Music cultures and fashion

Photos of a man and woman in hip-hop styles- he is bare-chested with sunglasses and tattoos on his arms, she is in jeans and a fur shrug over a cropped top with lots of jewellery

Hip-hop style. Left image © iStockphoto.com/lanciatore,
right image © iStockphoto.com/Eric Hood.

Fashion and clothing have long been a part of differing popular music cultures. Performers have always used visual display and dress as part of their music, while for their part audiences and clubbers have all used distinct clothing and fashion styles as a way of showing that they belong to particular acts, genres or scenes.

When we think of musical genres such as punk, hip-hop, goth or emo we don't just think of sound: we also think of particular styles of dress, haircuts or body adornment. These signs are all ways of visually marking out particular groups, and to those in the know they signify not only musical taste but a whole set of attitudes, politics and cultural allegiances.

Youth groups centred around music and clothing (often referred to as subcultures by sociologists) have a long history. Some of them have roots in particular scenes; in the 1930s, for example, there was a fashion for Zoot Suits which came out of the Harlem jazz scene. Some styles, such as the 1920s flapper look adopted by many young women who frequented jazz clubs, are less obvious in geographical origin but nonetheless are clearly associated with distinct genres or eras.

Other looks emerge independently as 'street styles' and gain their associations with music over time. The Teddy Boy look, for instance, emerged in the UK in the early 1950s, only becoming associated with rock 'n' roll later in the decade. Similarly what became known as 'Mod' started off amongst modern jazz fans before becoming more widely associated with other forms of music such as soul and ska. Fans have also adopted styles of fashion that show connections with one particular star performer. Fans of artists such as varies as David Bowie, Morrisey, Madonna and Marilyn Manson have all sought to emulate and copy particular looks.

Some fashions associated with particular music cultures remain relatively static (fashions connected with rockabilly or skinhead are good examples), while others are subject to stylistic progress and change. Hip-hop culture for instance has seen various shifts in visual fashion relating to clothing, jewellery and other consumer goods. These have run in parallel with changes that have taken place in rap music in terms of the geographical centre of the music, its subject matter and its production techniques. The basic elements of hip-hop style were established from the street styles popular amongst New York Black and latino youth in the 1970s. Tracksuits, hats and training shoes from sportswear brands such as Adidas, Kangol and Nike were mixed with accessories such as gold chains, distinctive 'fat' laces and haircuts such as the Jherry Curl and the Hi-Top Fade. The basic template of sportswear has remained a constant element, but into it a variety of items of clothing, labels etc, have been introduced by different artists and different local scenes. Often these changes in fashion can be directly related to the music itself. The emergence of Afrocentric rap in the late 1980s, for instance, brought with it a conscious adoption of African style jewellery and imagery.

Many hip-hop stars have capitalised on the close connection between rap music and hip-hop fashions by starting their own clothing lines. In the early 1990s Def Jam founder Russell Simmons established Phat Farm, which became a cult label amongst hip-hop fans. The label's success paved the way for numerous other imprints such as Jay-Z and Damon Dash's Rocawear, Wu-Tang Clan's Wu-Wear and P-Diddy's Sean John. It is notable that rap as a genre has embraced fashion as an area of commercial spin-off where other genres have not. Many of the styles of music derived from rock are at pains to separate themselves from commerce, but hip-hop has taken the idea that musicians are business people and integrated it into the lyrics and marketing of the genre. Hip-hop presents itself as an arena in which ethnic, social and economic groups that find them themselves on the margins of society can succeed on their own terms.