Hip hop fashion

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Ll cool J wearing a FUBU 05 T-Shirt at a show in Germany
Ll cool J back view of the FUBU 05 T-Shirt


Hip hop fashion, also known as big fashion, is a distinctive style of dress. It has been primarily in the men's wear sector, straight leg corduroy or denim jeans, hooded sweatshirts, athletic warm-up pants, mock turtlenecks, and sneakers and caps. [1] Additionally, less functional items included designer jeans and moniker belts, gold jewelry, Kangol caps, Pumas with fat laces, basketball shoes, and oversized spectacles by Cazal.[2] While its roots lie in California street and skate culture of the late 1970s and early 1980s, streetwear culture grew to encompass hip-hop fashion and Japanese street style before hitting the mainstream and infiltrating high-fashion [3]

Contributors to hip hop clothing lines[edit]

Major contributors to hip hop clothing include Marc Ecko, founder of Ecko Unlimited[4]Avirex also considered a hip hop brand started as a military clothing brand was founded by Jeff Clyman in 1975[5]Karl Kani is a designer who merged hip hop with fashion.[6]

Late 1970s to mid-1980s[edit]

In the late 1970s, sportswear and fashion brands were established, such as Le Coq Sportif, Kangol, Adidas and Pro-Keds, attached themselves to the emerging hip hop scene. During the 1980s, hip hop icons wore clothing items such as brightly colored name-brand tracksuits, sheepskin and leather bomber jackets,[7] Clarks shoes,[7] Britishers a.k.a. British Walkers, and sneakers (usually Pro-Keds, Puma, Converse's Chuck Taylor All-stars and Adidas Superstars often with "phat" or oversized shoelaces).

Popular accessories included large eyeglasses (Cazals[8]),[7] Kangol bucket hats,[7] nameplates,[7] name belts,[7] and multiple rings. Heavy gold jewelry was also popular in the 1980s; heavy jewelry in general would become an enduring element of hip hop fashion.[9] In general, men's jewelry focused on heavy gold chains and women's jewelry on large gold earrings.[9]

According to Gwendolyn O'Neal, the author of African American Aesthetics of Dress (1997), "while an African-American aesthetic of dress is neither African nor American, it is shaped by unique ‘cultural’ experiences resulting from being of African descent and living in America."[10] The rapper Jay-Z echoed this in a Black Book Magazine interview; he defended the upper-class tastes of fashion in the hip hop culture as "living it on our terms, instead of trying to emulate an elite lifestyle" with the wearing of high-net-worth fashion house brands. It is not necessarily because of conspicuous consumption that the hip hop lifestyle brought in these high end fashion products.[10]


Preppy looks also caught on with 80s youth in the first wave of hip hop influence. “This group of black yuppy wannabes or ‘buppies’ rocked to 80s hip hop music and wore styles from Polo, The Timberland and Tommy Hilfiger … [and] were drawn to Hilfiger because of its all-American, WASP-y, country club feeling—it was exclusive and aspirational”.[11] The immense popularity of the brand Tommy Hilfiger among the hip hop subculture community then led to the brand's global expansion.[10]

Celebrity influence[edit]

As music played a significant role in the way people dressed during the 90’s, many celebrities were known as fashion icons, especially rappers. Legendary rapper, Tupac, was not only known for his resonating lyrics, but also his timeless style. He was seen as a trend setter during that period and bandanas paired with baggy overalls or Red Wings jersey was known to be his classic style. In return, he made bandanas into an iconic headwear accessory.[12] Snoop Dogg has influenced people that with pride comes with confidence, which is the key of feeling comfortable and looking good in your individual fashion style.[13]

Moreover, hip hop has also adopted and then transformed traditional or “old world” luxury symbols and made them modern-day, “cool” commodities. Rapper LL Cool J wore a Kangol hat back in the 1980s, when few Americans knew anything about the European hat maker, but its association with hip hop would invigorate the brand. In 2003, London-based Kangol acknowledged the popularity given its sixty-year-old brand by a young LL Cool J in 1983.[10]

Late 1980s to early 1990s[edit]

Black nationalism was increasingly influential in rap during the late 1980s, and fashions and hairstyles reflected traditional African influences.[9] Blousy pants were popular among dance-oriented rappers like M.C. Hammer.[9] Fezzes,[9] kufis decorated with the Kemetic ankh,[9] Kente cloth hats,[9] Africa chains, dreadlocks, and Black Nationalist colors of red, black, and green became popular as well, promoted by artists such as Queen Latifah, KRS-One, Public Enemy, and X-Clan.

Hip-hop fashion in the 90’s slowly evolved from the 80’s as the hip-hop community started getting influenced by traditional African-American dressing. Bright colors, large pants and headwear were the elements, which inspired the style of dressing in the early 90's.[14]Celebrities like Muhammad Ali, TLC, Will Smith were seen wearing the Cross Colours brand. Currently, the brand seeks unity, equality and empowerment to the new generation.[15]

Adidas also had big impact in streets with RUN-D.M.C when the band’s now iconic hit song "My Adidas" drop in 1986.[16]

Hip hop fashion in this period also influenced high fashion designs. In the late 1980s, Isaac Mizrahi, inspired by his elevator operator who wore a heavy gold chain, showed a collection deeply influenced by hip hop fashion.[17] Models wore black catsuits, "gold chains, big gold nameplate-inspired belts, and black bomber jackets with fur-trimmed hoods."[17] Womenswear Daily called the look "homeboy chic."[17] In the early 1990s, Chanel showed hip hop-inspired fashion in several shows. In one, models wore black leather jackets and piles of gold chains.[17] In another, they wore long black dresses accessorized with heavy, padlocked silver chains.[17] (These silver chains were remarkably similar to the metal chain-link and padlock worn by Treach of Naughty by Nature, who said he did so in solidarity with "all the brothers who are locked down.[17]

Mid- to late 1990s[edit]

Fashion among "hip hop" elites[edit]

On the East Coast, members of the hip hop community looked back to the gangsters of the 1930s and 1940s for inspiration.[18] Mafioso influences, especially and primarily inspired by the 1983 remake version of Scarface, became popular in hip hop. Many rappers set aside gang-inspired clothing in favor of classic gangster fashions such as bowler hats,[18] double-breasted suits,[18] silk shirts,[18] and alligator-skin shoes ("gators").

On the East Coast, "ghetto fabulous" fashion (a term coined by Sean Combs) was on the rise.[18]

Urban streetwear[edit]

Rapper Slim Thug wearing a stocking cap
Allen Iverson & Nelly at a Reebok photo shoot. Iverson is wearing the I3 signature Rebook cap

Tommy Hilfiger was one of the most prominent brands in 1990s sportswear, though Polo Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein, Nautica, and DKNY were also popular.[19] Snoop Doggy Dogg wore a striped Hilfiger rugby shirt during an appearance on Saturday Night Live, and it sold out of New York City stores the next day.[20] Furthermore, Tommy Hilfiger tube tops were also a big hit within the hip-hop community. It was considered a “must-have” piece for every girl influenced by this music genre. Artists like TLC, the late Aaliyah and so on were commonly seen in events dressed in it.[21] Hilfiger's popularity was due to its perceived waspiness, which made it seem exclusive and aspirational.[19] Hilfiger courted the new hip hop market: black models featured prominently in the company's advertising campaigns, and rappers like Puffy and Coolio walked during its runways shows.[19]

Other brands, such as Nike, Jordan, FUBU, Southpole, Reebok Pro-Keds, Adidas, Eckō Unltd., Mecca USA, Lugz, Rocawear,Boss Jeans by IG Design, and Enyce, arose to capitalize on the market for urban street wear.

Throwback clothing[edit]

Bling-bling jewelry worn by Jim Jones and Juelz Santana of Dipset
LeBron James pictured on the right. Throwback jerseys are on based on NBA basketball jerseys accessorised with a gold or diamond neck chain


In the mid- to late 1990s, platinum replaced gold as the metal of choice in hip hop fashion.[9] Artists and fans alike wore platinum (or silver-colored) jewelry, often embedded with diamonds. Juvenile and The Hot Boys were largely responsible for this trend.[9] Platinum fronts also became popular; Cash Money Records executive/rapper Brian "Baby" Williams has an entire mouthful of permanent platinum teeth. Others have fashioned grills, removable metal jewelled teeth coverings.

With the advent of the jewellery culture, the turn-of-the-century-established luxury brands made inroads into the hip hop market, with brands like Gucci, Louis Vuitton and 212 Diamond City making appearances in hip hop videos and films.

Modern (2000s-2010s)[edit]

Common wearing a t-shirt and tight jeans

Throughout these years many fashion trends from the 1980s and early 1990s were made popular again, such as door knocker earrings and form fitting jeans for men. Bright colors and cartoon graphic print hoodies by Bathing Ape made popular by artist and producer Pharrell also gained popularity. Women wore high heels in all different forms, and many new ideas for shoes emerged, like the open toed boot.[22]

The 2000's gave rise to the popularity of tattoos covering artists from head to toe. Soulja Boy, Wiz Khalifa, Lil Wayne and Tyga have set the trend of being completely "tatted up."[23] Although having tattoos is nothing new to the music industry, never have tattoos been so pervasive in hip hop. Tattoos covering the face and the head have also become increasingly popular. Birdman now sports a star tattoo on the crown of his head, Gucci Mane has an ice cream tattoo on his right cheek, and Lil Wayne has tattoos on his eyelids and forehead.[24]

One cannot speak of fashion trends without mentioning the importance of hairstyles, particularly for women. In the past few years there has been a resurgence of the asymmetrical hair cut with a contemporary spin. Stars such as Rihanna, Cassie and Kelis have all set the new trend of the half-shaven head.[25]

Fashion scarves have also become popularized in recent years. Kanye West is the most recent artist to launch his own line of products by selling decorative scarves with provocative depictions, named Risque Scarves.[26]

Around 2012, fashion in hip hop saw a shift towards modern "high" streetwear and haute couture brands popularized by online fashion forums such as Superfuture and Styleforum. Brands such as Rick Owens, Raf Simons, and Saint Laurent Paris are now featured prominently in the lyrics and wardrobes of rappers such as A$AP Rocky, Travis Scott, and Kanye West.[27]

In 2011, Canadian rapper Drake launched his October’s Very Own clothing line. Atlanta rapper Playboi Carti was a model for his clothing line.


A DJ wearing a zip-up hoodie and checkerboard frame sunglasses

Commentators from both inside and outside the hip hop community have criticized the cost of many of the accoutrements of hip hop fashion. Chuck D of Public Enemy summarized the mentality of hip hop fashion and some low-income youths as "Man, I work at McDonald's, but in order for me to feel good about myself I got to get a gold chain or I got to get a fly car in order to impress a sister or whatever."[28] In his 1992 song "Us", Ice Cube rapped that "Us niggaz will always sing the blues / 'cause all we care about is hairstyles and tennis shoes".[29][30][31][32] Some fans have expressed disappointment with the increased amount of advertising for expensive hip hop brands in hip hop magazines.[33] In one letter to the editor in Source magazine, a reader wrote that the magazine should "try showing some less expensive brands so heads will know they don't have to hustle, steal, or rob and blast shots for flyness."[34] In fact, there were many highly publicized robberies of hip hop artists by the late 1990s.[33] Guru of Gang Starr was robbed of his Rolex watch at gunpoint, Queen Latifah's car was car-jacked, and Prodigy was robbed at gunpoint of $300,000 in jewelry.[33]

Hip hop has sometimes come under fire for glorifying brands that shut it out and for embracing a fashion culture which does not embrace hip hop or black culture.[35] A dichotomy exists in the "collaboration" between influential hip hop artists who embrace designer brands and fashions, and these same brands that profit from hip hop's influencers. Designer brands such as Louis Vuitton or Versace align themselves with influential musicians because of the potential gains, but simultaneously maintain distance from these allies outside of advertising, "almost as with a keen desire to hold the controlling hand in these relationships" and control their public image.[36] In these partnerships/collaborations between designers and artists there is sometimes a pattern of exploitation in which the designers benefit disproportionately more than hip hop artists.

A few hip hop insiders, such as the members of Public Enemy, Immortal Technique, Paris and Common, have made the deliberate choice not to don expensive jewelry as a statement against materialism.[33]

Gender roles and dress[edit]


Female rap group Salt-N-Pepa are considered amongst the frontrunners in leading the transition of moving away from the male alignment and asserting feminism in creating a new sense of dress. They are said to have "wowed fans while wearing hot pants, cut-off denim shorts and Lycra body suits".[37]

"Black women's relationships to their bodies occur within overlapping cultural contexts that offer contradictory messages about their value and function".[38] In a male dominated society, it is no wonder that women used to work hard to align themselves with male images including how they'd dressed. Rappers Lil' Kim and Eve are known for resorting to trends surrounding being scantily clad with provocative tattoos and being perceived as attractive in the process. Not all female rappers, or female artists in general have resorted to these methods within their careers. "...the recent appearance of Black women performers, songwriters, and producers in Black popular culture has called attention to the ways in which young Black women use popular culture to negotiate social existence and attempt to express independence, self-reliance, and agency".[39]

LGBT community and gender variance[edit]

Hip hop has had a history of homophobia, only recently becoming more accepting of the LGBT community. Lyrics that openly use derogatory words such as "fag" or "dyke" have saturated the market, even being found in conscious rap, considered the most progressive section of hip hop. Marc Lamont Hill argues, "the progressive agendas of political rap artists such as Public Enemy, X-Clan, Paris, and Sista Souljah were strongly informed by radical Afrocentric, Black Islamic, and crude Black Nationalist ideologies that were openly hostile to queer identities".[40]

Even if artists who engage in gender dress "rule breaking" do so without much thought and for their own comfort, such as A$AP Rocky,[41] their actions are still political. Clothing has cultural links to gender, sexuality, class, and race. A man wearing a dress in a culture that associates this garb with women may be labeled different, an outsider to the community, or someone resisting the social order of things. Gender is a social construct and is fluid, constantly changing with the morals and values of a society. For people with a large platform, such as rap artists, this type of behavior can have positive effects in society for accepting differences in individuals and breaking the stigma of homophobia found in hip hop.[42]


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