First of all, let’s get it out there: there is no easy way to define “urban fashion.” For some, the phrase means fashion-inspired by hip-hop. For others, it’s just what’s hot on the town and in the clubs. Some people consider urban fashion to be whatever young people are wearing. However, there’s actual quite a history to what is today considered urban fashion.
Where Did ‘Urban Fashion’ Start?
Whatever your personal definition of urban fashion, the concept of a style of clothing worn by people who gravitate to a certain kind of music isn’t new. In the “Jazz Age” of the 1920s, women tended to wear shorter skirts and peep-toe shoes perfect for dancing the Charleston and other showy steps at dance halls. World War I had just ended, and the stricter styles of the 1800s began loosening up for men and women at the same time that jazz music took off. Men’s suit styles relaxed in formality and became more decorative. Footwear for men got fancier, and new standards of style were set among urban dwellers. Hollywood also started to make an impression on a larger audience, because movies were reaching more and more people, and some of the trends shown on the big screen were going mainstream.
In the 1940s, urban styling for men reached its peak with zoot suits — an epitome of style for several groups because they took so long to tailor, and they were expensive to make. Said to be created by a Chicago trumpeter, these wide-legged suits were popular with men who followed music at the time, including Malcolm X.
After the United States joined World War II, however, urban fashion related to music slowed down a bit, but was revived in the 1970s, especially after hip-hop art forms emerged in New York City, in the South Bronx. Mainstream fashions in the ’70s embraced leisure suits, big hair and lots of polyester. But, when hip-hop artists began to get a following, their fashion was front and center.
Run DMC was one of the first groups to decide to wear street clothes during performances rather than traditional formalwear. Fans went crazy over Adidas Superstars and wore them without the laces, just like their favorite hip-hop artists. LL Cool J was rarely seen without his Kangol bucket hat and can be credited for helping to promote the brand to a hip-hop audience. In addition to the fans taking notice, the big name brands took notice as well — Adidas gave Run DMC a $1 million advertising deal, thanks to the group’s love for Adidas sneakers.
In the ’80s and into the ’90s, urban fashion became recognized to a wider demographic while rap music became popular and MTV introduced music videos on television. There were many different trends that became signatures for certain artists, for example, MC Hammer’s hammer pants, Kwamé’s polka-dots and Kris Kross’s backwards clothes.
Urban fashion continues to feature sports brands such as Nike and Reebok; sneakers continue to be a style staple for men and women alike and are popular with fashionable hip-hop artists. Other rising celebrities brought East Coast urban fashion to the rest of the nation with their performances in music videos and on TV shows. Before he became better known as an actor, Will Smith rapped as The Fresh Prince, and inspired plenty of fashion trends with his baseball caps and preference for bright colors. Female trends were inspired by groups such as Salt-n-Pepa, which used denim, leather and sports jackets in their styles. Later, TLC influenced women’s fashions with their baggy pants, cropped t’s and bra tops, edgy hairstyles and outspoken lyrics. Trends for women in the late 1980s and early 1990s included body suits, baggy pants, overalls, baby T-shirts and Doc Martens — all favorites of female artists including TLC, Da Brat, Yo Yo and Queen Latifah.
In the 2000s, urban fashion has become even less defined than previously. Hip-hop, rap and R&B artists are no longer the primary influences on trends within the subculture, and many online forum users writing about urban fashion and culture claim that urban fashion is inspired by a feeling and can take on many different appearances. Different neighborhoods around the country report their own trends stemming from Internet findings, sports figures, other genres of music and even haute couture. In the last 100 years, norms for what we wear and when we wear it have relaxed and shifted, and our sources for inspiration have broadened to include much more than just good music.
About the Author: Ricca L. Smith is wearing jeans, sneakers and a hoodie, yet writes about fashion for blogs on the Internet. She is fond of her ancient CD player, three of her cats, and hats from the 90s.