by: Shireen Cohen
Hip-hop music has, since its birth and maturation, always been the voice identifying and tying the African American community to social issues and values of its time. Hip-hop artists have continually used their clothing and style as a form of expression complementing the messages behind their music. Hip-hop artists used fashion as a cultural didactic to express their thoughts on nationality, social value and region.
Hip-hop first began to pick up among the mainstream audiences in the late 1970s and early 1980s, with artists such as Grand Master Flash and the Furious Five and Afrika Bambaataa experiencing major success at the time. These artists tended to dress in flashy attire, wearing tight leather, chest-bearing shirts and gloves as part of the rock and disco elements found in their music.
Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five
Later on, Run DMC is credited for changing the identity of hip-hop by moving towards a new look. The fashion of the time represented this sort of low-key community. As an expression of neo-black power, artists rejected high fashion institutes and stuck to designers and labels people in the community were wearing, such as Adidas and Kangol. Typically, hip-hop artists of the time wore tracksuits, bomber jackets, large glasses, Kangol bucket hats and shelltoe sneakers with oversized laces or no laces at all.
Most importantly, heavy gold jewelry was predominant. The heavy gold jewelry was the artist’s way to show off wealth and prosperity. Gold jewelry as a means of expression of affluence has been dated to historic African roots. According to hip-hop artist Schoolly D, wearing gold “is not something that was born in America. This goes back to Africa. The gold chains are basically for warriors. The artists in the rap field are battling. We're the head warrior. We got to stand up and say we're winning battles, and this is how we're doing it." Artists such as Kurtis Blow, Big Daddy Kane and Slick Rick aided in popularizing heavy gold chains while female artists Salt-N-Pepa helped in popularizing the gold “door knocker earrings” common among African women at the time. The progression of the big, bold jewelry in recent years has become the “bling”, the “ice” or the “diamonds” rappers have been wearing. Recent jewelry in the hip hop world has come to include diamonds in its “the bigger the better motto.” Although the gold jewelry was intended to be a form of empowerment for these artists, it has become, in reality, a fundamental backlash against its purpose. The documentary Bling: A Planet Rock, produced by VH1 Rock Docs, Article 19 Films and the United Nations Development Program examines the relationship between rappers’ “bling” and conflict diamonds. The documentary points to the rap industry ignorance in being conscious consumers when buying jewelry. Having purchased conflict diamonds, rappers are, in essence, depowering the African roots they thought they were empowering.
Big Daddy Kane
In the late 1980s, with black civil rights successes, the focus of hip-hop changed, bringing about a new system of social values to one of living the high life. Rap lyrics echoed this notion of affluence and all the pretty, nice things money could buy. With the change in music and lyrics came the change in hip-hop fashion. The ghetto-based movement was no longer relevant. With tremendous influence from the 1983 remake of Scarface, figures of the hip-hop community began embracing a Mafioso image, trying to attain the finer things in life. Artists like Big Daddy Kane were trying to bring a new image, one of more power and respect to the face of hip hop by adopting this “Afro-nouveau riche” look. Artists began to wear fur coats, pointed alligator skin shoes, leather hats and suits.
In terms of high fashion, hip-hop has had influence on primarily two important designers- Karl Lagerfeld and Isaac Mizrahi. Both Lagerfeld and Mizrahi, who are respected and prestigious designers, looked for cues from and were influenced by hip-hop fashion elements. For the Chanel Fall/Winter Ready-to-Wear line, Karl Lagerfeld had embraced the hip-hop style of the big, heavy gold jewelry. Some models were dressed in black leather jackets with an abundance of gold chains. Others were dressed in long dresses with heavy padlocked silver chains, similar to the one worn by Treach of Naughty by Nature. Isaac Mizrahi came in direct contact with the trend by his elevator operator, who, at the moment, was sporting the typical heavy gold chain that was central to hip hop fashion at the time. In his show the following season, models were featured wearing black catsuits with big gold chains, nameplates and black bomber jackets.