This week, Kwabena Gyane examines the extensive and intriguing history and evolution of the hoodie, from its initial form centuries ago to its modern appearance which has become a staple in everyday life.
If there were a word to describe the hoodie, it would be ubiquitous. This is not conjecture, it is a fact. If you step outside, chances are, before the day ends you would have caught sight of the garment. It cannot be avoided as it has ingrained itself in our everyday lives.
Deathly drapery, godly garb, style staple, utilitarian uniform, not many articles of clothing have an evolution as complex as the hoodie. Even fewer have the rich cultural and societal history tied to them.
From dressing the bare-boned body of the Grim Reaper in Western depictions of the inescapable force to being bedazzled, embroidered, and ripped for creative expression on runways and racks, the hoodie has undergone changes not many are aware of.
The hood derived from the Anglo-Saxon word ‘hōd’ has been attached to various garments throughout the ages. Comparing the modern-day hoodie to its predecessors, one may understandably find it difficult to discern enough similarities to tie them all together,
Comparing the modern-day hoodie to its predecessors, one may understandably find it difficult to discern enough similarities to tie them all together, but the roots are in the hood.
Throughout its transformations, this aspect of the clothing has relatively stayed the same, differing perhaps in length and name.
The journey of the hoodie is said to have taken its first steps in Medieval Europe, although some believe its actual infancy could lie in the Assyrian Empire while others consider ancient Rome and Greece to be its true birthplace. This conclusion could potentially be due to illustrations and sculptures depicting himation around the necks and faces of Greek women, the suffibulum on Vestal Virgins and the flammeum on brides. While the hoodie’s origins could have possibly begun in any of these places or somewhere else entirely, highlighting how fashion succeeds in transcending cultural differences and finding ways to be adopted and utilised, it is Medieval Europe that currently holds the title in this claim game, at least for the time being.
The hooded garment was a name that allowed the hoodie’s antecedent to take on several styles and shapes, thus avoiding limitations that other clothes faced. Hooded garments were able to have distinctive functions depending on the group that utilised them in whatever form they were required to be. Religion, devotion, and the monastic life? There is a hooded garment for that. Monks wore cowls in the Medieval period, which were attached to their tunics. Cowls have stood the test of time during liturgical services over the habits of the monks.
Hooded garments were also able to play a role in fiction, especially Western literature and folklore, a feat that only a handful of clothes have been able to accomplish. Whether it be the deep red hooded cape worn by a girl visiting her grandmother or the black hooded robe of the scythe-bearing infernal Grim Reaper collecting souls, hooded garments have contributed to the timeless nature of these fictional characters. You did not need to see the title to know the girl mentioned was Little Red Riding Hood, and one cannot consider many of these characters without the hooded attire they wear. Hooded garments infiltrated fantasy as quickly as they did the real world, cementing themselves as necessities.
Due to the broad nature of the hooded garment, several attires fit the term. From liripipes to chaperons to gugels, these hoods are generally not seen by some to be concrete points in the hoodie’s history even though they fit the description of hooded garments. The djellaba, worn in the Maghreb region in North Africa, with a pointed and baggy hood known as a qob is also another garment that seems to never enter the conversation even though it has similarities with the hooded garments worn by the European monks. The hoodie’s genesis is complicated if nothing else, although not all known hooded garments can be said to contribute to its journey through history, it is important to highlight and assess those that could potentially have, this can showcase the potential cultural journey of the attire.
Fast-forward and the sweatshirt slides into the picture, for it needs to make its debut to make way for the present-day hoodie. Before confusion settles, it should be noted that the formal name for the hoodie is the term, hooded sweatshirt. The present and most common look of the hoodie is at best a modern-day sweatshirt with a hood, and the sweatshirt’s journey is essentially intertwined with the hoodie’s.
The year is 1926, Benjamin Russell Junior, an Alabama Crimson Tide quarterback, and the son of Russell
Manufacturing Company’s (now known as Russell Athletic) founder, Benjamin Russell Senior, was tired of the discomfort and chaffing of the woollen football jerseys due to sweat. Noting cotton’s comfort and the durability it provided, he suggested to his father that a cotton version of the jersey should be created, and with that, the sweatshirt was born.
Much like the hoodie, the sweatshirt changed the fashion scene forever. The two became the first sportswear garments that found a clear path into the fashion scene. This allowed them to be both functional and fashionable, two vital qualities that ensured the garments aged into staples.
The modern-day hoodie’s origin can be traced back to the Knickerbocker Knitting Company, now known as the brand Champion in the 1930s. From tree surgeons to cold-storage warehouse labourers, the hoodie served its original purpose of keeping people warm and protected in cold environments. In the case of athletes and the military, hoodies also served as a garment for training exercises.
As stated in an earlier paragraph, the classic look of the hoodie we know today could simply be described as a hood attached to a sweatshirt. It should be noted that some hoodies did generally start in such a manner. Pre-existing sweatshirts were taken with hoods sewn around the necklines, and these would later be known as after hoods.
Hoodies solely performed their utilitarian function for roughly 40 years, being used by workers, the military, and athletes in America. Not only did the garment provide much-needed warmth, but it also allowed for comfort and incredible manoeuvrability. High school and university male athletes were said to give their hoodies to their girlfriends among other sportswear such as letterman jackets. Some point to this trend in 1950s America as the beginning of the hoodie’s rise to becoming prominent in everyday fashion. It was popular, but this popularity was limited to those in and adjacent to the sporting sphere, and it had not yet spread its wings to establish itself to become the mainstream fashion item it is today.
In comes the 1970s and with all the necessary attributes to make it, the birth of an icon occurred. This decade saw the hoodie make its inevitable rise in popularity, transcending its sportswear form and gaining its streetwear and casual-wear appeal.
From MCs to b-boys, the hoodie made one of its homes in the hip-hop scene. Emerging from the Bronx in New York City, hip-hop was an outlet for Black and Latino youth, allowing them to express their disdain and protest the institutional abuse they faced as minorities. From the corrupt and racist police force to the dehumanising and soul-sucking vacuum that was the prison system, the hoodie became integral in the aesthetics of hip-hop, with several iconic hip-hop pioneers donning the garment.
A form of cultural expression in the hip-hop sphere, the hoodie symbolised rebellion against the system, and due to it allowing for anonymity, if need be, it was also worn by graffiti artists when they made their artistic and often thought-provoking pieces throughout the city.
While America’s East Coast was giving new meaning to the hoodie and creating a genre that would take over the world in due time, on the West Coast, the garment was being utilised in another youth-led movement to redefine themselves.
Southern California is considered the birthplace of skateboarding. Skate parks had not yet made their way to California in the early 1970s, so skateboarders had to make do with drained pools, abandoned warehouses, and other restricted locations.
With some aspects of their activities considered illegal, in comes the hoodie bearing the gift it offered to graffiti artists in New York. Skateboarding had its mainstream rejection aspect to it, and with this subcultural group, the hoodie played a role in that while also offering protection against the elements.
Punk also had its part to play with the hoodie. Most skateboarders gravitated to the music and the subculture, lending to the aesthetics they emulated, which would go on to create the skate punk subculture in the early 1980s. The hoodie, like its predecessor, was performing different functions depending on the group that utilised it. However, unlike its predecessor, it kept its silhouette through it all.
The hoodie had finally found a place outside of sportswear in these subcultural groups, on opposite sides of North America. However, it did not stop there. An icon needs to constantly be on everyone’s mind to cement its place.
The hoodie finally made it into mainstream consciousness, at least the Western mainstream with the 1976 theatrical release of the American sports drama film, Rocky. With the titular character played by Sylvester Stallone, the iconic training montage featured Rocky in a grey cotton hoodie.
While the hoodie was confined to its sportswear roots in the film, it still managed to show the audience that it could also be a casual garment. With functionality and fashion appeal on its side, the hoodie had to do little work to achieve stardom.
Sweatshirts received their advertising makeover in the 1960s, with universities stamping their logos on the garments, creating a sense of school spirit and an inexpensive way to broadcast themselves. It was not long before the hoodie went through a similar process. After all, it was the sweatshirt’s kin.
If the 1970s can be considered as the birth of the hoodie’s iconic status, the 1990s is when it cemented its status. Then time when the term ‘hoodie’ entered the general vocabulary, Hip-hop and rap had gained immense popularity,. Fashion designers saw the opportunity the hoodie presented. From Ralph Lauren to Giorgio Armani, the hoodie was making its way into fashion collections.
The negative connotations of the hoodie became more apparent in the 1990s and have chained themselves to the garment ever since. With its ability to provide anonymity, it seemed inevitable that people would engage in malicious activities while donning the garment. Eric “Deal” Felisbert, a former graffiti artist, recalls ‘stick-up-kids’, individuals who used the concealment the hoodie provided to rob others.
Criminality being linked to the hoodie also came with biases, with Black youth mostly facing the full impact of this, such as children like Trayvon Martin. Considering the hoodie became a choice of clothing for groups that were ignored and oppressed and looking at the situation through racial and socio-economic lens, it is not shocking to see how the hoodies found a way to become a piece so connected to politics.
One would think hoodies would begin to fade with the negative associations. However, by this point, the hoodie had already been established as an essential piece of clothing.
The hoodie has been able to do what many have not. It has become a mainstay in almost everyone’s wardrobe regardless of fashion sense. From its inception to its contemporary look, the hoodie has seen several changes and sparked several conversations in its journey to earn its status as a staple.