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End of hoodie season
Ode to the greatest garment
Even though last week New York City got hit with a winter-like cold snap and downright rude rainstorms, we are on the verge of summer. There are cherries in the grocery store and fireworks on my block every night. All this means one thing: the end of hoodie season is officially here.
I tend to divide the seasons into “hoodie weather” and “non-hoodie weather.” I love hoodie weather because I love hoodies. They are my most favorite, most reliable article of clothing. I may think to myself “OK, that’s enough t-shirts/jeans/henleys/joggers” but I’ve never thought to myself “I have enough hoodies.” There is no such thing. I bought velour hoodies to wear while smoking cigars, a nod to the smoking jacket, but way more fly.
I’m not special in my love for hoodies; they are ubiquitous, quotidian, they are every fucking where. They were created by the Knickerbocker Knitting Company, now Champion, in the 1930s (unless you’re wanting to trace it all the way back to the first hooded garments, which according to Paola Antonelli, appeared 3,000 years ago in ancient Greece and Rome) and were intended to help “warehouse labourers in upstate New York stay warm during the frigid winters.” Soon thereafter, athletes started wearing hoodies, namely football players and boxers.
The hoodie became a part of pop culture lore by way of 1976’s surprise Oscar winner Rocky, in which the titular character and working-class hero trains in a grey hoodie and famously runs up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. It then started to become a staple for college students who wore hoodies with their school’s name emblazoned on the front. In a way, hoodies were athleisure before we had a term for it.
But their closest association has long been with black youth and black youth culture. They were getting it from the same place as everyone else—Rocky, real life athletic heroes—but as soon as the styles from the streets began to take over via hip-hop’s explosion in the late 1980s and 90s, the hoodie took on connotations of criminality, because wherever black youth go criminalization follows. For those of us who idolized hip-hop’s stars, though, the hoodie was a symbol of irrepressible cool. Seeing Tupac and Biggie rocking Karl Kani branded hoodies made me want one more than any single piece of clothing I have owned since. My parents, small-c conservatives with bourgeois aspirations for themselves and their children, weren’t having it, and the closest I got at the time was a Nike sweatshirt—no hood.
I didn’t get my first hoodie until high school, when my parents started allowing me to make more decisions about my wardrobe (within limits) and it was the style in Virginia Beach to wear an all grey hoodie underneath a bomber jacket.1 It was my go-to look for the fall/winter months, and then when spring rolled around I ditched the bomber and wore the hoodie all by itself.
In college I went away from hoodies for a bit. It was 2004-08 when the style trends transitioned away from the oversized tees and jeans of our youth into skinny pants and preppy looks.2 My own preference was for polos and track jackets. Hoodies were relegated to around the house wear.
I got back into them as everyday wear in 2012. That’s the year George Zimmerman killed Trayvon Martin. I don’t need to call up all the details here, but you’ll recall that in Zimmerman’s 911 call, part of the description he gave of the 17 year old that supposedly made him suspicious was his wearing a grey hoodie.
By this point, culturally, hoodies were largely innocuous, a sign of comfort and casualness for most of us (and whatever “rebelliousness” tech bros in Silicon Valley thought they were mounting). George Zimmerman’s killing of Trayvon Martin made them a political statement. They’ve become a subject of study, for essays and art shows, and imbued with meaning beyond their practical use as a warm piece of clothing during the months where the sun sets a little earlier.
But as with any material item that becomes politicized, the meaning can and will be diluted once it achieves a critical embrace. “The commodification of blackness strips away that component of cultural genealogy that links living memory and history in ways that subvert and undermine the status quo,” bell hooks writes in her essay “Spending Culture.” In the immediate aftermath of Trayvon’s death, wearing a hoodie, particularly in a setting where casual clothing may be seen as an affront to good manners, was a deliberate provocation and connection back to black youth culture that was being openly demonized. “Meaning is the result of understanding functions” John Berger wrote in About Looking, and while the function of the hoodie itself is warmth, the function of wearing a hoodie in that moment was to position yourself as conscious of the criminalization of black youth that led to Trayvon’s death, and if you yourself were a black youth to stand in defiance of the institutional hunt.
But the meaning changed as the hoodie’s symbolic status made it the garment du jour and the wearers became more disconnected from such a function. It has become another fashion statement. You can buy a $500 cashmere hoodie that has nothing to do with being warm or aligning yourself with black liberation. I’m wearing a velour hoodie now to absorb the smoke from a cigar.
But even as it has lost its political meaning, I find comfort beyond the wear when I put on a hoodie. “Think of the extent to which black life is so consciously about presentation,” Elizabeth Alexander writes in The Black Interior, “Whether that image presented is church lady or thug, the sense that we are always being evaluated has everything to do with how we comport ourselves.” I find comfort in knowing that even though the hoodie has been denuded of that particular political meaning it found in 2012, when I wear one there is inevitably something in the white imagination that reads me as criminal. I prefer this to white people thinking of me as exceptional. I have no interest in their tokenizing. I prefer their discomfort over mine. It’s what makes me possible.
I will miss my hoodies for the next few months, as I do every year. But the end of hoodie season also beckons the beginning of Air Max season, so not all is lost.
I should note that, especially in Virginia Beach where I’m from, white kids were also wearing hoodies. We had/have a big skateboard and surf culture and hoodies are also big among the skaters/surfers. But they would do this thing where they wore hoodies with shorts that I never quite understood. Or, thought I didn’t, until recently when I found myself doing it and could only shake my head at how much influence my hometown has had on me. Don’t ask, the hoodie/shorts combo is baffling.
It was treated as some new and bewildering thing, but black youth have always been inspired sartorially by the suburbs. Tommy Hilfiger and Ralph Lauren and Eddie Bauer… these were all suburban dad brands that black kids started wearing and then they got a makeover. And it’s not because the suburbs are more hip—it’s that their wealth, security, and seeming freedom is more aspirational.