Trayvon Martin was wearing a hoodie and he was black. How did the first thing become a metonym for the second? I don’t see Martin’s case in grey-scale: He was innocent. He is dead. If we’re talking about the hoodie – and we are, because few of us are strong enough to withstand Geraldo Rivera's hate bait – it is because Martin’s hoodie, and all that it apparently connotes in the simple minds of certain people, is easier to talk about than Martin's blackness.
It is not important that Martin wore a hoodie. “In my world, a hoodie is a useful piece of clothing,” wrote Roxane Gay in a March 23 essay on the online magazine The Rumpus. “Discussing the hoodie is the same as discussing what a woman was wearing if she was raped.”
It’s important to understand how a society’s understanding of symbols is so ahistorical, its perceptions so trigger-haired, that an innocent article of clothing is construed across the Western world as a symptom – and of what? Of class and of race, of the intersection between the two, of things portended by both.
Hoodies are a recent development, reportedly invented around 1930 by the American sweatshirt company Champion as a way to keep warehouse labourers warm in low temps. Hoods, of course, are rather more ancient. Anglo-Saxon women wore them – they were called wimples then – as early as the ninth century; men adopted them later. By the 16th century, the rounded “French hood,” introduced to England in 1515 by Mary Tudor, was a common signifier of the gentlewoman. In the Middle East, hooded robes, or djellabas, served both to cover and to protect from harsh desert elements. Monks of all stripes, too, have been hooded since medieval times; like JRR Tolkien’s wizards, they seemed to be shrouding themselves in mystery.
That mystery first became menace in the hands of the ultra-white, which in hindsight is terribly ironic. The Ku Klux Klan, formed in the 1860s, donned sheet-white, wizard-style cloaks with pointed hoods to signal white-supremacist intimidation; there remains no more terrifying costume.
Not till 1930 did the hood become the hoodie, shifting near-instantly its connotations from upper class to lower. Adult wage labourers and teenage boys were the first to wear them, always in a utilitarian or athletic way. In 1976, Rocky came out, and the image of Sylvester Stallone in a boxer’s hoodie became indelible and widely copied. The 1970s designer Norma Kamali made the hoodie elegant; in the 1980s, skaters and surfers made it street. And when black rappers from Run DMC to LL Cool J to Wu-Tang started wearing the hoodie in black or camo, often pulled up in a part-anonymous, part don’t-mess way, the pearl-clutching alarmists of polite society made it “dangerous.”
Still, a hooded sweatshirt was also an athletic staple and a college staple. And for those of us who matured sartorially in the age of American Apparel, the idea of a hoodie as anything other than benign and slacker-aspirational is frankly weird.
Hoodies might make it easier to commit a crime, but not nearly as easy as a gun will. “Hoodie culture” is just a euphemism for the demographic, usually one of poor and presumed-indolent teenage boys, that seems likeliest to cause trouble for the ruling classes. In Britain, Australia and New Zealand, “hoodies” – as they call the boys themselves – are so feared they’re sometimes banned from stores; this has more to do with ideas of caste than of ethnicity, although there’s obvious overlap between the two.
But in America, where everything seems more binary, more racialized, it doesn't matter how many white college kids and jogging grandpas wear hoodies. On certain streets, at certain times of the chill night, the easy, utilitarian, all-American hoodie connotes “thug.” It connotes “threat.” It connotes sick paradigms of blackness, but only to people who hold such paradigms already.
And now this garment that almost all of us wear or have worn, a garment too common and too varied in history to properly signify anything, means more than almost anybody wants to say.
Special to The Globe and Mail