meme life

Oh God, Are We Really Dressing Like Ali G?

Ali G and Naomi Campbell.

Last Friday, a new fashion meme started going around the internet. It depicted Ali G — the early-2000s alter-ego of actor Sacha Baron Cohen — dressed in his signature getup: a yellow tracksuit, a diamond chain, tinted sunglasses, and a Tommy Hilfiger skull cap. “How all girls in NY dress now,” read the image’s caption, written by Chris Mendez.

Mendez is a copywriter for a living, so he knows how to hit a nerve — or a “mood,” if we’re speaking internet here. His meme has been retweeted over 2,000 times, with almost five times as many likes. And that’s just on Twitter. I’ve also seen the meme shared across Instagram, with women responding self-reflexive variations of “Drag me!”

My initial reaction was Really? But after an Instagram deep dive (and a good, long look in the mirror), I realized that there’s definitely some truth to this trend, and that it reaches far beyond New York.

The character of Ali G was born in 2000 as a parody of the stereotypical British white guy who imitates hip-hop culture. He spoke in a sort of fake Jamaican patois, used catchphrases like “booyakasha” and “respek,” and dressed in tracksuits, big chains, and white sneakers. At the time, his look was meant to be ridiculous: a sporty, oversized aesthetic borrowed from rappers five years earlier, dialed up to an absurd level by someone who was clearly out of touch.

These days, the tracksuit-and-trainers look is back, filtered through a lens of nostalgia and worn not just by New York girls but everyone from Armie Hammer to Kendall Jenner. Its return can be traced partly to our current obsession with all things turn-of-the-millennium, from Paris Hilton and her Juicy Couture wardrobe to Neo’s slick vinyl looks in The Matrix.

Mendez, though, thinks there’s something more specific happening with the Ali G look. He attributes it to the resurgence in popularity of British music subcultures like rave, grime, and garage. Artists like Stormzy and Skepta, for example, can often be found in their own versions of monochrome tracksuits.

“My friends in NYC and London have been doing this for a minute,” wrote Mendez in an email to the Cut with the subject line, “We are all Ali G.” He cited DJs like Jubilee and Venus X, and musical artists like Princess Nokia, as examples of women who can actually pull off the look. “Those are the actual influencers who people like Kendall and Kylie [Jenner] draw inspiration from,” Mendez explained.

When we bring the Jenners into this, the trend’s inherent awkwardness becomes impossible to ignore. You cannot compare someone to Ali G without also implying that that person is borrowing from black culture — something the Jenner/Kardashian clan is constantly being accused of. That is the whole point of Ali G, who once expressed in a skit that he genuinely thought he was black.

Over time, our references have become so layered that they can be hard to separate. What makes someone look like Ali G, rather than like any of the icons Ali G was impersonating? Where do we draw the line between authentic style and costume? And why do the Jenners and their friends look like trend-adopters in their tracksuits, while the DJs and musicians Mendez mentions look stylish?

The questions this meme brings up are exactly what make it so good. On the surface, it touches upon a mainstream trend that people can laugh at in recognition. But it also holds up a mirror to culture, the choices we make about how we dress, and why. In other words, before seeing this meme, someone may have thought they were paying a cool homage to Run DMC, Missy Elliot, or Stormzy in a colorful tracksuit. But now, they might do a double take. It’s entirely subjective; how you read the meme is up to you.

“A lot of girls seem to be embarrassed about it, like they’re shamefully raising their hands in admittance,” said Mendez. “But I LOVE this style. It wasn’t like a dig or an insult, just an observation.”

Oh God, Are We Really Dressing Like Ali G?