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Hoodies have a complicated fashion story

The Unabomber. Joe Maddon. Rocky Balboa. Your babysitter.

They all wear a hood. A hoodie. In Saskatchewan, a bunny hug or a cotton popover. It is a ubiquitous, homogenized garment, something designed for comfort, warmth and function that also has a notorious double life.

Trayvon Martin, black and 17, was walking through a gated Sanford subdivision in February. George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer, followed him and shot him to death. Trayvon was carrying Skittles and iced tea, no gun. Zimmerman told a 911 operator that Trayvon looked suspicious, that he was wearing a hoodie.

The shooting ignited a debate about Florida's "stand your ground" law, but it carries an interesting subtext about the weight we assign fashion. In Trayvon's case the hoodie was harmless, but we have pumped it so full of negative meaning that on Friday Fox News host Geraldo Rivera proclaimed that parents should not let black and Latino children wear hoodies. "I think the hoodie is as much responsible for Trayvon Martin's death as George Zimmerman was," he said. Basketball stars LeBron James and Dwyane Wade tweeted hoodie photos Friday, denouncing stereotypes.

Days earlier, outraged people organized a Million Hoodie March in New York City, pulling hoods over their heads and carrying photos of Trayvon wearing a hoodie. It was clear reminder that when worn by someone older, or whiter, the hoodie is just a sweatshirt.

The power of a piece of cotton clothing to color our perceptions comes through in a second image of Trayvon in a red T-shirt from Hollister, a shop for middle-class teens. Suspicious doesn't come to mind.

It's too easy to pin his character on any shirt — especially the hoodie, which means different things to different people. Hoodies don't belong to any one class now. They never have.

Folklore gives us Robin Hood and Little Red Riding Hood, one an outlaw, the other a child pursued by a wolf. Both wore hoods. In real life, 19th century Christian monks and nuns wore cowls. Templars, who protected travelers, wore white-hooded cloaks.

The Champion company produced the first sweatshirt hoodies in the 1930s, marketed to warm freezing workers in New York warehouses. Hoodies exploded in the 1970s with the proliferation of hip-hop and graffiti culture. Then came a meat-punching, stair-running Philadelphia fighter named Rocky.

They took on a subversive bent, the way greased ducktails and leather jackets did in the 1950s, the way long hair and flared pants did in the '60s. But that also made them sexy. Grace Jones wore hoods, and Roy Halston Frowick outfitted women in his legendary long hooded dresses.

Hoodies didn't get a bad reputation for no reason. People used them to hide their faces, to do bad things.

In places like the United Kingdom the hoodie jumped from social statement to social stigma. Some malls and schools banned hoodies, which had become the unofficial uniform of petty thieves and hooligans. Police in Brisbane, Australia, urged shopkeepers to have "hoodie-free zones."

In 2006, David Cameron, then the leader of the British conservative party, made a valiant attempt to get "people in suits" to move past the hoodie's pejorative associations. "For some, the hoodie represents all that's wrong about youth culture in Britain today. For me, adult society's response to the hoodie shows how far we are from finding the long-term answers to put things right." Detractors labeled it the "hug a hoodie" speech. The next year, a 4-year-old girl was asked to take down her hood at a Welsh amusement park.

In America, anti-hoodie hysteria hasn't been quite as shrill, but we have our own issues. Hoodies were recently banned as part of a sweeping dress code update at Clearwater High School, administrators said, because students used them to hide cell phones.

And it was a dark hoodie that Nick Lindsey was seen wearing the night police say he shot and killed St. Petersburg Officer David Crawford.

But such are the ways of fashion that even that kind of morbid link isn't enough to stop Americans from buying them at every store in the mall.

Target. Abercrombie & Fitch. Old Navy, a place that sells patriotic flag shirts on the Fourth of July. Hot Topic sells almost 200 varieties, in motifs from zombie to Barbie to bacon. There are hoodies with cat ears, hoodies with fur, hoodies with dinosaur spikes. The city of New York sells official New York Police Department hoodies.

Most people wear them because everyone else is wearing them, not because they want trouble.

Aline Bryant, petite, blond and 22, sat in a journalism class at the University of South Florida on Wednesday night, nestled in a navy blue hoodie from Aeropostale. Her hood was lined with preppy green and blue plaid.

"I probably have at least four," she said. "I still have my hoodie from high school. … I don't see someone in a hoodie and immediately think I should run away."

When it starts to rain on campus, Aline puts the hood up. That's what it's for. To cover your head. Not to reduce you to a simplistic caricature, a Grim Reaper or a Kenny from South Park.

It was raining the night Trayvon Martin was shot.

Humans give fashion its meaning. Not the other way around.

Stephanie Hayes can be reached at shayes@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8857.

Hoodies have a complicated fashion story 03/24/12 [Last modified: Monday, March 26, 2012 9:53pm]
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