Mirror, Mirror: Rebellious hip-hop puts on a skirt

JOHN RICARD / BET
JOHN RICARD / BET
Posted: December 20, 2012

Fashion insiders smiled and hip-hop purists gritted their grills last week when Kanye West performed in a pleated, plaid leather Givenchy skirt and "meggings" during the Sandy relief concert.

The controversial rapper may have paired the womenswear with a Pyrex Religion sweatshirt and white sneakers. But the rugged accessories didn't matter. The reaction was swift and definitive.

High-fashion folks cheered at the Rick Owens-meets-Alexander Wang-meets Betsey Johnson look, especially the small segment of the industry championing self-expression through gender-bending.

In the last year, designers like Jean Paul Gaultier have sent male models down the runways, hairy chests exposed, in frothy bridal gowns. Marc Jacobs wore a pink polo dress in February to a Paris exhibit. And last month Hedi Slimane, Yves Saint Laurent's creative director, introduced Saskia de Brauw, a slight 30-year-old woman, as the face of YSL's menswear line.

On the other side of the runway, the hip-hop world was disgusted. They said West's performance in a skirt is just as pathetic as Tyler Perry dressing as Madea. It is the feminization of male fashion - far worse than low-slung pants - that is endangering traditional images of masculinity in the black community, they argued.

To be fair, West's 12-12-12 performance wasn't the first time the rapper channeled his feminine side. He rocked a skirt a few times this year during the "Watch the Throne" tour with Jay-Z.

And in the last two years, rapper attire - once described as "Tougher Than Leather," Run DMC's 1988 album - has been softening up.

Artists including Lil Wayne and Usher have turned crotch-hugging tights into wardrobe staples. Last year Texas rapper Daryll Phillips, or DPhill SpanglishMan, kicked off the "XY Movement" that celebrates a straight man's right to wear women's clothing by donning flowered tights and lipstick. Phillips, by the way, has a girlfriend.

"A lot of people feel like a lot of colors or tight clothes is homosexual," Phillips told a Dallas television station last year. "I feel like it's more of an expression of me."

And last week Harlem rapper ASAP Rocky appeared on BET's 106 & Park in a tie-dyed tank dress and leggings. He also wore unlaced Timberlands and a black wool coat with a fur-trimmed collar.

Perhaps West's latest skirt appearance, with 19.3 million viewers, is hip-hop's official coming out?

Not quite, says Elena Romero, author of Free Stylin': How Hip Hop Changed the Fashion Industry (Praeger, 2012) .

"It's just that for so long, hip-hop was confined to just one look," Romero explained.

"But these days, those who listen to hip-hop don't just listen to hip-hop. They are defined by various things. It's hard to define what hip-hop is now. It's a blend of preppy and luxury. There are skater influences, punk influences, jazz influences. It's all a part of the evolution."

Yet as a child of hip-hop, it seems my worldview is being tested.

Last Wednesday when I was a guest on Nick Taliaferro's WURD radio show, he wanted me to say that women of a certain girth shouldn't wear jeggings with cropped sweaters or jackets.

Whatever, I said. Confining people to fashion rules based on others' sense of aesthetics is wrong.

Then, not less than 24 hours later, West was rapping in a kilt, and I couldn't help but rethink my position.

There is something disconcerting about a man in a skirt - meaning, I wouldn't want mine wearing one. At the same time, I'm proud that West is secure enough to basically wear a skirt and tights. Go, boy!

Some of the world's most manly men wear dresslike wardrobes - from Egyptian wrap skirts to Islamic ankle-length thawbs.

West's Givenchy skirt mostly resembles a kilt, which has its origins in 1600s Scotland when kilts were used to identify fellow clansmen and prevent intermarrying.

"There is nothing feminine about a man wearing a skirt in certain cultures," said Mark-Evan Blackman, assistant professor and menswear specialist at the Fashion Institute of Technology. "But when you take that cultural norm and bring it here, where men don't wear skirts, it raises questions. It's pushing the envelope."

And while male artists like David Bowie, Prince, or Michael Jackson blurred the line for decades, hip-hop culture has always been based on rough and rugged looks. Even its female performers dressed like men.

Yet it's no wonder that runways are inspiring hip-hop. In the last decade, men's fashion in general has shifted to all things metrosexual and fitted (hence those meggings, jeggings for men). And sitting in Fashion Week front rows are artists like West, Jay-Z, and Swizz Beatz.

Most important, we shouldn't forget that hip-hop's origins are all about challenging authority, especially when it comes to style. Doesn't it make sense that today's artists would flip the script on those old-school fashion rules?


Contact fashion writer Elizabeth Wellington at 215-854-2704 or ewellington@phillynews.com. Follow her on Twitter at ewellingtonphl.

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