When 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was gunned down in Sanford, Florida on February 26 in an apparent confrontation with George Zimmerman, a local patrol volunteer, he was wearing a hoodie. Zimmerman told police that he shot the teenager in self-defense, citing Florida’s “Stand Your Way” law, and was not charged or arrested. But in the weeks since Martin’s tragic death, the hoodie has become a symbol of support for those who feel that justice has not been served. We have seen millions of hoodies march in cities across the country. We’ve seen congressmen and NBA players wear hoodies in solidarity. Musicians join in too. Wyclef Jean wore a hoodie at 106th Street BET and in the Park while talking about Martin. At their March 29 concert in Florida , the Red Hot Chili Peppers wore sweatshirts with “Ode To Trayvon, Stand What Ground” written on the back.
Meanwhile, other public figures have raised concerns about the hoodie’s rebellious undertones. Fox News commentator Geraldo Rivera warned black and Hispanic youth not to wear sweatshirts, fearing they could become victims of social discrimination and violence. Although Rivera missed the mark, it sparked a real debate: what if Martin’s hoodie really fueled George Zimmerman’s suspicions? And if so, how can such a ubiquitous piece of clothing cast such an ominous shadow?
From its association with punk and hip-hop to skater culture, the hoodie has a history of being embraced by youth communities once marginalized, infusing it with iconoclastic and sometimes criminal overtones. Mainstream fashion may accept it as a practical piece of clothing, but it has never lost that advantage.
The sweatshirt was born from humble beginnings. Champion Products, which began as the Knickerbocker Knitting Company in 1919, claims to have made the first hoodie. It was originally a sweater factory, but Champion began making sweatshirts in the early 1930s when they developed methods for making thicker underwear.
According to Harold Lipson, Champion’s former president who founded the company in 1934, a hood was first added to sweatshirts to protect athletes and workers from the elements. Cold store workers and lumberjacks working in the winter needed clothing that provided more warmth than their long underwear Meanwhile, Champion worked directly with high schools to determine their clothing needs, eventually making oversized double-thick sweatshirts that football players and track and field athletes wore out to the side in bad weather.
The sweatshirt took the leap from practicality to personal style when athletes started gifting their girlfriends their gym gear. Just like today, high schools were hotbeds of popular fashion and soon sportswear became a fashion statement.
Fast forward to the mid-1970s, when hip-hop culture flourished on the streets of New York. Eric “Dil” Felisbret, one of the first graffiti writers, remembers that hoodies appeared around 1974 or 1975. “People who wore them were admired in the context of the street,” recalls Deal, who says that graffiti writers wore a sweatshirt to go unnoticed, while breakdancers wore it “to warm their bodies before they hit the ground.”
The deal also recalls that the first people he saw wearing a hoodie were less likable characters lurking in the context of urban culture: the “Killer Boys.” Basically, child muggers were muggers who had good reason to hide their identity. Imagine this archetypal scene from the early days of hip-hop: a DJ spinning two turntables in a park while an MC rhymes into a microphone. A crowd is gathering. All the time, Deal says, kids are being robbed, hidden, watched. “[They] could be scheming with someone in the crowd who has a piece of clothing, a gold chain, or something that interests them. Most likely, they just put a hood on their heads, and at first, people will not be able to remember their faces . While the kidnappers were criminals, some were highly respected by them, Deal said.
Then there were graffiti artists who also engaged in illegal activities, marking train cars and subway stations and trying to remain anonymous. The sweatshirt was popular with them, but it was used not only to hide from the police, says graffiti writer Zephyr. “They were inexpensive, washable, and wearable, and had a handy built-in head warmer,” Zephyr said. “Because of the hidden nature of graffiti, I think we liked it when our faces were covered or hidden.”
Similarly, the formative years of skateboarding are filled with stories of intrusion and avoidance. Back in the mid-70s, when the waves in Santa Monica were terrible, a group of surfers and irregular skaters knew as the Z-Boys discovered that the rounded bellies of empty pools were perfect for skating. The only problem was that they were usually intruders. The Z-Boys have reinvented skateboarding with an aggressive riding style and their gangster mentality has spread throughout the skateboarding world. In the early 1980s, a shortage of skate parks forced skaters to adapt and skate wherever they could, legal or not. “Being a skater, you’re sneaking around and trying to get into the parking lot, and the hood was a way to hide your identity,” says writer and figure skater Joko Weiland.
This outlaw position became a source of pride, and the skate magazine Thrasher (founded in 1981) reinforced it by publishing stories of the rebellion and writing in a subversive tone. Figure skaters have rejected the mainstream culture that has rejected them. They were foreigners and they liked it. And the music they liked was hardcore and punk, from Black Flag and D.O.A to Descendents.
“You have real Black Flag hardcore punk, mostly in California, but also here on the East Coast,” says David Brown of Rolling Stone magazine and author of the extreme sportsbook AMPED. Suddenly you have this darker, more violent subculture mixing in with the remnants of skateboarders. That’s when the whole underdog thing started.”
The ’90s saw the rise of particularly hardcore gangsta rap, with bands like the Wu-Tang Clan and Cypress Hill having a reduced dress code to match their hardcore attitude. The cover of the classic 1993 album Enters the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) features a hoodie with a particularly dark image.
Over time, hip-hop, punk, and skate cultures have found common ground in their social rejection. Anyone could feel the harassment of the police and the penetrating gazes of the adults. Thus, the sweatshirt has become even more linked to the challenge culture . Look no further than Odd Future’s skate hop aesthetic to see this progress.
Fashion designers like Tommy Hilfiger and Ralph Lauren took notice and found inspiration in streetwear. They helped bring the hoodie from high school to the streets and back again, but this time with much more cultural baggage.
The same disguise skills that brought the sweatshirt from icy warehouses and sports fields to the closets of the creative underground are now seen as a threat to the status quo. When a robbery occurs and there is a hoodie in the author’s description, the hoodie is dragged through the mud. Many high schools and nightclubs have it listed in their dress code.
When LeBron James tweeted a photo of him and his Miami Heat teammates wearing hoodies on March 23, the players showed his support for Trayvon Martin’s cause. But they also violated a controversial ban on hoodies that the NBA has maintained since 2005.
When youth culture, street style, and race are linked by a symbolic piece of clothing, distinguishing it can be problematic. It’s very difficult to remove the hoodie from our social fabric without excluding the very cultures that adopted it.
Graffiti, skateboarding, hardcore punk, and hip-hop arose from the desire for useless assumptions to make their surroundings more bearable. Gloomy carriages became a canvas, a broken pavement a playground, noise, and aggression a musical redemption. American society has accepted all this. We absorbed the music and language of hip-hop. Punk music plays in grocery stores. A sister sport to skateboarding, snowboarding is now an Olympic sport. The sweatshirt was there all the time. We cannot hope to eliminate him now.