).
The overstated stylization of the B-boy is articulated in humorous, exaggerated, and outlandish clothes that are sometimes similar to an animated cartoon character. This visual aesthetic replaces and dispels any idea that alienation renders individuals invisible. The “standardized” version of hip-hop fashions has become locked into parody. During the 1980s, fashion labels became ensconced in hip-hop culture. The adoption of counterfeit Gucci and Fendi apparel and bona fide Nikes and Timberlands represented attempts to create fashion that has resonance beyond the context of hip-hop community.
During the 1980s, the Harlem store Dapper Dan became renowned for the idea of exalting “exotic” conspicuous fashion labels such as Fendi and Gucci. Much of the appeal to consumers was in the distillation of the logotypes of these high fashion brands on to their clothing and on to the streets of Harlem. Typically, fabric printed with the logotypes of these brands would be made into apparel that would not be found in the bona fide collections of Fendi or Gucci. Ultimately Dapper Dan was a postmodern project that included the development of hip-hop fashion.
Designers and Producers
In part, hip-hop fashion came about by default. Designers of active sportswear and sports shoes did not target the streets, nightclubs, or music videos as the primary location for their products. In particular, branded sportswear such as Adidas, Reebok, Nike, and British Knights had been appropriated by hip-hop and became precursors to the dedicated fashion sportswear hip-hop brands of Troop, Cross Colors, Mecca, Walker Wear, and Karl Kani. However, apparel companies have never surpassed the preeminence of the sportswear shoe brand. Nike and Adidas sneakers are indicators of hip-hop’s distance from the mainstream; for many wearers the sneaker and the Nike Swoosh were potent objects in the urban rite of passage. Nike Air Force 1s and Air Jordans became iconic and fetishistic. The Nike logotype has been worn as jewelry, cut into hair, and tattooed onto skin.
Hip-hop has created its own trends and consumption patterns, with cultural networks that mutate at an intimidating rate. Its collusion with mainstream fashion is well established. Many of the raps by major hip-hop stars exalt the importance of wearing Gucci, Prada, Versace, Tommy, Earl, Burberry, Timberland, Coogi, and Coach. Such raps are usually arrogant brags condoning one-upmanship such as Lil’ Kim’s request on her song “Drugs” on the album Hardcore, “Call us the Gabbana girls, we dangerous, bitches pay a fee just to hang with us” or “Yes indeed, flows first class and yours is coach like the bag, the Prada mama.”
Motifs, fabrics, color, and the drama of wearing apparel dramatically altered during 1998 when hip-hop leaders began to recognize the mainstream fashion quartet of Versace, Prada, Dolce & Gabbana, and Gucci as the ultimate in fashion expression. The materialist focus set by the hip-hop gangstas, players, and hip-hop celebrities populated the idea of “ghetto fabulousness” (the juxtaposition of “fabulously” expensive objects placed in the context of the impoverished ghetto) as a replacement for hip-hop fashions that did not rely upon endorsements of glamorous and expensive mainstream fashion brands.
Such new inflections prompted another revision of hip-hop fashion. Although branded performance sportswear was initially popular in hip-hop culture, its displacement was prompted when Lil’ Kim—among other hip-hop stars—used important designer labels to create an image of privilege and status. Ordinary hip-hop fans and fashion companies alike understood this idea. The raps of Lil’ Kim and other rappers have injected retail, advertising, and promotion strategies of fashion companies with a new thematic source and a previously unex-ploited marketplace. Hip-hop fashion represents a subversive discourse; fashion companies recognize this standpoint as being favorable if they wish to affect values and attitudes that are urban and therefore cool. However, some companies fail in this ambition and have all suffered from “myths” about consumers that are “incompatible” with the companies branding.
In their attempts to achieve postmodern relevance, fashion companies such as Asprey, Puma, Versace, and Iceberg have used the formal recommendation offered in strategies of cross-marketing. This can range from a celebrity appearing in an advertising campaign or just sitting in the front row of a designer’s runway show.
To counter this, a number of hip-hop music moguls— Russell Simmons, P. Diddy, and Master P—have all have owned apparel companies. Their companies produce creative fashion collections that are synchronized with the musical output of their recording enterprises. These companies separate into those that follow an accurate rendition of hip-hop fashion and those companies that seek to cross over and produce designs that have broad mass fashion appeal rather than a specialist hip-hop appeal.
In attempting to model the direction and content of hip-hop fashion, hip-hop’s moguls have disregarded the life experiences, economic means, and self-creative tendencies of hip-hop followers in favor of a personal ideology.
How Hip-hop Crosses Boundaries
In the early 1990s, a group of Brooklyn hip-hop followers began to reuse Ralph Lauren garment labels, and to sew them on apparel not made by Ralph Lauren. The action of the Lo-lifer subculture was to challenge the commercially aggressive opposition of Ralph Lauren and to counteract the “antagonism” of the fashion label. The de-construction of the fashion company’s well-maintained branded image creates a reversal in hierarchy. When Ralph Lauren’s Polo label is hand-painted onto a wall, or even a towel, as the Lo-lifers did, a question is asked about commercial branding and the mythological representation of the fashion logotype.
A characteristic of hip-hop fashion is the multiple themes that are filtered through the aspirations of wearers and designers alike. The American mainstream designer Tommy Hilfiger has successfully captured an understanding of hip-hop culture and has produced very specific fashion items, which fit the market place without being apologetic.
During the mid-1990s, new cuts of Hilfiger’s jeans were given titles such as “Uptown,” which refer to the geographical placements of Harlem and the Bronx, two New York districts with large African American populations. The Uptown cut of the jeans are ostensibly the same as extra-baggy, low-slung jeans manufactured by any other hip-hop designer or popular mainstream manufacturer addressing the hip-hop marketplace; however, the degree of hip-hop enthusiasm for Hilfiger made the brand very popular.
Hip-hop fashion is regarded as a delineator of “cool.” Indeed aspects of hip-hop have become the characterization of dissonance; that is why British royal princes William and Harry were happy to adopt homeboy gestures while wearing baseball caps. Probably having never met a real live B-boy, cool gesturing postures are no doubt gleaned from music videos.
In one of the most informative studies of the cool expression, Majors and Billson suggest that cool adds value to the disenfranchisement of the individual. Its practice is constructed through attitude and implies status for the wearer through an attributed importance of fashion objects. The phenomenon of cool emerges as the compelling ingredient to hip-hop life; it is effected by the attachments of self. Cool, or to use other evocations, “fly” or—in Britain—”styling it out” is a creative procedure of stealth serving as a badge of belonging, though it allows wearers the scope to make minor adjustments to their apparel configuration.
See also Hilfiger, Tommy; Lauren, Ralph; Music and Fashion.
Fricke, Jim, and Ahearn Charlie. Yes, Yes, Y’all: The Experience Music Project Oral History of Hip-Hop’s First Decade. Cambridge, Mass., Da Capo Press, 2002.
Fromm, Erich. To Have or to Be? New York: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., 1976.
Lil’ Kim. “Drugs.” Hardcore. (Sound recording.) New York: Un-deas/Big Beat, 1996.
Lusane, Clarence. “Rap, Race and Politics.” Race and Class: A Journal for Black and Third World Liberation 35, no. 1 (July-September 1993): 41-56.
Majors, Richard, and Janet Mancini Billson. Cool Pose: The Dilemmas of Black Manhood in America. New York: Touchstone Books, 1993.
Perkins, William Eric, ed. Droppin’ Science: Critical Essays on Rap Music and Hip Hop Culture. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1995.
Rose, Tricia. Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1994.