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Style File: Hip Hop Fashion

For this edition of “style file,” we’re going to take a look at Hip Hop Fashion, which began in the 1970s and has had increased influence in styles and trends every decade since. Hip Hop Fashion, aka Streetwear, is a casual yet distinctive style of dressing that originated from urban Black American and Latin American

For this edition of “style file,” we’re going to take a look at Hip Hop Fashion, which began in the 1970s and has had increased influence in styles and trends every decade since.

Hip Hop Fashion, aka Streetwear, is a casual yet distinctive style of dressing that originated from urban Black American and Latin American inner-city youths in New York. It usually centers around laidback, comfortable pieces such as jeans, T-shirts, and hoodies in oversized silhouettes and sportswear-themed accessories, like baseball caps and sneakers. But what once started from humble beginnings has grown into a robust and viable market with designer brands like Tommy Hilfiger, Polo Ralph Lauren, Gucci, and athletic brands like Adidas and Puma offering Hip Hop, inspired fashion, and products.

Hip Hop fashion, like most fashion, is not just about unique clothes and funky accessories. At its core, it’s about self-expression and serves as an extension of the Hip Hop’s culture of music, art, and dance as it relates to Black American identity. Since its beginnings in the ‘70s, Streetwear and Hip Hop Fashion have evolved and incorporated elements of surf culture, punk, new wave, and workout wear, with every major city in the United States putting its own spin on this style. In the 1980s, Hip Hop Fashion meant tracksuits and neon-colored leather jackets. Oversized sunglasses, Kangol bucket hats, nameplates, and gold rings finished the Streetwear uniform for many young people celebrating Hip Hop culture.

In the 90s, sportswear becomes a huge aspect of Hip Hop Fashion as sports jerseys rose in popularity. A current player’s jersey, or better yet a throwback jersey, dickies, and always sneakers, were Hip Hop Fashion’s main look. During this time, you begin to see a split in male vs. female Hip Hop style. Previously, girls and women emulated a more masculine aesthetic, wearing baggy pants and heavy work boots. However, by the mid-1990s, a more feminine expression of Streetwear emerged with color-blocked crop tops, longer braided hairstyles, and African-print inspired dresses and skirts.

From the late 90s through the early 2000s, bling was the thing in Hip Hop Fashion and Streetwear. Whether platinum or gold, celebrities and lay-people alike wore jewelry often embedded with diamonds. Gold chains and hoop earrings become bigger and heavier and removable metal jeweled teeth coverings, commonly known as grills, rose in popularity. With the emphasis on jewelry and designer labels, critics from both in and outside of the Hip Hop community began to rebuke the glorification of consumerism.

In the 2010s and now in the 2020s, Hip Hop Fashion has become ubiquitous with mainstream culture, both here in the US and internationally, with foreign cities like Tokyo, Milan, Laos, and Seoul putting their own stamp on modern Hip Hop Streetwear. There’s also a trend toward unisex clothing with pastel and floral printed windbreakers for both men and women and brightly colored neoprene jumpsuits. While brands as divergent as Champion to Chanel offer Hip Hop Fashion at every price point.

Of course, no rundown of Hip Hop Fashion would be complete if I didn’t include the short-lived practice of wearing clothing backward as made popular by the juvenile rap group Kris Kross. Full disclosure, back in 1992, me and some of my friends totally wore denim overalls clasped in the back over backward-buttoned flannel shirts on more than one occasion to the Lycoming Mall, and possibly once bowling. Why did we do this? Because we wanted to express ourselves by copying the look of musicians we were listening to and relating to. Self-expression, experimentation, and not being afraid to be a bit goofy and have fun are all components of Hip Hop and Streetwear style. Yet, at the same time, Hip Hop Fashion is also very much about celebrating and elevating African American culture, recognizing that Black Americans are toeing the line between African ancestry and American realities through music, art, and fashion.

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