Power: The Evolution of Black Masculinity Through Fashion
The Evolution of Black Masculinity Through Fashion
ll eyes were on Shayne Oliver as he stepped into a sweltering Bronx church in the heat of summer, 2000. The lanky teenager shuffled into the vestibule wearing a short white crop top, exposing his taut midriff. Blots of black skin poked through hand-tattered jeans that were so tight he had to cut them up and safety-pin them back together to get them on. Shayne’s outfit set him drastically apart from the men of the congregation, who wore boxy suits. He and his mother hadn’t even taken seats in a pew before the preacher started spewing a diatribe of venomous, homophobic remarks from the pulpit. It took a moment before Shayne realized the preacher was attacking him. “Basically, the pastor ran me out of the church,” he told me recently. “I stopped going after that.”
Shayne’s now 25 and the designer of menswear label Hood By Air, whose provocative styles—along with brands like Telfar and Third Floor—are carving out a new and empowering palette of masculinity for young black men to paint from. At Shayne’s shows, it’s not out of the ordinary to see his models stalk the runway in makeup and dresses. Their bellies are often exposed, and half the time you can’t tell whether they’re men or women. But far from sissiness, the looks exude the visceral power of a lineman crushing a quarterback, or two swords clashing in an action film. This time last year, at Shayne’s debut New York Fashion Week runway show, the scene was so thick I had to stand on my tiptoes to catch a glimpse of his powerful vision of androgynous modern menswear. With macho gangster rapper A$AP Rocky on the catwalk, and stars like Kanye West and Waka Flocka Flame in the crowd offering up their adulation, the show was the birth of a new epoch in the evolution of black masculinity.
There have been others who’ve pushed similar boundaries in the past. Before Kanye and A$AP, black artists like Sly and the Family Stone in the 60s and Cameo in the 80s wore gear that looked like it was straight out of the Folsom Street Fair. In the 90s, Tupac walked in a Versace fashion show in a flamboyant gold suit.
But one of the things that sets this new wave apart from what came before is that straight men like Kanye and Rocky have no problem recognizing that some of their looks might have originated in the gay community. This kind of inclusiveness and openness is one of the many elements that signifies a shift in the way black men comport themselves in an age when the old notions of machismo, which were burdened with the baggage of 400 years of slavery and Jim Crow, continue to be chipped away.
Menswear keeping you down?
My Old Navy Addiction, by Jizz Jussinger
Editor’s note: There is no relation between this piece, written by our longtime columnist Jizz Jussinger, and the piece in GQ by Friday Night Lights Author and generally despised human being Buzz Bissinger about his “addiction” to buying ludicrously expensive Gucci clothes and accessories that’s cost him half a million dollars. Any similarity between Jizz’s article and Mr. Bissinger’s is entirely coincidental.
I have an addiction. It isn’t drugs or gambling; I get to keep what I use after I use it. But there are similarities: the futile feeding of the bottomless beast and the unavoidable psychological implications, the immediate hit of the new that feels like an orgasm and the inevitable coming-down. In the past few years, I’ve bought 81 graphic tees. Dozens of shorts, both board and cargo. My name is Jizz Jussinger. I am 58 years old, the author of Some Kids Play Football but It’s Complicated and Award-Winning, father of three, husband. And I am a shopaholic.
It started three years ago. I have never fully revealed it, and am only revealing it now in the hopes that my confession will incite a remission and perhaps help others of similar compulsion. If all I buy is Old Navy, I will be fine. It has taken a while to figure out what works and what doesn’t work but Old Navy men’s clothing best represents who I want to be and have become—a laid-back guy you’d be unafraid to call “dude,” a Yacht Rocker from a landlocked state, someone who would be good at surfing if he tried, probably. During a recent trip to the Navy, a fellow shopper said I looked like “Luke from The OC,” a compliment that at this point in my life means more to me than any piece of writing.
I own 124 polos, 75 sweaters emblazoned with Old Navy Athletics, 41 pairs of khakis, 12 track jackets, and 115 pairs of novelty-print boxers covered in pizza and beach balls and burgers and ducks. Those who conclude from this that I have a John Hughes fetish, an extreme John Hughes fetish, get a grand prize of zero. And those who are familiar with my choices will sign affidavits attesting to the fact that I wear polos every day. The self-expression feels glorious, an indispensable part of me. As a stranger said after admiring my look in a red-sleeved raglan and a pair of plaid cargos with flip-flops, “You don’t give a fuck.”
I don’t. I finally don’t.
The History of Blue Jeans
Before we had low-rise, straight-leg, skinny, selvage, stretchy, resin-coated, lotion-infused, or mom jeans, there was simply jean—the fabric. The name likely originated from gênes, referring to Genoa, Italy, where sailors wore a twill blend of cotton, linen, and wool that came in a variety of stripes and colors.
Today’s jeans are made from heavier, all-cotton denim woven in a combination of indigo-dyed vertical yarn and” natural horizontal yarn, resulting in the fabric’s white-speckled surface and pale underside. And although the original name for denim came from Nîmes, France—as in, de Nîmes—the fabric was most likely first produced in England.
Once the United States emancipated itself from British rule, the former colonists stopped importing European denim and began producing it themselves from all-American cotton, picked by slaves in the South and spun, dyed, and woven in the North. The Industrial Revolution was largely fueled by the textile trade, which almost singlehandedly upheld slavery. When the cotton gin mechanized processing in 1793, prices, already subsidized by slave labor, dropped dramatically. Cheap goods drove demand, and a vicious cycle ensued. In the period between the invention of the cotton gin and the Civil War, America’s slave population shot from 700,000 to a staggering 4 million.
After the Civil War, companies like Carhartt, Eloesser-Heynemann, and OshKosh slung cotton coveralls to miners, railroad men, and factory workers. A Bavarian immigrant named Levi Strauss set up shop in San Francisco selling fabric and work-wear. Jacob Davis, an entrepreneurial Reno tailor, bought Strauss’s denim to make workingman’s pants, and added metal rivets to prevent the seams from ripping open. Davis sent two samples of his riveted pants to Strauss, and they patented the innovation together. Soon after, Davis joined Strauss in San Francisco to oversee production in a new factory. In 1890, Strauss assigned the ID number of 501 to their riveted denim “waist overalls.” The Levi’s 501 blue jean—which would become the best-selling garment in human history—was born.
Initially, jeans were proletarian western work-wear, but wealthy easterners inevitably ventured out in search of rugged cowboy authenticity. In 1928, a Vogue writer returned East from a Wyoming dude ranch with a snapshot of herself, “impossibly attired in blue jeans… and a smile that couldn’t be found on all Manhattan Island.” In June 1935, the magazine ran an article titled “Dude Dressing,” possibly one of the first fashion pieces to instruct readers in the art of DIY denim distressing: “What she does is to hurry down to the ranch store and ask for a pair of blue jeans, which she secretly floats the ensuing night in a bathtub of water—the oftener a pair of jeans is laundered, the higher its value, especially if it shrinks to the ‘high-water’ mark. Another innovation—and a most recent one, if I may judge—also goes on in the dead of night, and undoubtedly behind locked doors—an intentional rip here and there in the back of the jeans.”
Willis & Geiger: The Great Lost Expedition Brand
Until the early 1900s, there was no such thing as “expedition” clothing, much less an outdoor-clothing industry. Explorers would simply find the most rugged gear they could get their hands on and hope it would suffice. In 1903, during an Arctic mineral-hunting expedition, an American geologist by the name of Ben Willis discovered that most clothing doesn’t hold up in 100 mph winds and -60 °F temperatures. Ben returned to New York and started designing garments that could withstand conditions in the frozen tundra from which he had just escaped.
A few years earlier, in 1897, C.C. Filson had begun making his eponymous clothing for gold miners looking to strike it rich in Alaska, and thus, with the two manufacturers and the nascent Manhattan retailer Abercrombie Co., the outdoor-clothing industry was born. In 1928, Willis took on Howard Geiger as a partner, and Willis & Geiger set to work outfitting the era’s most famous explorers: Teddy Roosevelt, Ernest Hemingway, Charles Lindbergh, Amelia Earhart, Roald Amundsen, Admiral Richard E. Byrd, Sir Edmund Hillary, and Tenzing Norgay, to name a few. They manufactured private label gear to outdoor brands like L.L. Bean, Abercrombie & Fitch (the “Fitch” was added after one of Abercrombie’s regular customers invested in the company in 1904), and Eddie Bauer. Despite the brand’s deep heritage in the clothing industry, Willis & Geiger—which Town & Country magazine once called the “granddaddy of outerwear”—is widely unknown today. So what happened? It was bought and sold over and over, by a variety of corporations, and the brand only lives on via eBay auctions and a few pieces of clothing from Lands’ End that appropriate Willis & Geiger in name only.
Burt Avedon (cousin of the famous fashion photographer Richard Avedon) revived the company two years after it went out of business in 1977 and helmed it until it was liquidated in 1999. Now 89 years old, Burt is one of the last remaining people to have hands-on experience with the brand. His bio reads like a Most Interesting Man in the World skit: He was a pilot by age 12, raced cars, played football for UCLA, fought at Iwo Jima, won a Purple Heart in the Navy, went from Harvard Business School into cosmetics and fashion, married an Italian princess, and later led attempts to excavate downed World War II planes from Greenland ice. After a short search, I tracked him down at his home in Verona, Wisconsin, to find out what had happened to what many consider to be the greatest outdoor-clothing brand of all time.
Burt Avedon: Let me just ask you a question: Having done some research on your publication, your audience is the antithesis of our company and our lives. Because it’s young, 18 to 35, as they say, and countercultural—are we anathema, or are we the contrast vehicle?
VICE: Neither. I think that young people right now are very interested in anything related to American heritage, especially in regard to fashion.
We haven’t found that to be the case. We find that the youth are not at all interested in things that have long histories and heritage and integrity and all that. They are interested in reading predominately what’s new and what’s contemporary.
There is a lot of that with the pace of media right now, where people are always looking to see who’s putting out the newest sneakers, but there are a few brands whose authenticity is paramount.
Yeah, but unfortunately good brands of heritage are a reflection of their original management; when they become professionally managed, they lose the spark that brought them to where they are today. I found that to be classic in the industry. Whenever they go into second- and third-generation management, they lose themselves. They no longer have the passion that was originally part of their DNA.
Neon Waters Run Deep
There’s nothing fundamentally offensive, really, about the new Odd Future Stone Wash Pajama Zubaz uniforms that adidas rolled out on Thursday in preparation for the NCAA tournament later this month. Aesthetically, maybe, there are some things to disagree with—the color-schemes apparently based on flavors Gatorade invented, like “Frost Cascade Crash”; the shorts that resemble something a Jacksonville-area steroid dealer might’ve worn in 1991; the Notre Dame uniform, which looks like a Shamrock Shake with a tall dude trapped inside it. These are reasonable things to notice and take issue with, although it’s useful to remember that these uniforms were made with that purpose in mind—ruffling people square enough to care about college basketball uniforms, and ruffling them into using the word “adidas” if at all possible. This has worked—I’ve now done it twice in this column, and did it elsewhere yesterday—although it would have worked less well if there was anything else to talk about in sports right now. So, mission accomplished. Remind me to tell you about adidas’s patented ClimaCool Zones, an exciting new fabric technology that might well solve forever whatever pseudo-problem it purports to address, for all I know.
There’s a certain baseline squickiness to non-stories like this, which are essentially and inescapably re-heated press releases served with a side salad of Hot Take. It helps (if that’s the word) that these uniforms are undeniably something-a-skateboarding-cartoon-dinosaur-would-wear gaudy and legitimately strange. But the conversation they generate is mostly crypto-promotional noise. It’s familiar, too—think of those popular videos that get posted to every traffic-seeking site on the web along with a couple paragraphs about how stupid this video-meme is; think of the branded factoids and drowsily re-reported press releases that are the stock in trade of the widely loathed ESPN Brand Enthusiast Darren Rovell. These things are forgettable spurts of spume generated by the internet’s relentless, affectless churn. It’s hard to know what percentage of the web consists of ostentatiously and unapologetically content-free content like this, but it’s a two-digit number that probably starts with a seven or an eight and ends with a LeAnn Rimes upskirt.