Change Clothes: The Evolution Of Fashion In Hip-Hop

Words by Donelda Iyizoba

For the past 40 years, Hip-Hop has been a subculture in which alienated and frustrated youth could find their voices. It is also a multi-billion dollar cultural industry.  Since its conception in the early 1970’s, hip-hop has become a multifaceted music-led youth culture in which self-conscious words, expressions of contemporary urban life and attire constantly intertwine.  Hip Hop fashion, primarily in men’s wear, has always been on a perpetual high point. In the late 70’s to mid 80’s hip-hop was influenced by Reagan-era politics and the crack epidemic.  Drug dealers would represent the pinnacle of their wealth with big gold rope chains, fur coats, and designer suits.  Brands like Gucci and Louis Vuitton were admired.  Artists like Big Daddy Kane, Grand Master Flash, and Cold Rush exemplified these larger than life personas.


From the late 80’s to the early 90’s, hip-hop transformed tremendously.  Artists like Run DMC made luxury sportswear iconic; in which Kangol hats and big gold chains were paired with Adidas sneaker and tracksuits. Expanding into black neo-nationalism dubbed the “militant” look (think Janet Jackson Rhythm Nation). The late 90’s saw a switch to a looser baggier silhouette becoming popular amongst musicians like Wu Tang Clan, DMX, and even female artists like Aaliyah.  This unisex style changed at the turn of the century.  By the early 2000’s men were flaunting diamonds, over-sized jersey’s and women were rocking extra low rise leather pants, and bikini tops.  Lil’ Kim made this “I’m clothed, but not really” look for women very popular.  Hip-hop’s influence in music was not just limited to artists as models, but there was a boom in hip-hop artists run fashion brands.  Brands like Sean John, Fubu, Baby Phat, Rocawear and G-Unit emerged and achieved great success. The traditional fashion houses joined in on the “fun,” when the term “ghetto fabulous” arose from the growth of luxury brands such as Versace, Burberry, and Armani, and of course Louis Vuitton becoming the go to brands for hip-hop’s elite.


Today, hip-hop is greatly influenced by its predecessors.  It is only 2015; the 90’s and 80’s have both had two come backs in fashion and music.  Artists like The Cool Kids and Kendrick Lamar (his 2012-2014 hairstyle) influenced a “new millennium” high top fade.  Along with reviving the past, hip-hop has become very Avant-garde on a variety of levels.  First, there are artists like Chris Brown, Lil’ Wayne and Wiz Khalifa whose stylistic staples include overly tattooed street-wear with luxury components: Givenchy, Christian Louboutin, and Versace. In women’s wear, Nicki Minaj, Azalea Banks, and Teyana Taylor have the versatility to go from pink wigs and costume make-up to Oscar de La Renta gowns.  Drake, Rihanna, Kanye West and A$AP Rock epitomize hip-hop couture, in that they are often seen wearing off the runway couture pieces.  For example, Kanye West has departed from his pink polo days and popularized the Maison Martin Margiella masks. A$AP Rocky and Rihanna have brought attention to luxury fashion designers such as Raf Simmons, Hood by Air, Alexander Wang and Saint Laurent.  They have become the bridge to “unattainable” fashion.  Hip-hop fashion has also toned down its color scheme to no color at all.  “All Black Everything” has been reigning since Jay-Z, Young Jeezy, and even 2 Chainz commercialized “black on black on black”.

Fashion influences hip-hop and sometimes vice versa.  It is a never-ending relationship in which one cannot live without the other.  Like music, fashion is an outlet, which young adults will always be able to express themselves.