Over the past two decades Hip/Hop fashion has changed drastically. From Snap Backs, to Air Jordans, and from Louis Vuitton to Gucci, a variety of fashion trends have made their mark in the game. While fashion has always been a prominent part of Hip/Hop, its importance has not ever been expressed more than today.
While Hip/Hop began to take formation in the 1970s, thanks to the efforts of Dj Kool Herc, Hip/Hop fashion did not fully take form until the 1980s. Hip/Hop style in the 1980s was often simple, well put together, and clean cut. Hip/Hop fashion varied across the nation, but often shared traits. Also, fashion was, and is, heavily influenced by the biggest Hip/Hop artists of the time. Some of the popular trends of the 1980s were hi-top fade cuts, colorful jumpsuits, Adidas Super Stars, Chuck Taylors, and Bomber Jackets. During that era rap lyrics were often about social change, reflections of growing up in urban settings, or just free spirited, fun loving rhymes. Rap music could be, and still is, used as a an instrument to get the crowd jumping, or to stand up to “the man.” The music and fashion trends are certainly reflective of each other.
Towards the late 1980s, and early 1990s there was a rise in African influence on Hip/Hop style. Blousy pants became popular, which were commonly worn by MC Hammer. Other styles that became popular were kente cloth hats, dreadlocks, and black, red, and green. Artists such as Queen Latifah, and KRS-One frequently wore African inspired clothing. This trend did not last too long, however some these styles are still seen today in Hip/Hop today such as dreadlocks. As Kobena Mercer discusses, dreadlocks are an important symbol in African culture. They were, and have continued to be a common fashion in Hip/Hop culture. I see them as a representation of strength, power, and roots.
During the late 1980s, and 1990s, various Hip/Hop styles were picking up across the nation. While Will Smith continued to wear colorful outfits, and sneakers, such as Starter snap backs and Starter jackets, other rappers began to wear more urban inspired fashion. On the East Coast the popular rap group Wu-Tang Clan wore Timberland boots, Carhartt, Velour tracksuits, and Kangol. On the West Coast N.W.A. would “rock” Dickies, white-shirts, Chuck Taylors, and Oakland Raiders hats and Starter Jackets. All of these different Hip/Hop artists, from different parts of the nation, shared similar attributes in style. Will Smith and N.W.A. both would wear starter brand hats and jackets. Will Smith and Wu-Tang Clan both would wear tracksuits, and Wu-Tang Clan and N.W.A. both would dress more urban. The style was similar across the genre, with certain tweaks made based on geographic location and musical style. They appropriated their style based on their own conditions.
Hip/Hop fashion continually changed little by little in the 1990s, as did the music. Hip/Hop started becoming more aggressive, more violent, and more about flaunting wealth. As the music changed so did some of the brands. Hip/Hop fashion was becoming baggier, and bigger. Rappers would wear throwback sports wear, like Mitchell and Ness, baggy jeans, and tall tee shirts. Rappers such as Snoop Dogg would often sport clothing like these. Jerseys began to lose style in the early 2000s though. “Gangster” style was also very popular, and could be seen in the rap lyrics as well. Rappers like 50 Cent, would exert power through aggressive lyrics.
Around 2005 Hip-Hop fashion took a much more refined, and cleaner look. One rapper who helped pioneer the change in Hip-Hop fashion is Kanye West. Kanye West made Polo a staple in any rappers wardrobe. This may be appropriated from the previous Hip/Hop style of wearing Tommy Hilfiger. At that time though rappers would wear high-end brands like Tommy Hilfiger, but in the Hip/Hop fashion of large and baggy. This was a syncretic strategy, emulating the mainstream style of Polo and Tommy Hilfiger, but modified to be worn in a baggier manner.
Japanese street wear was also a heavy influence on Hip/Hop fashion in the mid 2000s. Pharrell Williams, the rapper, producer, and fashion mogul can be thanked for this. Pharrell, as well as other rappers, frequently wore Bape, a Japanese made clothing brand. Bape was colorful and featured futuristic designs. Like all fashion, the style of Bape reflects what came before it. Bape is colorful like the Hip/Hop fashion of the 1980s, comes in baggy cuts like the 1990s, and comes in hoodies, t-shirts, and sneakers.
Today fashion is more important than it has ever been in Hip/Hop. We have seen the rebirth of the Snap Back (fitted was in style for several years), and a greater focus on high-end foreign brands. Rappers are now wearing extremely flashy clothing, such as leather pants and shirts. They sport brands such as Hermes, Louis Vuitton, Givency, and Maison Martin Margiela. Power in Hip/Hop today is seen through wealth. The style of clothing in Hip/Hop continuously reflects the changing lyrics, and music. The style is more experimental as our some of the lyrics, and many of the instrumentals. Rappers who wear fancier clothing represent more power, swagger, and wealth.
Hip/Hop style is one long, and continuous appropriation of other styles. Rappers utilize syncretic strategies to create orginial styles out of more mainstream fashion trends. In the 1980s and 1990s Hip/Hop fashion was more oppositional. Dick Hebdige talks about how punks would revolt through their alternative fashion trends. Rappers would do the same by taking mainstream styles such as sportswear, jeans, and high-ends brands, and wearing them in a different manner. They would wear them “as they should not be worn, and could be seen as offensive. However, today rappers are appropriating their fashion styles, from past trends, from trends overseas, and from the mainstream. Today it is less about revolting and more about fitting in while standing out. Rappers want to fit into mainstream, and be seen like all other celebrities, and not the “badboys” and outlaws of super stardom, unlike in the 1980s, 1990s, and mid 200s when rappers like Tupac, 50 Cent, and N.WA. wanted to “stick it to the man”, and express strength, not wealth.
- Wu-Tang Clan
- Big Sean Pre 2010