From Baggy Jeans to Babushkas: The Evolution of Male Fashion in Hip-Hop Culture

Modern hip-hop and R&B artists use fashion to challenge traditional masculine values, changing the values associated with these music genres. Hip-hop culture has shifted from heavily featuring hyper-masculine clothing and body comportment associated with black masculinity. From the “gangsta rap” prevalent in hip-hop’s surge to mainstream popularity in the 1990s to the rise of street wear and artist-designer fashion collaborations of the late 2010s, the embodiment of masculinity amongst performers has expanded to include styles traditionally associated with female consumers. The adoption of feminine fashion not only in day-to-day wear but also in performances, for event appearances, and in special features for prominent fashion publications breaks the strict codes of masculinity historically applied to rap, hip-hop, and R&B artists, addressing the confining nature of toxic masculinity through the redefining of how men can look.

DR. DRE & SNOOP DOGG

90's comparison

Image: Rap Music Guide

The 1990s witnessed the emergence of hip-hop in mainstream culture. The visual rhetoric of the era almost exclusively on the traditional representation of black masculinity, conveying toughness and a male hardened edge through baggy clothes, chains, and “thuggish” poses. This advertisement, featuring Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre, illustrates these hyper-masculine visual elements. Both artists don oversized denim jackets, baggy pants, and baseball caps in dark, neutral colors. They pose atop a black convertible, emphasizing their masculinity through the traditional association between males and automobiles. Even the image’s addition of the Rottweiler sporting a thick, black leather collar introduces another layer to the existing masculine ideals. “Manly men” would own a dog known for its strength and toughness. The body positioning of the two rappers also conveys male dominance. While Snoop Dogg holds the dog’s leash, demonstrating his control over a powerful animal, Dr. Dre extends his arms, taking up more space, asserting a commanding masculine presence. Byron Hurt’s documentary, Hip-Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes, explores masculinity in hip-hop music and culture (Hurt, 2006). Many of the aspiring artists interviewed articulated the pressure they feel to conform to hyper-masculine visual representations and song lyrics in order to appeal to societal expectations of hip-hop culture.  The drive to achieve success and the media’s celebration of a restrictive masculinity led to a largely homogenous, hyper-masculine artist population.

KANYE WEST

Kanye.jpg

Image: The Cut

Kanye West has stood at the forefront of challenging traditional masculine codes of dressing, questioning the arbitrary rules that govern what constitutes “gay” versus “straight” clothing. In an interview with MTV News, the artist expressed his take on assumptions placed on an individual making certain fashion choices (Bailey & Bailey, 2015).

“Man I think as straight men we need to take the rainbow back because it’s fresh. It looks fresh. I just think that because stereotypically gay people got such good like style that they were smart enough to take a fresh-ass logo like the rainbow and say that it’s gonna be theirs. But I was like “Man I think we need to have the rainbow”—the idea of colors, life and colors and stuff, I mean how is that a gay thing? Colors? Having a lot of colors is gay?”

At the 2016 Met Gala, West donned a heavily embellished Balmain jacket, coordinating his sparkling statement piece with Kim Kardashian’s Balmain-designed dress. Not only did West coordinate with a woman, but he paired his designer jacket with ripped jeans, revealing his upper thighs, and heeled boots, illustrating the straight rapper’s embracement of clothing styles traditionally associated with feminine dressing.

PHARRELL WILLIAMS

pharrellGQ

Image: GQ

Like Kanye West, Pharrell Williams has become known for bold fashion statements, often through styles, prints, and items often associated with femininity. Also like West, Williams through his role as a producer, commands a great degree of power in the music industry. In this photoshoot for GQ, Williams dons a magenta hat, pink-printed fur jacket, a slew of beaded necklaces, and a pair white rounded sunglasses. As an accomplished artist and powerful producer, Williams’ defiance of hegemonic masculine ideals, particularly those associated with black men in the hip-hop industry feels even more impactful given the authority he has in the music industry. To see someone who is not only an artist but also an individual who wields much control in the music business particularly expands the breadth of masculinity in hip-hop culture, redefining what men can be and look like.

TYLER, THE CREATOR

tyler

Image: Song Day

A new generation of rappers is also embracing a greater spectrum of fashion choices. In the late 2000’s the rap group Odd Future, included 10 men who developed their own style of rap, which eventually evolved into a widely successful brand. The face of the brand, Tyler, the Creator, is known for his extravagant personality, controversial rap style, and distinct fashion sense (Shepherd, 2015). Drawing inspiration from earlier rap groups such as Wu Tang Clan, Odd Future established their own subculture during the rise of the internet age. A series on Adult Swim, a skateboard line, along with the Odd Future clothing line are few of ways the group went beyond the music industry. Through the brand, Odd Future has challenge the heteronormative expectations of black men in the Rap industry. Tyler expressed in a 2011 interview that “being different” in the black community was seen as “taboo” When asked about Frank Ocean’s sexuality, Tyler expressed his support for his friend, despite being infamously known for his homophobic lyrics. Tyler’s music has been repeatedly met with controversy, his raps include demonic, violent, and homophobic elements that create such discourse. However Tyler the Creator’s sexuality has recently come into question through his lyrics, he revealed that he was bisexual in his latest album and has been for quite some time. The discourse over both members sexuality has combated the idealized masculinity presented by the Rap community.  Tyler the Creator has continued to challenge his masculine identity through his Golf Wang collection as well. Characterized by bright colors and extravagant patterns, Tyler’s Golf Wang brand has inspired an entire emerging style that has been adopted in the music and fashion industry.

FRANK OCEAN

Frank Ocean

Image: GQ

Both Frank Ocean and Tyler the Creator were members of the rap group Odd Future. Odd Future created their own style within music and fashion, that like Kanye West in the 2000’s, has powerfully impacted our generation. We found it important to include both Frank and Tyler because they both have such contrasting identities within the brand they have created collectively. Frank Ocean, the R&B singer/songwriter, has been outspoken about his sexuality early on in his career and continues to do so through his music and style. In the GQ cover above, Ocean’s soft expression is accompanied by a green, floral turtleneck which shows how the singer confronts heteronormative ideals. Frank Ocean’s alternative masculinity seems to be accepted within the industry, like Young Thug, Ocean is one of the most sought out vocalist to collaborate with among artists. Frank Ocean’s artistic reach has gone well beyond his music, from his music videos to his fashion style. Ocean often includes lyrics openly discussing his sexuality and relationships with men, and videos where he appears wearing makeup and gender unrestricted clothing (Dhaenens & De Ridder, 2015). Frank Ocean has successfully established himself  without conforming to the traditional heterosexual identity presented by the R&B industry.

ZAYN MALIK

Zayn:Gigi

Image: Vogue

Zayn Malik joins Frank Ocean in the realm of R&B, straddling the line between R&B and pop music. A shift in Zayn Malik’s image coincided with his changing career, as he evolved from a member of the preppily coded boy band One Direction to a sex icon of the R&B-Pop musical genre. As seen in the Vogue cover story photoshoot with his girlfriend, model Gigi Hadid, Malik takes a more open approach to his personal style, embracing fashions, such as sumptuous colors and floral prints, traditionally directed at female consumers. Malik uses fashion to explore his expression of masculinity, defying expectations of hegemonic masculinity through the sharing of clothing with Hadid. Additionally, the popularity of Malik, who is of Middle Eastern descent, introduces a new ethnic identity into R&B.

A$AP ROCKY

A$AP

Image: W Magazine

The line between men’s and women’s fashion continues to blur. Nicole Fleetwood’s commentary on tropes traditionally associated with hip-hop music provides contrast to the fashion exploration of modern artists. A$AP Rocky challenges the historical styles associate with hip-hop music, including “fat-laced or no-laced Adidas athletic shoes to tight spandex shorts, African medallions, baggy Tommy Hilfiger jeans, and oversized hooded sweatshirts,” particularly in his choosing of luxurious fabrics, floral prints, bold jewelry, and conventionally feminine silhouettes (Fleetwood, 2011). In the above photograph, the rapper dons a satin overcoat, floral babushka, flashy pearl ring, and oversized sunglasses atop a classic dark suit. His body positioning further distinguishes him from the masculine ideals seen in hip-hop’s first surge to mainstream popularity. His shoulders are slightly rounded, and his hands meet in a prayer-like position, reminiscent of a nun-like pose and feminine body positioning. Rather than asserting his presence and masculine dominance through greater spatial occupation, his bowed posture results in a softer version of masculinity.

YOUNG THUG

Jeffery

Image: Complex

In 2016, rapper Young Thug released No, My Name Is Jeffery. The album cover includes the rapper posing in a frilled periwinkle gown designed by Alessandro Trincone. Both Young Thug and Trincone have expressed their views on gender through their art. When creating his collection, Trincone designed the gown to be androgynous and many of his other designs are inspired by unrestricted gender identities (Wolf, 2018). It is important to note the rapper’s facial expression in the album cover. Young Thug is seen smiling under the purple bonnet wearing a long dress, a stark contrast from the hyper-masculine album covers we traditionally see in Hip Hop. Young Thug also appeared in the #MyCalvins campaign, wearing a dress, his caption read “I disobey in #MyCalvins”. The ad and the album cover are just some of the ways Young Thug uses his platform to challenge gender norms. By doing so, Young Thug is disobeying the expectations of him as a rapper while still maintaining acceptance within the industry. The rapper continues to feature and produce top charting music, working with the most influential people in the music industry.

JADEN SMITH

Jaden

Image: Vogue Korea

Rapper/Actor Jaden Smith is one of the youngest in the industry to challenge gender norms with his style. In the photos above, Smith is seen wearing a skirt and nail polish on the cover of Vogue Korea. However Jaden is seen shirtless with a firm muscular stance, he still maintains a masculine identity while crossing gender boundaries. This is not the first time that Smith has expressed his gender non-binary views, in 2016 he partnered with Louis Vuitton as the face of their womenswear collection (Jacobs, 2017. Smith has generally received positive support from fans and peers for his clothing choices. It is speculated that Smith receives such support because of his parents, Jaden is the son of Will and Jada Pinkett Smith. Being the child of such acclaimed actors in the industry has allowed Jaden Smith to create his success on a much larger platform. Smith uses this platform to address social issues such as the Flint water crisis and gender norms in the music and fashion industry. Along with partnering with Louis Vuitton, Smith released his debut studio album SYRE, and has created an eco-friendly water company that distributes water to the residents of Flint, Michigan — all at the age of 20.

ADDITIONAL IMPLICATIONS

Not only do modern fashions play a role in artist identities, but also these artists have also impacted the world of fashion, expanding the visual appearances associated with masculinity. The influence of high fashion has allowed artists to hone a personal image. Whereas historically female fashion featured much more variability in available styles and aesthetics, hip-hop and R&B male artists increasingly pursue a unique, signature look, rather than subscribing to hegemonic masculine apparel ideals set forth in the genres’ rise to popularity in the early 1990s. While the exploration and incorporation of feminine fashions broadens societal concepts of masculinity, combatting toxic masculine sentiments, the adoption of traditionally more feminine fashion does not always coincide with appreciation and respect for women, particularly in the lyrics of some artists’ music. In this sense, some elements of feminine culture has been appropriated from the women’s domain, but the respect for traditionally marginalized groups in hip-hop and rap music, including women and LGBTQ communities, for example, continues to lack.

REFERENCES

Bailey, J., & Bailey, J. (2015). “Hard to Get Straight”: Kanye West, Masculine Anxiety, Dis-Identification. In The Cultural Impact of Kanye West (pp. 109-126). New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.

Dhaenens, F., & Ridder, S. D. (2014). Resistant masculinities in alternative R&B? Understanding Frank Ocean and The Weeknd’s representations of gender. European Journal of Cultural Studies, 18(3), 283-299. doi:10.1177/1367549414526730

Fleetwood, N. R., & Fleetwood, N. R. (2011). “I am King”: Hip Hop Culture, Fashion, Advertising, and the Black Male Body. In Troubling Vision: Performance, Visuality, and Blackness (pp. 147-177). Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Hurt, B. (Director). (2006, January). Hip-Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes [Video file]. Retrieved March 9, 2019, from https://vimeo.com/143038369

Jacobs, M. (2017, September 11). Jaden Smith: Fresh Prince of the Future. Retrieved from https://www.gq-magazine.co.uk/article/jaden-smith-gq-style-cover-preview

Shepherd, J. E. (2015, March 31). Odd Future’s Tyler, the Creator on Race, Broken Homes, and Waking Up Rich. Retrieved from https://www.spin.com/2011/11/odd-futures-tyler-creator-race-broken-homes-and-waking-rich/

Wolf, C. (2018, June 01). This Is the Story Behind Young Thug’s ‘Jeffery’ Dress. Retrieved from https://www.complex.com/style/2016/08/young-thug-jeffery-dress-story

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