Trayvon Martin

Before Trayvon Martin's hoodie: A history of controversial fashion

Don't tell Geraldo, but hooded sweatshirts are just the latest in a long line of ridiculously "suspicious" clothes

  • bandanas


    Though it’s specious to label hoodies “gangsta,” bandannas have a criminal history stemming from the ’70s, when red and blue prison-issue hankies were first adopted by incarcerated Bloods and Crips as emblems of gang affiliation. The paisley kerchiefs migrated back to the hood, where they were displayed reverentially, meticulously folded into a back pocket or tied around a pant leg, and even draped over the caskets of fallen members, military funeral-style. By the late ’80s, as the death toll mounted in the street war in and around South Central L.A., bandannas were banned from schools, often along with the colors red and blue themselves. The patterned squares, which originated in 19th-century Scotland, have become universal gang signs as far away as New Zealand.

  • burqa
    Wikipedia/Steve Evans


    Completely concealing a woman’s face and form, this extreme expression of Islamic modesty has been banned in the Netherlands, France and Belgium in the past two years alone. Calls for regulating the burqa span the political spectrum, though the rationale tends to differ. The left and center appeal to liberal values and the welfare of Muslim women themselves. The right couches the argument in darker tones, as with all things Islamic; it’s been variously described as a weapon, a Trojan horse for Muslim imperialism and — in the words of Pamela Geller — a “cloth coffin.” Last year in Pakistan, the burqa was twice used to conceal explosives by female suicide bombers. In the U.S. and U.K., despite ongoing controversy, actual burqa-related crime seems to be limited to a spate of bank stickups by men in religious drag.

  • hoodie


    The hoodie is workwear turned sportswear from the 1930s. But its hood can’t fully account for its mildly shady reputation. Whatever hint of juvenile menace the hoodie held before Geraldo probably traces to 1980s skateboarding culture, which notoriously skinned knees and annoyed pedestrians. In his subsequent appearance on “The O’Reilly Factor,” Rivera charged Martin with dressing “like a wannabe gangsta,” but even in the ’90s, when hoodies were trendy across the spectrum of youth culture, they weren’t especially associated with gangsta rap, much less actual gang members. In hip-hop, the hoodie has actually been identified with bohemian “backpackers,” who were never gangstas, despite what Fox Nation has to say about Common.

  • jeans


    Levi Strauss’ cotton twill pants began the 1950s as a symbol of the rugged, all-American schoolboy’s idol, the cowboy. Then came “The Wild One” and “Rebel Without a Cause” — and denim left the ranch for good. The American greaser existed before his screen debut, but it was only after Brando and Dean that he supplanted the cowboy in the imaginations of those same schoolboys, who were now the vanguard generation of American teenhood as we know it. The teenager replaced his Hopalong Cassidy poster with Elvis and pressed the cuffs of his one-time knockaround trousers. In the buttoned-up Northeast, where jeans had been considered too sloppy for school, campus-wide bans increased and took on a new urgency. Levi-Strauss responded with an ad campaign promoting denim as de rigueur for the budding scholar, proclaiming jeans “right for school” and suitable “for the seats of learning.”

  • stiletto


    No word yet from Indonesia’s politicians on the pornographic status of the stiletto heel, but its patchy history in the West has nothing to do with sex. Barely out of the cradle in the late ’50s, stilettos were accused of vandalism — and either banned outright or forced to tack on heel caps lest they crack the linoleum or punch through hardwood. Thousands of factory “girls” were forbidden to wear them to work. The aluminum floors of jetliners were reportedly pocked with indentations. One Canadian government study assessed their floor pressure per-square-inch at up to three tons and recommended changes to building standards. Anti-stiletto sentiment seems to have been especially shrill in England, where the rising popularity of the cha-cha made the crisis even more dire; one dance hall proprietor called the shoes “a nightmare.”

  • trench

    Trench coats

    On the backs of British soldiers in the trenches of World War I, these iconic lightweight overcoats took bullets and shrapnel in the name of king and country. Later they fought crime: Dick Tracy and Columbo wore them, as did – presumably – real detectives. But the trench coat’s discreet, enveloping design and quick-release o-ring belt also made it ideal for hustlers and sexual predators. This is true in life as well as art: Last November outside of D.C., an otherwise nude white male in his 40s was spotted pulling back his gabardine lapels for the benefit of a passing 15-year-old. The most dramatic chapter in the trench coat’s fall from grace came on April 20, 1999, when Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris wore trench coats to gun down 12 of their Columbine High School classmates and wound 21 others. According to later reports, their gothy social clique was known around campus as the “trench-coat mafia.”

  • 70s
    Wikipedia/Ed Uthman


    Minis have been accused of indecency and worse ever since Oct. 30, 1965, when Swinging London icon Jean Shrimpton wore a bell-like mini-frock — hemmed a full 3.9 inches above the knee — to Derby Day in Melbourne, sparking an anti-British sniping spree in the Aussie press. In short order, they were banned from Disneyland, the Academy Awards, the streets of Athens, virtually all of Africa and high schools across America (where girls in trousers were nearly as controversial). Almost half a century on, mini-phobia is alive, including the canard that minis “invite” rape — as though an invitation to rape weren’t a self-contradiction. Just last Thursday, Indonesia’s religious affairs minister declared “[wearing] a skirt above the knee” to be a prosecutable offense according to new pornography laws, blaming minis for an upswing in sex crimes.

  • Striped shirts

    One of the most enduring and weird tropes of American cartooning is the masked burglar in the horizontal, black-and-white striped shirt. Why stripes? Nineteenth-century prisoners wore bee-stripes so that an escapee would be easy to recognize – not the best camouflage for a would-be thief. By recalling prison drag, the cartoon burglar’s stripes came to signify criminality. Once the average 6-year-old reader caught on, the stripes made for a symbol of villainy that’s even more obvious than arched eyebrows and a handlebar mustache, and one to which other cartoon characters remain magically oblivious. Burglars who aren’t cartoons are advised against wearing stripes to their next heist, particularly striped hoodies.