Social meanings of clothes

On the heels of my posting on the “Ivy League shirt” and its complex associations with class, status, masculinity, and sexuality, I finally got to a thought-provoking piece by Troy Patterson in last Sunday’s NYT Magazine: “The Politics of the Hoodie”, beginning:

On a recent night, shopping online for a light jacket or a cotton sweater — some kind of outerwear to guard my body against a springlike breeze — I clicked on the ‘‘new arrivals’’ page of the website of a popular retailer and encountered, unexpectedly, another instance of the complex oddity of race. Here, projecting catalog-model cordiality in the sterile space of an off-white backdrop, was a young black man in a hoodie.

On the street, a black guy in a hoodie is just another of the many millions of men and boys dressed in the practical gear of an easygoing era. Or he should be. This is less an analysis than a wish. The electric charge of the isolated image — which provokes a flinch away from thought, a desire to evade the issue by moving on to check the sizing guide — attests to a consciousness of the hoodie’s recent history of peculiar reception. In a cardigan or a crew neck, this model is just another model. In the hoodie, he is a folk demon and a scapegoat, a political symbol and a moving target, and the system of signs that weighs this upon him does not make special distinctions for an Italian cashmere hoodie timelessly designed in heather gray.

Patterson traces the origins of the hoodie as a practical garment for protection from the weather and for warming up; athletic teams were early wearers. They became not merely practical but also started picking up fashionability (I still have my man Jacqies’s excellent Stanford hoodie in the university’s color, cardinal) and eventually became, on some wearers (like Mark Zuckerberg), symbols of amiable informality. (Illustrations on the NYT site.)

In the midst of this, black men wore hoodies for the much the same reasons as white guys, but then we entered

… 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.

(We then, of course, get legislators calling for making the wearing of hoodies illegal.)

Now we have an opposition between clothing companies that specialize in good-looking fashion hoodies worn mostly by good-looking All-American white guys — American Eagle, for instance, with most of its models smiling broadly (who could possibly be terrified by these guys?); here’s a serious American Eagle white dude:


— and, in response to the demonizing of black men in hoodies, a company called Thug Life (the name comes from Tupac Shakur), which  sprang up to market various kinds of in-your-face hoodies, from the relatively restrained:


to the deliberately provocative (indexing Tupac, the hip hop group N.W.A., and the 2015 movie Straight Outta Compton):


The firm is happy to sell to women and to white guys, by the way, so long as they’re comfortable with the labeling.

To backtrack some, my own postings on the social meanings of clothes have focused almost entirely on clothes for men (though I have posted about bras) and the messages they might send about styles of masculinity, especially of the gay variety: so, men’s underwear postings and postings about related garments (the jockstrap, the dance belt, the codpiece, the wrestling singlet), plus, more generally, jeans, the (white) t, the wife-beater, the leather jacket, the leather harness, chaps, etc.

Troy Patterson has (in frequent NYT Magazine pieces) become a serious observer of the social meanings of clothes, focussing generally on race, gender, class, and status, but exploring very specific social meanings in some detail. He’s black, male, and Ivy League (he’s a Princeton grad in English lit), and he makes a living as a free-lance writer for significant publications, on a variety of topics: he’s a book critic, film critic, and tv critic, and he writes as the Gentleman Scholar for Slate. Here he is in Handsome Black Scholar mode:


(He has somehow managed to suppress any Wikipedia entry about himself.) In any case, he’s perceptive, passionate (go back and re-read the extracts just above), and often wryly funny. I have admired his NYT pieces for some time; I hope he’s going to package them as a book.Here’s a complete (I think) inventory of them, in chronological order (the subtitles re brief abstracts):

3/8/15: How the Army Jacket Became a Staple of Civilian Garb: Miles from battle, what does it mean to wear a green field jacket?

3/16/15: The Lost Glove Waves Farewell to Winter: As winter recedes, we remember the many accessories it claimed.

4/5/15: The Common Man’s Crown: The baseball cap is ubiquitous but not anonymous; with a tilt of its bill or a curve of its brim, it conveys a point of view.

5/3/15: Who Gets to Wear Shredded Jeans?: Distressed denim turns punk rock’s bad attitude into a commodified style for those with the social capital to dress in tatters.

5/5/15: Stan Smith, Accidental Sneaker Icon: The tennis legend on the unexpected second life of the shoe that bears his name, and why he wouldn’t necessarily play in it now.

6/14/15: See and Be Seen: Glasses, once a nerdy punchline, have become a personal statement — the bigger the better.

7/12/15: Unstarched Shirt: The polo used to be part of a preppy uniform. But as it shed its Ivy League lineage, its meaning became elastic.

8/9/15: He’s Got Legs: Nothing exposes a man to more judgment and ridicule than wearing shorts, whether they’re Boy Scout cargo-style or fashion-designer formal.

9/6/15: Is the Blue-Collar Shirt Still Blue Collar?: As the chambray shirt has evolved into a staple of casual style, its workingman’s identity has become a slippery social construct.

9/21/15: The Understated Elegance of the Airline Scarf: The last glamorous thing about flying commercial.

10/4/15: The Politics of Pantyhose: How hosiery became instruments of control over women’s lives — and what happened once bare legs became acceptable.

11/1/15: How the Motorcycle Jacket Lost Its Cool and Found It Again: The ‘moto’ was once a caricature of masculinity. After women put it on, it became something else.

11/29/15: The Winter Hat Trick: When the temperature drops, no one can argue against the need for a hat. But is it possible to find a way to wear one that isn’t ridiculous?

1/3/16: Can the Turtleneck Ever Be Cool Again?: Despite its unfortunate recent past as a sexless preppy basic, the turtleneck is being repositioned as a statement of resistance.

1/31/16: Buffalo in the City: Once an icon of masculinity, the plaid pattern has become an accidental camp classic.

3/6/16: The Politics of the Hoodie: It has become a ubiquitous piece of American sportswear — but the question of who can wear one without challenge persists.

Assumed in all of this are several positions on the social meanings of clothing (quite parallel to the social meanings of linguistic items, the social meanings of gestures, etc.): much of the association between clothing and social meaning is below the level of consciousness, not a calculated performance; different people see different social meanings for the same clothing; these perceptions of social meaning vary with context; and these perceptions of social meaning change over time.

2 Responses to “Social meanings of clothes”

  1. [BLOG] Some Tuesday links | A Bit More Detail Says:

    […] Zwicky looks at the social import of […]

  2. Donovan Niccolò Henry Says:

    The Hood looks of 2Pac I created from my own Thuglife.
    1. Boy Next Door, Hip Hop 17yr. old Street functional kountry overalls swagger baseball cap backwards, cut off shorts plaid shirts. Sport jerseys. Yung Black American function gear for street life. Hip Hop B-Boy

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