The hoodie is an iconic and essential part of most American wardrobes. It’s a ubiquitous piece that can be spotted both on the fashion runways of Milan and in homeless shelters, on babies and on adults, and, despite having a design that has remained relatively stable and functional, the hoodie has a complicated racial and political history, culminating most recently in the February 2012 shooting of Trayvon Martin. Despite its contemporary status of protest, insularity, and even exile, the hoodie has a relatively innocuous origin story. The well-known sweatshirt company Champion (established as the Knickerbocker Knitting Company in 1919), innovated the hoodie in the 1930s as a solution for chilly laborers in New York warehouses, but soon also marketed them towards athletes. (Of course, hoodies, if we take the term to mean more generally a hat-and-clothes-attached-combination, have a much longer history than this, but the specific design I’m discussing here is the attached-hood sweatshirt, with both body and hood made from sweatshirt material, that tightens around the hood with a draw-string.) When these athletes began to lend their sweatshirts to their girlfriends, the hoodie became a fashion piece.

Several functional elements of the hoodie made it ideal for various counter- and sub-cultures: it was generally baggy, allowing wearers to hide their body shape; it had baggy pockets, which also served to hide objects; and finally—and perhaps most important—the hood itself served as a sort of shield, allowing the user to hide and reveal his identity at will by his hoodie styling. (It also helped that it was cheap and easily washable.) It became a sort of modern-day cloak, beginning with the burgeoning hip-hop scene in the 1970s. As other groups caught on, following hip-hop’s lead, the hoodie soon became a proud and self-identifying symbol of the outcast. It allowed graffiti artists, skateboarders, surfer bums, rappers, and other figures with interests in illicit activities to keep a low and anonymous profile in public. In the 1990s, high-fashion brands began to appropriate the hoodie into their aesthetic to reflect popular interest in hip-hop and other sub-cultures. Even early tech culture used the hoodie to symbolize their break from mainstream society. By the 2000s, there was a growing schism, where the hoodie, even as it was elevated by brands like Versace and Ralph Lauren, was simultaneously racialized. The NBA banned hoodies in 2005. Many schools and nightclubs refuse hoodies as part of their dress codes. Combined with contemporary racial profiling and its reputation for rebellion, the hoodie began to pose a potential threat to its wearers: Trayvon Martin was shot unarmed by a white police officer as he wore a hoodie. After Martin’s death, protestors wore hoodies, and they are still frequently seen in protests today.

What makes the hoodie so fascinating is that despite all this, we still generally consider it a “cozy” piece of clothing, and are not surprised in the slightest to see it worn by so many diverse people and in so many diverse ways (see attached photos). Like jeans, and the baseball cap, the hoodie is firmly entrenched into all classes, genders, and styles of American—and now international—life. However, try as we might, and as accustomed as we all are to the piece, its history and design give it an unmistakeable edge that no brand can erase–but upon which many capitalize.