by Tom Stratton

Hip Hop: Evolution of Fashion

It’s said that hip hop started in 1973 when DJ Kool Here famously ...
Hip Hop: Evolution of Fashion
It’s said that hip hop started in 1973 when DJ Kool Herc famously played a party in The Bronx. Just playing the ‘breaks’ - isolated and extended percussion - meant the dance floor was quickly full and a whole subculture was soon to be born. Now, some 50 years later and for better or worse, hip hop will be almost unrecognisable to those who were there to see it born that night. Hip hop is ever-changing and, as comparatively modern a genre it is, will continue to do so. But what is hip hop? 

The Four Elements

Many think of hip hop as rap music but it would be more accurate to think of rap music as hip hop; it’s simply a part of a wider culture. If you’re a hip hop purist then you might quote ‘The Four Elements of Hip Hop’ to show that it really isn’t about just music. You might even quote five or six elements which, in itself, proves an evolution of the culture surrounding hip hop. The original four elements are made up of:





    Since these were first revealed by original hip hop head Afrika Bambaataa there has been arguments for many more including knowledge, culture, and fashion. In particular the fashion element is clearly important; you can almost tell what sort of rap music you are going to get from the uniform of the artists. From Run-DMC, LL Cool J, Ice Cube, right up to Kanye West and A$AP Rocky, you can just about tell what you’re going to get from first glance. From a small party to a subculture to one of the most popular music genres in the world. Fashion informs hip hop as much as hip hop informs fashion, but where did it all start and where are we at? 
    As this was the early 70s, the civil rights movement still a very recent memory, there was a tendency towards those fashions which were popular at the time particularly in soul and disco; big afros, flares, and colourful silken shirts. But as hip hop music started to develop so did the fashions and these old ways made way for new styles which seemed to reflect where the music itself was heading.
    Despite hip hop coming about in the early 70s it wasn’t until 1979 that what was arguably the first rap record would come out: Sugarhill Gang’s Rapper’s Delight. This meant that rap wasn’t really influencing anywhere near the mount of people it would go on to inspire so this is when hip hop fashion really started to develop. In many ways it was an accident; kids were wearing what was popular on the street which then became popular within hip hop. Streetwear brands such as Adidas and Le Coq Sportive were popular amongst young people.  
    The rise of breakdancing meant that crews would have their own ‘uniforms’, usually velour tracksuits and Puma suedes, both practical for breaking and stylish enough for the streets. This soon spilled out on to the rappers who were becoming increasingly famous, in particular Run DMC would break out in full tracksuits and trainers, even immortalising their favourite shell-toes in their 1986  song ‘My Adidas’. LL Cool J did the same along with the thick gold chains and rings: the first incarnations of what would become known as ‘bling’. A show of wealth and power after often rising out of poverty. Here was a new generation with something to say and everyone was going to listen, at the very least look, at what they had to say.

    Evolution of Fashion

    Again, the relative modernity of hip hop meant that things were moving fast with both the music and the fashion. The cyclical nature of fashion didn’t fit in with the age of hip hop: they couldn’t just recycle a look from 6 years ago, hip hop didn’t yet have enough history, so there had to be something new from the ashes of something older. As the music moved from just talking about how good you were at rapping, into more introspective wider styles covering a range of topics, so did the fashion evolve.     
    As the 80s wore on politically and socially conscious rap started to emerge through groups such as Public Enemy, creating a black nationalist fashion movement as people started to look back at fashions from the beginnings of hip hop and before - such is that cyclical nature! Tracksuits started to make way for looks inspired by the afrocentricism of the 60s/70s with bold green, red, black, and yellows starting to adorn dreadlocks and heavy leather jackets. Beads were replacing gold chains, and black leather gloves, symbols of the Black Panther movement, were rising in popularity. Rappers such as KRS-One and Queen Latifah were symbolic of this time in hip hop fashion, which was soon to make way for yet another popular hip hop motif: the gangster look. 
    As hip hop moved out of the Bronx and over to the West Coast, Gangsta Rap started to become popular. Starting with Ice-T and his rock/rap fusion and becoming ultimately popular through ‘The World’s Most Dangerous Group’ NWA. With their simpler streetwear - long gone were the brightly-coloured matching tracksuits - NWA dressed mostly in street label black jackets and jeans each with a black cap, white Adidas and, at least for Eazy E, black shades. Baggy was the way, oversized and sagging jeans had taken over, at least for a while. By the end of NWA, when P. Diddy, Suge Knight, and the rest of the new contingent came on the scene, ‘gangsta’ was taken to a whole new level.

    Pinstripes and Homburg Hats

    The early 90s saw a more old school gangster look creeping into the scene. Adopted by Suge Knight’s Death Row roster, particularly Nate Dogg and Suge himself, streetwear started to make way for haute couture brands (as spurred on by hip hop fashion designer Dapper Dan) such as Louis Vuitton and Gucci. Shell toes made way for alligator skin shoes and caps were replaced by bowlers. Emulating the look of prohibition-era gangsters - pinstripes, double-breasted suits, and fedoras gave credence to the gangster style. Puff Daddy was adopting a similar style that he would never really stop employing, he just made it more lavish as time went on with fur coats and diamonds. Fashion, like the rap scene, was ever evolving and once again streetwear was back with some extra flourishes as you’d expect from the hip hop scene.
    Novelty scenes such as the prohibition-era gangster never stick around for long and, as it became clear hip hop was here to stay, the fashion seemed to settle into a sort of comfortability - less outlandish but still as statement-making as ever. The mid-to-late 90s era of baggy, oversized sportswear, a direct result of the hand-me-down culture in poorer communities, felt like hip hop finally settling on a mostly agreed uniform. Low slung jeans, Timberland boots, and Nikes had become the norm and seemed to more accurately reflect rappers lives at a time when rap was moving into being about the lives in black communities than just your skills on the mic (or your skills with a girl). The harsh realities of the streets were on the airwaves and in the wardrobes, and hip hop was international in every way. Wu Tang, Snoop, Tupac, and countless other rappers had influenced countless younger generations through their music and their clothes, they had become one.

    Nineties and Noughties

    The movement from the late 90s to the early 00s only helped to cement this unity of rap and hip hop attire. High-tops, Jordans, baseball caps, basketball vests, baggy trousers, were all hip hop staples by this point. Hip hop and sportswear had become synonymous with one another. This was also truly the height of bling with those gold chains being replaced with ice and grills. Hip hop brands such as FUBU and Esco were popular and rappers had even started their own brands: Puffy with Sean John, Wu Tang with Wu Wear, and Jay-Z with Rocawear, Hip hop had become bigger than anyone had thought possible, it was a powerhouse in both fashion and music, influencing catwalks and dominating the airwaves. Kanye West was to take over those airwaves in 2004 along with the catwalks.  
    Kanye, alongside Jay Z, helped to evolve the hip hop look into what is mostly dominating today. Kanye managed to influence hip hop fashion in such a way that we no longer have hip hop brands, or even real hip hop style. There’s hip hop flourishes, colours, mixing haute couture with streetwear, but somewhere along the line it’s become harder to distinguish hip hop fashion from any other. It’s testament to hip hop’s enduring popularity and evolution that these styles have now completely penetrated the mainstream. Baggy jeans have made way for fitted pants, bandanas are scarce and caps have evolved past the original snapback. Whether you like the direction hip hop has taken or not, one thing is undeniable: it’s not going anywhere any time soon.