The history of the hoodie aligns with America’s divisions of class, race, and identity. It has served as a vehicle for both this country’s dreams (athleticism, higher education, luxury) and denials (counterculture, anti-Establishment, racial injustice). It was born in the 1930s at Champion when the clothing company that made sweatshirts attached a hood. It soon became popular with athletes and laborers in the Northeast because the added fabric served as a form of protection against the elements and later with high-school athletes, who would wear their schools’ logos and crests on their chests.
Then, in 1973, the beat dropped in the Bronx, and the hoodie became the uniform of MCs, stickup kids, graffiti artists, and b-boys. A staple of hip-hop culture, the hoodie represented defiance, the down low, discretion, and dignity. When skateboard kids in L.A. and punk-rockers in NYC adopted it, the sweatshirt with a hood became a symbol of disruption. Suddenly, the counterculture found itself with a new street-style standard that could be idiosyncratic by way of color, size, patches, shredding, band logos, safety pins, skulls and crossbones, bleaching, or whatever you wanted to add to say “Fuck you!”
In the golden era of hip-hop, the hoodie went global. Tupac Shakur wears the hoodie in the movie poster for Juice, as do the Wu-Tang Clan on the cover of their debut album, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), in 1993. This is when the fashion industry began appropriating the “urban” look, creating the luxury versions of the hoodie worn on the runways of Gucci, Prada, Versace, Ralph Lauren, Isaac Mizrahi, Chanel, and Giorgio Armani. Like hip-hop, the hoodie had crossed over — again.
But its association with Black culture raised the hackles of the white Establishment. In 2005, the NBA (under then–Commissioner David Stern) announced its controversial dress code aimed at clothing associated with hip-hop culture, banning players from wearing jerseys, shorts, hats, durags, T-shirts, large jewelry, sneakers, boots (especially Timberlands), and hoodies.
Then Trayvon Martin was fatally shot, and his killing made the hoodie a symbol of Black life, internalized anger, and social justice globally. On March 21, 2012, activists in New York staged the “Million Hoodie” march from Union Square to the U.N. That day, I wore my hoodie on the subway, walking through the streets of midtown, and at work in the offices of Time Inc. along with my colleagues, instead of our usual blazers and slacks, jeans and button-downs.
Today, for Black public figures, the hoodie — thanks in large part to Trayvon’s death — has become a superhero cape, the uniform for those who want to make a statement about social and racial justice. The hoodie has become a fundamental piece of my wardrobe since the killing of Trayvon, even more during the COVID-19 pandemic, and most definitely since the murder of George Floyd. What the hoodie has come to represent for me is a sense of comfort, of safety, and a pointed message to the world that as a Black gay man living with HIV in this country, my life and the lives of my community matter no matter how uncomfortable it makes white America feel.