Dressing The Part: Hip Hop, High Fashion & Gender Roles

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Dressing The Part: Hip Hop, High Fashion & Gender Roles

And as absurd as a man in women's leggings is, taking cues from rappers on fashion or anything else in life may be an equally poor choice these days.

In 2012, as part of an effort to open dialogue on issues many of the most popular and commercially successful emcees are afraid to touch, HipHopDX launched “The Taboo Series.” We ran editorials on Hip Hop’s obsession with the Illuminati, race relations and Hip Hop and Christianity. Thanks to an overwhelming response from our readers, the series is returning this year.

As rappers and their handlers continue to limit press access, it will undoubtedly become increasingly difficult to get emcees to talk about some subjects without fear of fan backlash or diminishing endorsement opportunities. We’ve already seen Rick Ross’ Reebok money threatened by his date rape-related comments on “U.O.E.N.O.” Meanwhile, the YMCMB camp can’t positively spin their own conflicting reports fast enough to cover Lil Wayne’s near-death experience in what most of us think was a seizure induced by a codeine bender.

Luckily, some rappers are still talking. And they’re happy to offer more than just politically correct sound bytes. The 2013 edition of The Taboo Series features more direct quotes from artists as well as the usual statistics to back up our sometimes-controversial opinions. Whether we’re talking about rappers in dresses (excuse us…kilts), Hip Hop’s seemingly phony CB4 mentality or emcees’ mental health issues, there are no shortage of controversial topics in Hip Hop. DX’s readers have never needed prompting, but if there’s a topic you’d like to see in future editions of The Taboo Series, feel free to sound off in the comment section, via Twitter (@HipHopDX) or on our Facebook page. With that said, let’s get to the 2013 edition, which will run every Friday through April 26.

Dressing The Part: Hip Hop, Fashion & Gender Roles

“I used to pop a wheelie on my blue and grey Stingray / That had Mags / That was when bitches had Gucci bags / And wasn’t rockin’ Starters / Lookin’ harder than niggas / Hoes wore clothes that exposed they figures…” –Common, “Nuthin’ To Do.”

By the time Common spit the above rhyme sometime around 1994, most people felt Conscious Daughters, Da’ Brat, Bo$$ and to a lesser extent, The Lady Of Rage, sported looks that ranged from androgynous to tomboy chic. And despite photo evidence to the contrary, Hip Hop has always internally and externally been considered a masculine genre. I think some of this is inherent in the culture. Now, almost 20 years later, there’s a commonly held assumption that a lot of the males within Hip Hop both look and dress more effeminate. The jeans are tighter, and rappers are popping up at Fashion Week while shouting out designers as much as fellow emcees.

There are no numbers to support this opinion, but if you’re a product of Hip Hop’s golden era, then it anecdotally passes the smell test. But, I’m of the reluctant belief that things like Lil Wayne’s leopard print jeggings and Kanye West’s kilt are the byproduct of cyclical fashion trends and other societal factors.

Hip Hop’s History Of Questionable Wardrobe Choices

“[Run-D.M.C.] were b-boys beyond belief. They wore sneakers when other rappers were rocking thigh-high boots like Rick James. They wore leather suits and hats when other rappers had on cowboy outfits, feathers and studded jackets like heavy metal stars. Because ghetto shit came as second nature to many of the early MCs, they didn’t see the theatrics in their own lives.” –Russell Simmons, Life And Def.

We like to assume that this trend of less street-influenced wardrobe is some new phenomenon. But during Hip Hop’s formative years, a lot of the top emcees dressed in a fashion that was anything but masculine. If you take a look at Kool Moe Dee’s video for “How You Like Me Now,” you can see what it feels like to be trapped between the “thigh-high boots” culture that Simmons despised and the burgeoning era of glamorizing “ghetto shit.”

I think emcee’s wardrobes have always matched their agendas. Hop’s foundational, post-disco days were all about live shows and showmanship. To me, it was essentially performance art. If we look back at Afrika Bambaataa in “Planet Rock,” Melle Mel in “The Message” or even Dr. Dre during his World Class Wreckin’ Cru days, those emcees were very much in costume. One of the keys to performance art is that performers don’t dress in the same fashion as the audience. There’s a clear line of demarcation that says, “I’m the artist, and you are the consumer.” Simmons’ quote speaks to a paradigm shift where artists and the executives looking to commoditize Hip Hop culture replaced the musical theatrics with supposedly “authentic” theatrics of crime, prison and drug tales.

What golden era Hip Hop fans consider normal wardrobe—hardcore, prison and gang culture-inspired dress of the late ‘80s and ‘90s—was very much about promoting the agenda of authenticity. But authenticity is a false construct. Baggy, sagging jeans, bandanas, and in some respects, even cornrows are fashion cues that are at least in part picked up from street gangs and prisons. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that the average rapper has only had secondhand or fringe encounters with the penitentiary or organized street gangs. Anecdotally, for every 50 Cent or Mysonne that has documented ties to the drug game or the prison system, there are dozens of rappers who are more likely to have been a correctional officer than a drug kingpin. I’d say a vast majority of “hardcore” artists are just rapping about the exploits of an associate or they have very vivid imaginations.

Obviously the natural evolution of clothing styles also played a huge part in the changing wardrobe of performers in all genres. With the exception of Brett Michaels and Steven Tyler, Rock performers don’t opt for the ‘80s “hair band” look anymore. But, as it concerns Hip Hop, I think today’s allegedly effeminate stylings seem like more of a departure because many fans assumed emcees were doing the things they rapped about. And if rappers wanted listeners to believe they might have been involved in criminal activity, it made sense to dress like a criminal. To be fair, street culture (criminal or otherwise) has always influenced the way entertainers dress to a certain extent. Personally, I’ve resigned myself to the fact that Hip Hop music and culture can sometimes be just as contrived as professional wrestling. If rappers are returning back to the days of being larger than life performance artists and setting aside the construct of authenticity, then their current wardrobe reflects it. That doesn’t mean they’re becoming more effeminate.

Ladies First: Women, Wardrobe And Role Reversal

“What’s worse / Is to see the females switch the sexual mentality / It doesn’t match with their given anatomy / Man they’d rather be hoes like that male emcee / And walk around like they got nuts / Or use they tits and ass like a crutch / Man the underground’s about not being exposed / So you better take your naked ass and put on some clothes...” –Posdnuos, “Wonce Again Long Island.”

We can’t have a conversation about male rappers allegedly dressing like females without talking about actual females. While Bo$$, Da’ Brat and Conscious Daughters are the most easily identifiable examples of women that toyed with wardrobe and gender roles, you can also see the same thing happening with women that have served as Hip Hop’s fringe contributors.

Much like the members of TLC before her, Aaliyah subverted her physical features to draw more attention to her music. For some, this only drew more attention to them; it’s almost like the Modest Venus and her arm bra. She hid behind dark shades, and also covered half of her face just for good measure. She wore men’s boxers that purposely peeked from under sagging, ridiculously baggy jeans. Her halter-tops foreshadowed what fans would eventually see in “Rock The Boat.” But during her formative years, open baseball jerseys often covered those tops. If you subscribe to the notion of women controlling their own image and sexuality, then Aaliyah Dana Haughton was a great case study in shattering gender roles.

Aaliyah was a transcendent star. Her talent, charisma and runway looks are just part of the reason artists are still shouting her out 12 years after her untimely passing. But unlike Da’ Brat or Conscious Daughters, there was nothing “hard” about Aaliyah’s music—even when a man like R. Kelly—was penning the lyrics. So I don’t think it’s a coincidence that, some of the most lyrically vulnerable emcees such as Drake and Kendrick Lamar end up repeatedly name-checking Aaliyah. Are we really making progress with gender equality and being serious about trashing some of these assigned gender roles that have been hanging around since the ‘50s? If so, then Kendrick and Drake are no more “feminine” or “soft” than Aaliyah was hard. The golden era generation of emcees grew up on hyper-masculine men. For a brief period, today’s generation of Reagan Era babies saw a select few females flip that ideal on its ear. I think that at least partially explains Kendrick paying tribute to Aaliyah on “Blow My High” and why Drake seemed hell bent on a posthumous Aaliyah album. Conversely, you can see the dichotomy between an older generation stuck in traditional gender roles and today’s generation play out when Drake and Common respectively take shots at each other on “Sweet” and “Stay Schemin’.”

High Fashion And Sexual Self-Identification

“ASAP bitch / Suck my motherfuckin’ dick / Twomp sack nigga / And I’m comin’ for your chick / Every girl I fuck suck my motherfuckin’ dick  / ‘Cause I’m a pretty bitch / Man it is what it is / Word around town is I’m finer than my bitch / I’m the president with bitches in my office / Head in the mornin’ by a young ass bitch / I’m a fuckin’ goon turned to a pretty bitch…”—Lil B, “Pretty Bitch.”

So what does all of this mean for the present scene? Like many things, the answer is complicated. I don’t think it’s bigoted to say both homosexuality and coded racism were often embraced within the high fashion community. We’re only five years removed from the infamous Vogue magazine cover that cast NBA magnate LeBron James in the role of King Kong next to supermodel Gisele Bundchen. And, if Hip Hop is really taking baby steps toward tolerance, the average fan has to admit there has been a certain amount of sexism and homophobia within both our music and culture. Even, fashion friendly rappers like Azealia Banks are still referring to homosexual men as a certain three-letter word that rhymes with bag. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that things get muddled when a traditionally African American and homophobic genre like Hip Hop starts mingling with the world of high fashion, which lets coded racism slide while embracing homosexuality. There’s still an uneasy tension between the two worlds, and apparently that tension isn’t lost on A$AP Rocky—another one of the young emcees just as likely to appear on GQ as he is on XXL.

“I kicked down the door for kids that’s my age…or older or younger to be able to wear Jeremy Scott sneakers, rips in their jeans, and not feel gay,” A$AP told HardKnock TV’s Nick Huff Barilli. “That’s what society of the urban community tries to portray—that if you do certain things like snug fashion and high-end fashion, and other things that’s not really in the criteria of the small state of mind of the urban community, you’re ‘gay.’”

Saying today’s rappers dress softer is a bit of a cop out to me. And the lines are blurred even more when we see an artist like Wiz Khalifa clearly paying homage to Jimi Hendrix with his recent wardrobe choices. They definitely dress differently than the previous decade. And, for what it’s worth, I wouldn’t be caught dead in half of that bullshit they’re wearing. But I’m from a different era, and I’m not an entertainer.

Shifting The Focus Away From Just Fashion

“You’ll find a lot of the reason we behind / Is because the system is designed to keep our third eyes blind / But not blind in the sense that our other two eyes can’t see / You just end up investing quality time in places you don’t even need to be…” –CeeLo Green, “Fighting.”

An artist like Consequence may poke fun at how high fashion and dandyism has infiltrated Hip Hop, but what happens when the neat, little categories we like to put artists in disappear altogether?

“Fashion has changed these days…whatever the guys feel free and comfortable wearing, I’m down with it,” offers Big Freedia, the Queen Diva of Bounce. Freedia is a man that’s hard to categorize, and it doesn’t seem to be something he’s particularly interested in anyway. He carries a gun, dates a man, is cool being called the Queen Diva and counts, “the big bag and the latest shoes and purses with the hair on point” among the things that define being fashion forward. “They’re always going to try to categorize what people should wear. But people should wear whatever they feel. That’s just the way I look at it. From the Hip Hop artists, to the gays to the straights, nobody should be judged.”

The self-proclaimed, high minded music critic or listener may try to bait artists like Freedia into a long-winded discussion about sexual self-identification. But maybe it all comes back to comfort. Not just comfort in the most literal sense of fashion, but a reflection of many people’s own discomfort with their sexuality being projected onto artists if their fashion doesn’t fit the norm.
“It’s about music and having fun,” Freedia added. “But my look and my style is what makes me have fun. When I feel confident on stage, that’s what makes me have fun.”

Ultimately, maybe we’re paying attention to the wrong things by looking at how a rapper dresses. I reached out to a woman that’s both a die-hard Hip Hop fan and knows a thing or two about the link between wardrobe and sexuality.

“Lil Wayne gets a lot of backlash, because most of us remember when Lil Wayne first came out, he was wearing red bandanas and was thugged out,” offered radio personality, journalist and retired adult film star Sinnamon Love. “To see him go from that type of image—basically an exaggeration of gang culture—to suddenly wearing women’s jeggings on stage is a big leap. Because of the association of gang culture and prison, him suddenly wearing women’s clothes brings up other questions that a lot of people may not be ready to hear the answers to. I don’t know him, and I’ve never met him. So I can’t speak to his sexuality. But I think he generally displays a lot of irresponsible sexual behavior. The fact that he has as many kids as he has with so many different women speaks more to his behavior than what he’s wearing.”

It’s probably a safe bet to say neither you nor your children should take any cues from an entertainer, whether they’re a rapper or otherwise. And as absurd as a man in spandex, leopard print, women’s leggings is, the logic of avoiding being influenced by rappers applies to things much more important than wardrobe choices. There’s a ton of coded sexism, racism and homophobia at work when runway fashion and Hip Hop are mixed together. Hopefully he doesn’t dislocate his shoulder while patting himself on the back for his efforts, but A$AP Rocky should be applauded nonetheless for his stance on homophobia. If you’re truly about tolerance, then the reaction to Mr. Cee’s 2011 arrest and Frank Ocean’s open letter are signs that Hip Hop is taking small steps to evolve. If one of the oft-forgotten pillars of Hip Hop is knowledge, wisdom and understanding of the culture, then we should hope that our thinking eventually becomes as advanced as our fashion sense—leopard-print jeggings be damned.

Omar Burgess is a Long Beach, California native who has contributed to various magazines, newspapers and has been an editor at HipHopDX since 2008. Follow him on Twitter @OmarBurgess.

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