Hip-hop fashion, masculine anxiety, and the discourse of Americana

Nicole R. Fleetwood

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


From leather Louis Vuitton suits to fat-laced or no-laced Adidas athletic shoes, to tight spandex shorts, African medallions, baggy Tommy Hilfiger jeans and oversized hooded sweatshirts, hip-hop fashion has provided the visual markers for a larger cultural movement that has transformed popular music and international youth cultures in recent times. Since the 1970s, hip-hop music has been associated with a broader set of cultural practices, including dance trends, graffiti art, and fashion. Aside from the music itself, fashion continues to be the most profitable and recognized of the practices affiliated with hip-hop culture. While studies of hip-hop culture have mentioned the significance of fashion and some have described trends of particular artists or "moments," scholars have paid very little detailed analytical attention to hip-hop's fashion system and the rapidly growing industry that promotes the fashion. When fashion is discussed in the context of earlier studies of the music form, it is quite often through the lens of subculture theory; thus fashion is relegated to one of many practices that mark (and oftentimes romanticize) the cultural movement as distinct from normative American culture.1 Yet hip-hop fashion's success in recent times deserves focused attention. Furthermore, examining the significance of urban male fashion and the iconic, racialized, adorned male body of hip-hop's material and visual culture offers insight into the relationship between materiality, representation, and consumption in black popular culture. Embedded in representations of the fashioned black male body of hip-hop is the interplay between a highly stylized and reproducible racial alterity, nationalism, and consumption. Applying Roland Barthes's analysis of the fashion system, this study examines the recent attempts through hip-hop fashion to frame the black male figure of hip-hop as possessor of a new American dream and inheritor of the legacy of Americana.2 I reorient fashion studies away from (white) women's wear and femininity to analyze black male fashion, the industry that supports it, and the interplay of masculinity, desire, and national identity. Dorinne Kondo's influential study of male Japanese business fashion is useful here for her analysis of the relationship between masculinity, race, and nationalism in fashion codes.3 Kondo argues that "[c]lothing can have a political edge as signifiers of subcultural style and as components of ethnic/racial pride," while simultaneously reinscribing problematic codes of nationalism and essentialism.4 In considering the racialization and masculine construction of hip-hop clothing, I also critique notions of subcultural authenticity by focusing on the strategic production and performance of racial authenticity through hip-hop fashion wear. Authenticity is a highly racialized and complex term in American culture. In the context of race and masculinity, authenticity imbues the subject with a mythic sense of virility, danger, and physicality; in representations of hip-hop, authenticity most often manifests itself through the body of the young black male who stands in for "the urban real." In looking at the production of racialized and gendered wear in hip-hop fashion, I offer a brief overview of the development of this particular fashion industry. I then choose the advertising campaign for the hip-hop fashion company Phat Farm as a case study for examining how racial authenticity, masculinity, and nationalism are retooled and addressed through black masculine street fashion. Hip-hop fashion, like the music, flourishes through the "mixing" of elements as diverse as high-end couture, found artifacts, tagging (or brandnaming), and sports apparel. For over a decade, journalists, cultural critics, and scholars alike have launched criticisms of the commercialism of the art form and related practices as a move away from core values and attitudes of the early movement.5 Yet, as Tricia Rose has examined, hiphop, as a style based in referentiality and reflexivity, thrives on appropriation and redefinition, which is the essence of "mixing"-the musical technique that is at the root of the cultural movement.6 Hip-hop fashion also regenerates itself through the same process. The ever-changing trends, many of which appropriate white upper-class status symbols, such as luxury car insignias and European fashion designers, are the equivalent of the musical practice of sampling. In Hip Hop America, journalist Nelson George cites an example of a Harlem entrepreneur who in the 1980s made knock-off designer clothes with a hip-hop flair for many of the first successful rappers.7 Kobena Mercer argues that this process of mixing is fundamental to the development of black diasporic practices in his analysis of black hairstyle: "Diaspora practices of black stylization are intelligible at one 'functional' level as dialogic responses to the racism of the dominant culture, but at another level involve acts of appropriation from that same 'master' culture through which 'syncretic' forms of cultural expression have evolved."8 Hip-hop fashion and music-and black cultural practices in general-complicate simplistic cultural models that posit authenticity against appropriation, or originality against commercialism. Hip-hop culture, particularly fashion and the referencing of fashion in lyrics, often defies the pejorative paradigm of appropriation described in much of subculture studies in which commercialism and commodifi- cation destroy or disempower the authenticity of the cultural practice studied. Noel McLaughlin, in his study of rock music, masculinity, and fashion, argues that authenticity is also a much-bandied term in discussion of popular music and intensifies in discussions of music and blackness: Indeed, the performative possibilities of black performers have been overlooked by a more general rock discourse that has validated black music as the authentic expression of racial "essence," and a key aspect of this has been the longstanding "necessary connection" forged between black people, black culture (clothes and performance styles) and musicmaking: between blackness, the body, rhythm and sexuality.9 The significance of appropriation, the performance of success/excess, and the preoccupation with "looking good" that are performative enactments at the heart of the hip-hop fashion system challenge the aura of authenticity that cloaks much of hip-hop's earliest musical and clothing styles and grassroots cultural practices. The "syncretic" process by which an aesthetic of racialized alterity blends with the quest for material wealth and financial success are most clearly evidenced in the more recent material invocation of Americana (and its aesthetic of red, white, and blue) by contemporary hip-hop fashion designers. These visual symbols of patriotism merged with consumer fashion goods interplay with notions of urban, black masculine alterity reproduced through hip-hop music and culture to create a character who is at once an ultrastylish thug and the ultimate American citizen.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationBlack Cultural Traffic
Subtitle of host publicationCrossroads in Global Performance and Popular Culture
PublisherUniversity of Michigan Press
Number of pages20
ISBN (Print)0472068407, 9780472068401
StatePublished - 2005

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Arts and Humanities


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