Mary J. Blige, the queen of hip-hop, walked hand-in-hand down a runway in 2000 with designer Tommy Hilfiger. Blige, clad in knee-high red boots and matching short shorts, was a glamorous figure and the perfect personification of hip hop’s embrace of the traditionally-white fashion brands.
The ease in her step reflected a changing relationship between fashion and black music; she was glamorous and serene and embraced by the notoriously fastidious (and even downright racist) fashion world as a figure to respect — someone who had earned her place in their community.
But this relationship, despite its ubiquitousness in the mainstream, would not last long. Instead, it would morph from the longest era of uber-preppy co-signs like Tommy Hilfiger and Ralph Lauren, to the brief inclusion of high-fashion designers like Roberto Cavalli and Versace, and conclude in its latest and most important phase: Musician as designer.
Hip-hop’s embrace of fashion began as a strategic move. As the genre’s influence and notoriety began to increase, so too did the artist’s emergence into more mainstream places. Fashion became the easiest signifier for this social change.
By embracing preppy American brands like Nautica, hip-hop artists demolished ideas about who was allowed to wear certain pieces of clothing based on race; by embracing high-designer fashion, artists displayed their changing class status. And by designing their own brands, artists establish their place in the fashion world as well as the merits of their own individual style and its influence.
As a genre, hip-hop was born out of strife. When it emerged in the late 1970s and early 80s, it served as a reflection of the inner city. On songs like Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five’s “The Message” or Kurtis Blow’s “The Breaks,” the realities of inner city life — violent crime, extreme poverty, and the need for a personal hustle — were front and center.
Hip-hop is a style that often looks backward to the past for inspiration, but it was also versatile enough to virtually take over the mainstream. In that initial era, men wore tight white t-shirts and pants, a reflection of the style runoff from the late ’70s. Small accessories distinguished hip hop musicians from their peers. Blow became best known for his black Kangol hat, a look that spread quickly. White newsboy caps and red leather jackets were also popular.
Breakdancing groups often wore matching striped tracksuits in red and black. Sometimes they included sport brand logos like Adidas, but most times they were unadorned with logos. They wore tracksuits because it showed breakdancing was a physical activity and the tracksuits matched because performers often danced in collectives; they were a practical and a community-oriented fashion decision.
Polo Ralph Lauren was also popular and ubiquitous at the time. The label was the earliest incarnation of fashion as class eliminator. “It was head-to-toe Ralph,” Peter Paul, the former director of marketing for Tommy Jeans, told Complex magazine in a recent oral history on the brand’s relationship to hip-hop. “Ralph represented the Hamptons and wealth. We may have never been to ski lodges, but here were street kids grabbing it and repping it. His clothing was undeniable — and still is.” But because hip-hop itself was still in many ways underground, initially it did not have the same cultural impact on the mainstream as other labels.