Hoodie’s evolution from fashion mainstay to symbol of injustice

The killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin has sparked a national dialogue on race; now CNN wants to hear from you. At 8 p.m. ET Thursday at CNN studios in New York, Soledad O’Brien is hosting a town hall meeting called “Beyond Trayvon: Race and Justice in America.” The special will air at 8 p.m. ET Friday on CNN.

Story highlights

Protesters in Trayvon Martin case have worn hoodies in solidarity against racial profiling

The hoodie has evolved from roots in hip-hop culture to enjoy mainstream appeal

Geraldo Rivera criticized for remarks that hoodie played role in Martin's death

Image "all part of the demonization of the black male," hip-hop scholar says

CNN  — 

Whether you’re a high schooler or Ted Kaczynski, a soccer mom or a Rocky Balboa fan, you’ve likely embraced the hooded sweatshirt at some point in life.

For all its comfort and simplicity, the hoodie leads a dual life. Utilitarian and homogenous in form, hooded garments have been wardrobe staples of monks and hip-hop stars, Silicon Valley programmers and tycoons alike.

Yet it still carries a social stigma that has made it the object of legislative bans and political speeches. Now, amid widespread outcry over the death of Florida teen Trayvon Martin, the hoodie has become a symbol of social injustice.

Focus in Trayvon Martin case shifts to Washington

In the month since the 17-year-old was shot to death by a neighborhood watch patrolman, protesters nationwide have worn hoodies in a nod to the shooter’s description of Trayvon Martin. George Zimmerman told a 911 operator that he saw a “suspicious” person wearing a “dark hoodie” moments before he shot the teen in what he said was self-defense, according to police. Martin’s family and supporters said they believe race played a role in the shooting.

What witnesses say in the Trayvon Martin case

But those who participated in what have been called “hoodie marches” across the country this past week sought not only justice for Martin or possible prison time for Zimmerman. They wore the hoodie in solidarity against racial profiling and Florida’s “stand your ground” gun law. They marched in the name of anyone who wears hoodies at the risk of being perceived as “suspicious.”

Protesters demand justice

The hoodies continue to show up at rallies, on Senate floors and in churches, and the list of prominent people joining the movement is growing. Clay Aiken wore a hoodie in an interview Monday night on “Access Hollywood,” and LeBron James tweeted an image of Miami Heat players wearing hoodies with the words #WeAreTrayvonMartin, #Hoodies and #stereotypes.

Former talk-show host Geraldo Rivera triggered a debate over the role Martin’s hoodie might have played in his death, opining that “his hoodie killed Trayvon Martin as surely as George Zimmerman did.” Rivera apologized for his comments, calling them “politically incorrect,” but stopped short of retracting his claim that parents of black and Latino youngsters in particular should “not let their young children go out wearing hoodies.”

But, even before that fateful February night, hoodies were already wrapped up in negative racial connotations, said Imani Perry of Princeton University’s Center for African American Studies.

“While it is clear that hoodies are a popular form of attire for Americans of all ethnicities and ages, it is a style that has become particularly popular for black and Latino youth,” she said.

“Because of the pervasive and trenchant racial stereotypes associated with black young people, especially males, their styles are often singled out for criticism, as signs of criminality and misdeeds,” she said. “But in truth this is simply another form of stigmatization against the person underneath the clothing, and only superficially has anything to do with the clothing.”

Even without the racial aspect, hoodies have an image problem, thanks to their association with criminal activity, said Cynthia Jasper, professor of consumer science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Suspects in hooded clothing frequently appear in surveillance camera footage of armed robberies and law enforcement sketches of wanted criminals. Among the most memorable was Kaczynski, the “Unabomber” who engaged in a mail bombing campaign that spanned nearly 20 years but who first entered the public realm in a forensic sketch of a man with hoodie and sunglasses.

Hollywood tends to magnify the stereotype by recycling it in scenes depicting violence and crime, furthering ingraining it into the public’s collective conscience, Jasper said. People in turn impose those associations onto the wearer, regardless of the person’s intention.

“When people interpret your way of dressing, hoodie or whatever, people interpret that as something you control,” she said. “You can’t control how tall you’re going to be or your hair and eyes, but you can control what you put on your body, and your clothing is interpreted as representing who you are.”

It’s often not a fair association, she said, but it’s still the one most people conjure up within seconds of meeting someone as a way of processing and categorizing the person in front of them.

“We have to organize our world, and there’s so much that comes before us every single day,” Jasper said. “It’s a shortcut to help us organize the magnitude of information that comes at us.”

The history of the hoodie

Hooded garments weren’t always shrouded in nefarious intent, though their function of obscuring the wearer goes back to the Middle Ages, when monks and scholars wore hoods to shield their faces. Hoods served as protective items for farmworkers into the 19th century, worn as part of jackets or overcoats, said Mark-Evan Blackman, assistant professor of apparel design at New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology.

The knitted, hooded sweatshirt was popularized in the 1930s by apparel manufacturer Champion for the working class and evolved into sportswear for the mass market over the course of the 20th century.

Hoodies as we know them became part of youth popular culture in the early 1970s in New York when graffiti artists wore them to hide their identities as they “bombed” buildings and walls, said hip-hop scholar Halifu Osumare, director of African-American studies at the University of California-Davis.