How the Hoodie Became a Racially Charged Garment

In light of the shootings of Trayvon Martin and Tamir Rice, the hoodie has become a garment of ill-omen that is tangled up in America's ongoing conversation about race, socioeconomics, and violence against black bodies.

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Dec 9 2014, 7:26pm

In Allison Lurie's 1981 guide to fashion semiotics, The Language of Clothes, she writes about "garments of ill-omen" that seem to bring about dismay and harm to their wearers. As psychological as it is superstitious, these garments take on a preternatural aura of evil and peril. It could be as benign as, say, a white blazer whose unsoiled surface instills the wearer with an irrational fear of dirt and stains, inducing anxiety and neurosis. It could be a sweater gifted by an ex that comes to symbolize all the strife and despair of a failed romance. "More sinister and fortunately more rare," Lurie writes, "is the garment which seems to attract disasters to you rather than itself." In the vernacular of popular dress and in the ongoing relationship between clothes and social conflict, there is perhaps no more malevolent garment than the hoodie.

For hundreds of years, the hood has been ingrained in lore and legend. It already holds a morbid connection through the crimson-clad heroine Little Red Riding Hood, who defeats the big bad wolf that had gobbled up her grandmother—the wolf is killed and gutted at the story's end. The Grim Reaper, the very personification of death, is usually depicted wrapped up in a dark, hooded cloak, as is the Ghost of Christmas Future in Dickens's A Christmas Carol. Hoods conceal, they obscure—huddling signifies to many that you have something to hide.

The hooded sweatshirt, a ubiquitous garment worn the world over, carries both a practical and countercultural appeal. First made in the 1930s by Champion, it was designed for laborers working in colder weather but has evolved into a street style staple worn by everyone from surfers to skaters. In recent years, however, it has taken on more sinister connotations.

The Million Hoodies Union Square protest against Trayvon Martin's shooting. Photo by Wikimedia user David Shankbone

Some of the people who wear hoodies use them to keep their faces hidden while committing crimes, and for a certain segment of the public, the hoodie has become associated with hoodlums and wayward youths. In the mid 90s, the hoodie got linked to the anarchic and murderous aura of Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber, when a police sketch of him wearing a hoodie and sunglasses was spread all over the media. In high fashion, this meaning was appropriated and used to charge luxury products with subversive appeal—Raf Simons famously showed a hoodie-heavy collection inspired by terrorists mere months before 9/11.


In 2012, the hoodie made headlines again when it got mixed up in the death of Trayvon Martin. The story, by now, is well known: Seventeen-year-old Martin was stalked, shot, and killed by George Zimmerman, a self-appointed neighborhood watchman who seemed to assume the kid was a criminal because he was black and wearing a hoodie. The country was predictably divided over the shootings, and the hoodie became just another symbol of disagreement—people around the nation, including the Miami Heat, donned hoodies in solidarity with Trayvon, while Fox News host Geraldo Rivera claimed, absurdly, that the item of clothing helped cause the teen's death.

Hoodies are now tangled up in a seemingly never-ending conversation America is having about race, socioeconomic status, and violence perpetrated against black bodies. So it seems grimly appropriate that when 12-year-old Tamir Rice was gunned down in a public park by a Cleveland police officer because he was playing with a toy gun, he was wearing a hoodie.

Sign outside a pub in South London. Photo by Wikimedia user Secretlondon

And so the hoodie has become a "garment of ill-omen" indeed. To some, hoodies mean "thugs" who are up to no good. Others can put them on to protest racism and the violence it inflicts upon black men and boys in particular. You have the Million Hoodies Movement for Justice on one side, and on the other you have stores that ban them because they worry criminals will wear them. Hoodies remain a great way to stay warm and dry, but these days they mean so much more than that.

Read more stuff by Jeremy on GarmentoZine.com.

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