The hooded sweatshirt emerged as a pop political object after decades of mundane hard work. In the 1930s, the company now known as Champion Athletic Apparel began turning them out to keep football players warm on the sidelines, also attracting business from men who operated backhoes and cherry pickers and forklifts — the forefathers of style for the guys who top their hoods with hard hats turned backward.
But the hoodie did not warrant enough consideration to earn its diminutive nickname until after it was processed by B-boys, graffiti artists and break dancers in the ’80s. Youth culture did the work of tugging it from the sphere of sportswear, where clothing exists to enhance performance, into the world of street wear, where clothing is performance in itself. By the 1990 release of the video for ‘‘Mama Said Knock You Out,’’ with LL Cool J styled as a boxer in his corner, his lips visible beneath a hood that shielded his eyes, the hoodie had accomplished its transformation into an element of style.
Like their peers in the suburbs, bundled up on BMX bikes or skateboarding in sweatshirts with the logo of Thrasher magazine, a generation of hip-hop kids found the hoodie suitable for the important adolescent work of taking up space and dramatizing the self. There was and is a theater of the hood: pulling it up with a flourish, tugging it down to settle in its energetic slouch. The hood frames a dirty look, obscures acne and anxiety, masks headphones in study hall, makes a cone of solitude that will suffice for an autonomous realm. And if, in its antisurveillance capacity, the hood plays with the visual rhetoric of menace, it is heir to a tradition in teen dressing stretching back to the birth of the teenager, when he arrived fully formed in leather jacket and bluejeans. The cover of the Wu-Tang Clan’s first album catches the mood: Members of the group wear black hoodies and white masks, as if to abduct the listener into a fantasy of ninja stealth.
But this was just a prologue to an era in which the hoodie became at once an anodyne style object and a subject of moral panic, its popularity and its selective stigmatization rising in proportion. A glance at almost any police blotter, or a recollection of the forensic sketch of the Unabomber, will confirm the hoodie as a wardrobe staple of the criminal class, and this makes it uniquely convenient as a proxy for racial profiling or any other exercise of enmity. The person itching to confirm a general bias against hip-hop kids or crusty punks imputes crooked character to the clothing itself.
Troy Patterson, “On Clothing”, The New York Times Magazine (6 March 2016), 18-19.