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Almost no modern garment contains as much symbolism as the hoodie

By Marc Bain
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

Last year, when New York’s Museum of Modern Art staged its first fashion exhibition in more than 70 years, it collected 111 items that it deemed to have profoundly influenced modern fashion, including little black dresses by designers such as Chanel, elaborately decorated Chinese cheongsams, an archival pair of Levi’s 501 jeans, and exquisite Indian saris. Among those iconic items was a simple, red, Champion hoodie.

The humble hoodie’s place in the exhibit was well deserved. “It doesn’t happen that often for a garment to have so much symbolism and history, and that encompasses so many different universes as the hoodie,” says Paola Antonelli, a senior curator at MoMA and one of the exhibit’s organizers, in a TED “Small Thing Big Idea” video published to YouTube on Nov. 3.

Reuters/Charles Platiau
A hoodie leads the way in Louis Vuitton men’s spring 2019 line.

In the new video, Antonelli traces the hoodie’s lineage back 3,000 years, to the earliest known examples of hooded garments in ancient Greece and Rome. It wasn’t called a hoodie then, and didn’t look anything like the modern version, which was introduced in the 1930s by the brand founded as Knickerbocker Knitting Company, and known as Champion today, as a way to keep athletes warm. Those predecessors, likely used as protection from the weather, set the pattern for the hooded garment that monks later wore in the middle ages, that 17th-century ladies donned for anonymity during secret trysts, and that took on sinister associations in fantasy images of the hooded grim reaper.

The cotton fleece hoodies so common today follow in that line, but are probably even more varied in their symbolism. From athletic wear, they migrated to workwear, and then in the 1980s, were adopted by hip-hop and skate culture, establishing them as a cornerstone of streetwear. Like sneakers, they’re now just a part of our normal athletic-inspired wardrobes, and are even a staple among luxury brands that might not have given a hoodie sweatshirt a thought a decade ago.

Reuters/Lucas Jackson
The rapper A Boogie wit da Hoodie.

As Antonelli briefly lays out, they’ve become the stereotypical clothing of the modern (male) tech CEO, and a marker of the dress-code-defying privilege of executive power.

“If you’re wearing a two-piece suit, you might be the bodyguard,” she says. “The real powerful person is wearing a hoodie with a t-shirt and jeans.”

AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez
Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg in 2010.

In contrast with these associations is a much more disturbing one. If the young, white, male CEO in a hoodie has become a new symbol of corporate power, a young, black, male in a hoodie has in recent years become emblematic of the stereotyping and violence at the hands of law enforcement that black Americans face.

AP Photo/Roberto Gonzalez
A man attends a rally for Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida.

When George Zimmerman phoned 911 the night he shot and killed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, he called the teen “suspicious” before describing his clothes, noting his hoodie. The hoodie became a symbol of Martin’s tragic shooting, with Geraldo Rivera incredibly stating on the show Fox & Friends that “the hoodie is as much responsible for Trayvon Martin’s death as George Zimmerman was.” When celebrities rallied in remembrance of Martin five years after his death, they did so in hoodies.

These associations all exist together in the hoodie. Stylistically, Antonelli points out, it’s rather a simple garment. Historically and symbolically, it’s anything but.

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