'A reflection of inner life': show explores history of the hoodie

It is an item that you can buy at Sainsbury’s and Next, but the hooded top is still somehow a sartorial conduit for state of the world conversations.

In recent months, we’ve had Sienna Miller defying tabloid Brexit sensibilities in her pro-European hoodie, a Canadian politician thrown out of parliament for wearing one and Timothée Chalamet challenging gender by sporting a bedazzling one on the red carpet.

In all these cases, the clothing has done the talking. Although comparable to the black leather jacket or the burqa, it’s hard to think of another garment that has existed as a wardrobe staple, streetwear trailblazer and ticking political timebomb all at the same time.

A new exhibition, The Hoodie, which is showing at Rotterdam’s Het Nieuwe Instituut, attempts to unravel the garment’s colourful history. As befits such a complicated item, the multimedia exhibit features more than 60 hoodies as well as magazines, music and films. Artworks include Devan Shimoyama’s February II, a hoodie rendered in soft pastel shades of flowers as a tribute to Trayvon Martin, who was shot wearing a hoodie in 2012.

Although the “first” hooded garment dates back to the 12th century, the exhibition looks at its journey from uniform of blue-collar workers in the 1930s to sport-leisure item in the 70s to its multiple-hyphenate use today. The hoodie, we learn, is reflective of the time and the person wearing it.

“The hoodie itself has no real meaning,” says Amirah Mercer, founder of Other Suns, a platform for the black fashion community, “which makes it an easy garment to sell, because multimillion-dollar fashion brands can imbue it with any sentiment they like. But the hoodie is usually a very personal garment for the wearer. It’s a reflection of a person’s inner life.”

Or a political interest. In the UK under Margaret Thatcher, the hoodie became part of the “working-class uniform”, a scapegoat made of cotton.

“I grew up in Bedford and I remember there was a real period of agitation and moral panic around the hoodie,” says the exhibition’s curator Lou Stoppard. The hoodie had come to signify our collective fears. Bluewater shopping mall banned them in 2005 and David Cameron’s “hug a hoodie” speech came out a year later. This year has been bookended by David Lammy’s campaign to break the stigma around black men in hoodies and news of a black teenager in Essex being arrested for wearing one. Not to mention the fact that the braying mob in one of the year’s most contentious films, The Joker, all sport the garment.

Timothée Chalamet in his hoodie.
Timothée Chalamet wearing a hoodie. Photograph: Ian West/PA

“Anything that’s worn by young people; subcultural groups like graffiti artists, hip-hop artists, skateboarders is agitated around,” says Stoppard.

In the US, the hoodie became associated with a racist stereotype of criminality in black communities and a device for racial profiling, peaking with the shooting of Trayvon Martin in 2012. “There’s an odd thing with the hoodie in the difference between the intention of the wearer and the response of the viewer who sees it being worn,” says Stoppard. “The person wearing it usually has normal intentions like ‘I’m wearing it because it’s comfy,’ but the viewer can add associations of threat and deviancy to it.”

Claudia Rankine featured David Hammons’ artwork In the Hood (showing the haunting severed top of a hoodie) on the cover of her seminal book of poetry from 2014, Citizen. I ask her if she thinks anything has changed around black communities’ association with the garment since Martin’s death. She doesn’t think so. “Racial profiling continues,” she says. “People might be more prone to understand how it works and how hoodies are read, but understanding does not automatically marry itself to change or prevention.”

Mercer points to a bright moment of rehabilitation for the garment: Beyoncé wearing yellow and fuschia custom Balmain hoodies at last year’s Coachella. “To wear something negatively stereotyped against black youth reminded us to reclaim the hoodie in our community as a garment of self-expression,” she says.

  • The Hoodie is on until 12 April 2020 at Het Nieuwe Instituut, Rotterdam