In Rotterdam, the hoodie has been adopted by everyone, regardless of gender, age, class or cultural background. Widely available, it is heavily displayed throughout the local retail landscape. Aside from comfort and ease, the hoodie offers a sense of protection and safety from the outside world, helping to shield its wearer from rain and cold and, in some cases, offering the perfect solution for bad hair days.
From a female perspective, the fabric and design of the hoodie also enables us to disguise our bodies, and therefore desexualise them. In cities like Rotterdam, the hoodie makes for a good companion when walking home late at night, shielding you from the unwanted male gaze.
At first glance, the hoodie seems to promise gender neutrality. Yet if you want to buy this ‘unisex’ garment, you will often have to find it in a men’s store or men’s department - because in the women’s section, it will be either pink, cropped, or will have a sassy or emotive phrase slapped on it.
With its ability to deflect unwanted attention for female wearers, the hoodie sparks different narratives for men and women. So is it easier for a woman to wear a hoodie?
Stemming from practical workwear, the hoodie gained widespread popularity in the 1990s with the rise of hip-hop culture. By 2019, it appeared – worn by actor Timothée Chalamet – as a Louis Vuitton version embroidered with more than 3,000 Swarovski crystals and 15,000 sequins on the Golden Globes’ red carpet.
This glamorous manifestation is in stark contrast to the symbolic weight it acquired following the 2012 murder of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman, who claimed that the sight of Martin’s hoodie caused him to feel threatened. These two examples not only illustrate the ambiguity of the hoodie; they also demonstrate how, for men, its associations of rebellion can make powerful visible statements (intended or unintended) rather than promoting invisibility.
A woman in a hoodie might not be affected by the same preconceived notions (criminality, for example) that male wearers may experience; but she has to face another set of judgements. These lie in the perception of what a woman is supposed to look like in order to be ‘feminine’. When a woman wears a hoodie that has not been adapted to the criteria associated with her gender, her appearance may be labelled unkempt, lazy or tomboyish.
Dress can be seen as the interface of the wearer. Besides protecting the human body from the environment, dress forms a link between the individual and their socio-cultural surroundings.
When dress is used to infer information about the Other, the information serves as the basis for interaction. We can use dress to identify another’s social position, as well as deducing other possible identities and subcultural distinctions. As we use dress to make inferences about each other, we can consciously manage it to control others’ assumptions, so managing social perceptions of the self.
Clothing as a form of nonverbal communication is context dependent, in that the specific meaning is communicated by clothing symbols depends on the social context in which it is perceived (Kaiser, 1985, p224). Choosing to wear a hoodie as a man in Silicon Valley may therefore sometimes garner reactions like, “The wearer is breaking down barriers in relation to hierarchal structures in the corporate world.”
Postmodern appearance management can perhaps be compared with the formal technique of collage.
Fashion brands use this technique to place the hoodie within their commercial context, by taking the unwieldy garment and pairing it with feminine or more traditional items. For example, a hoodie (usually regarded as casual non-business wear) paired with a trench coat or blazer, allows the garment to be elevated by items usually worn in more formal settings.
This upscaling of the hoodie has allowed it to grow beyond its street-origins and become universally accepted within a far wider social setting. This raises the question of where, and in what socio-economic sphere, the hoodie ‘belongs’ – and simultaneously, who is allowed to judge its wearer.
By far the greatest amount of research into the social perception of clothing and human behaviour investigates the effect of the visual characteristics (clothing styles) of the social object (the wearer), on judgements made about the social object. The overall body of research presumes that clothing serves as a form of non-verbal communication.
In 1990, researcher Mary Lynn Damhorst found that in 81% of these studies, the information communicated by dress related to competence, power or intelligence — meaning that we can be judged to be smart, for example, by our choice of clothing alone. In 1988, social psychologists Mark Frank and Thomas Gillovisch found that male footballers and ice hockey players wearing black uniforms played more aggressively (as evidenced by the number of penalties awarded) than players in white. In 2012, psychologists Hajo Adam and Adam Golinsky found that wearing clothing we feel has greater symbolic meaning has consequences for our behaviour.
The subliminal integration of non-verbal communication with the way we dress becomes clear in a study in which female sexual assault survivors emphasised that their subsequent acts of self-protection included changing their dress to shield themselves from future attacks, as well as from the comments of others. They indicated a desire to dress in jackets, sweaters and oversized hoodies in order to avoid attracting attention.
Finally, several analyses have found social power to be related to dress.
There haven’t been any specific tailored case studies on the social power structures of the hoodie yet, but it would be interesting to investigate its ambiguous position for wearers and onlookers, in order to further map and demystify its cultural relevance.
The modern staple
Meanwhile the adaptation of the hoodie as acceptable everyday wear has turned it into a staple of the modern woman’s wardrobe. Within this framework, the hoodie (next to the black or white t-shirt, trench coat, blazer and blue jeans) is seen as an essential ‘basic’. In contrast to the idea of staple items, the socio-economic context of capitalism encourages the ideology of ‘neomania’, as produced by the fashion system. This in turn accelerates the introduction of various trends, which have allowed the basic hoodie (and its antisocial associations) to be repeatedly overhauled by embellishment and ornament.
In today’s society, the hoodie can signal wealth better than a fur coat. Think about celebrities roaming the streets incognito, using the hoodie to obscure their identity. Ironically, they often wear hoodies that have been subsumed by the design aesthetic of logo-mania, which in turn contradicts the act of not wanting to be seen. The revival of logo-mania comes as a result of high fashion brands such as Gucci, Dior, and Vetements looking to the streets for inspiration, resulting in the appropriation of streetwear to convey inclusivity.
“As good as a new designer bag”
In 2016, creative director Jen Brill told Business of Fashion that “Putting on a new Supreme hoodie feels as good as wearing a new designer bag” – thereby defining streetwear as the new luxury.
Supreme doesn’t produce a women’s range, but women wanting to participate in the subculture of streetwear and its urban framework have long bought streetwear in small sizes. Stüssy was one of the first streetwear brands to begin selling a women’s line in 1995, at first largely composed of scaled-down reiterations of its menswear. Others have followed suit – companies like A Bathing Ape and Carhartt now offer women’s ranges, while newer streetwear labels like Married to the Mob and Hlzblz, launched in 2004 and 2005 respectively, were conceived for female consumers from the ground up (Morency, 2016).
If we break down the hoodie to just its fabric pattern, it is clear that women can wear oversized men’s hoodies (specifically tailored to the male body) without much scrutiny in regard to wearing a garment not necessarily meant for them. Some assumptions may come into play: is she wearing her boyfriend’s clothes? In contrast, few men would be likely to want to wear a cropped, midriff-baring pink ‘women’s’ hoodie. Mutations of the hoodie pattern put the female wearer in a position of choice regarding the role they wish to play.
Choosing from the various styles proposed by fast fashion, luxury fashion and sportswear creates a decision-making process which basically boils down to using the hoodie either to conceal the body, or reveal it.
Traditional hoodie patterns have a loose fit alongside elastic cuffs and hems, helping the wearer to move without being disturbed by the overflow of fabric. In order to get a better grasp on how different pattern structures work on the body, and to show that not every ‘casual’ hoodie displays the same fit, and thus the same visual cues, I decided to conduct some personal embodied research.
By deconstructing five hoodies according to their patterns, and then reconstructing them into three ‘compilation hoodies’ that house components of the five various silhouettes, I made a contorted visual blueprint that challenges the way the wearer experiences wearing the hoodie’s particular garment patterns. As the compilation hoodies contradict and disturb the specific way each hoodie was meant to fit, the pattern differences became clear and components that were originally perceived as natural and undetectable became either preferable or undesirable.
My embodied experience created an awareness surrounding the effects of different silhouettes in relation to the body.
The boxed variation made me feel shapeless and was the wrong cut for actually enjoying the ‘relaxed’ fit, while the double hooded version elevated the garment into a multi-functional article of clothing that benefited from the combination of different fabrics (thick jersey and a thin silk/cotton mix), and thus created soft ‘feminine’ movement and a ‘masculine’ protective feel.
Rotterdam’s retail landscape
I also initiated retail mapping in order to render the local landscape and the way it projects and diversifies the hoodie. Over a period of three months, I made multiple retail visits which helped me to position the hoodie within the commercial landscape of Rotterdam. I placed a specific focus on quantities, and the differences between male and female offerings.
I looked too at the multitude of ways the garment is deployed for in-store advertising. Did promotions and supply vary between the genders within the local visual merchandising landscape? The research ultimately centred around the way retailers utilise the hoodie to ‘communicate’ with their consumers, painting a picture of the way consumers perceive the hoodie.
The results of the hoodie counts are recorded in a graphic rendering of Rotterdam’s commercial city centre. It gives a very abstract indication of where the epicentres of supply lie, and the difference between the amounts of ‘male’ and ‘female’ stock in stores that hold the most commercial traction.
The results show that stores like Sting and H&M hold large stocks of hoodies. Overall, however, department stores like the Bijenkorf, but even less expected ones like Peek & Cloppenburg, house the largest quantities. In general, the results in terms of numbers correspond to the assumption that the hoodie reads more as a male than a female garment. For men, double the number of women’s choices is usually available.
When mapping the retail landscape of a city like Rotterdam, it is clear that the gender imbalance also lives in our local retail experience.
The majority of hoodies advertised are communicated through, and for, a woman’s perspective, in a constant attempt to seduce them into buying one. Nevertheless, overall those available for men vastly outnumber the hoodies for women.
Retailers tactically dedicate collections to an impressionable, youthful audience and tend to use the term ‘unisex’ in order to relinquish gender biases with an open-minded approach – naturally in order to sell more clothes. However, the marketing and visual merchandising choices typically sketch a different narrative. In the women’s department of H&M, I found the hoodie dressed up with the help of a camel-coloured trench coat and classic plaid pants, while in the men’s department, hoodies were offered in combination with matching sweatpants.
Shops like X21 and Skatestore exclusively sell men’s streetwear in male sizes, although they also carry a large variety of hoodies in ‘feminine’ colours (baby pink, soft yellow, violet). Even in Weekday, which strongly promotes the concept of unisex clothing, the small undefined unisex rack tends to get lost somewhere among the jeans and accessories.
The aim of unisex garments is to reduce gender inequalities and biases by offering the exact same garment, fit, and pricing for everyone. However, retail stores frequently utilise the hoodie to communicate a ‘girls wear oversized boys’ clothes’ approach. Store layouts often still have separate gendered sections, and unisex capsule collections require women to find them in the men’s department. When looking at the current local retail landscape and taking the number of female mannequins in hoodies into account, it seems that the imagery does not seamlessly fit with the garment’s availability.
If retailers advertise the cool and effortless ways a girl can style a hoodie, why will that garment be in the men’s section of the shop? Does this symbolic interactionism imply that being a woman and shopping in the men’s section makes the act of consumption in itself unisex? Meanwhile, designers are not making unisex patterned garments — the female or male body is always taken into account while designing the fit and silhouette. In its wear, shopping experience, and above all the judgements that come with it, the hoodie has yet to live up to its unisex promise.
Chinouk Filique de Miranda
Design researcher and critical fashion practitioner Chinouk Filique (de Miranda) analyses, translates and visualises the crossover between the fashion system and digital culture with a focus on introducing digital literacy to fashion. In her personal practice she approaches fashion as a subliminal communication vehicle which she aims to de-mystify in order to inform consumers on complex matters regarding individual agency within our current digital culture.