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Hug a Hoodie: What the U.K. Teaches Us About Making a Sweatshirt a Symbol

In the U.S., the hooded sweatshirt is becoming an anti-profiling symbol, but things aren't so simple across the pond.

Profiling is a dangerous game. Trayvon Martin lost his life in February after George Zimmerman decided the unarmed black 17-year-old in a hooded sweatshirt on a rainy night was a threat.

Zimmerman has yet to be charged by Sanford, Florida’s local police department, thanks in part to the state’s controversial self-defense law; the case is now under investigation by the Federal Department of Justice and Florida authorities.

Almost overnight, the hoodie has become the sartorial choice to demonstrate distaste for profiling youth—especially low-income, minority youth—in sweatshirts as suspicious or threatening. In the United States, critics of the local police force have organized demonstrations demanding a full investigation and charges for Zimmerman under the moniker “Million Hoodie March,” flooding the streets with citizens sporting hoodies in solidarity against those assumptions. The Miami Heat posted a team picture snapped while sporting hoodies. Twitter users changed their avatars to hooded pictures.

But across the Atlantic, the hooded sweatshirt has a similar association but with a far less positive social message. In the United Kingdom, the hoodie is also associated with low-income young people up to no good—but there, in response to public agita about crime, politicians from both sides of the political aisle—including former Prime Minister Tony Blair—have endorsed campaigns to ban hooded sweatshirts from public places in an effort to combat what the British call “anti-social behavior.” Talk about treating the symptoms instead of the disease!

“[T]he hoodie has become a signifier of disgruntled, malevolent youth, scowling and indolent,” Gareth McLean wrote in the UK’s Guardian newspaper in 2005. “The hoodie is the uniform of the troublemaker: its wearer may as well be emblazoned with a scarlet letter.”

Some British observers blame the United States for “hoodie” culture, saying it originated in hip-hop and captures the medium’s defiant posture. Whatever the origins of the sartorial trend, linking it to the country’s problematic relationship with its disenfranchised youth makes about as much sense as blaming James Dean for the social complaints of U.K.’s leather jacket-clad punks in the '70s.

Current British Prime Minister David Cameron made waves for his progressive fashion commentary in 2006. Trying to shed his Conservative Party’s reputation for heartless austerity, he took a compassionate approach à la early George W. Bush, delivering a speech that made the case for addressing the social injustices behind vandalism and crime.

“We—the people in suits—often see hoodies as aggressive, the uniform of a rebel army of young gangsters,” Cameron said. “But hoodies are more defensive than offensive. They’re a way to stay invisible in the street. In a dangerous environment the best thing to do is keep your head down, blend in.”

The speech was derisively branded as “hug a hoodie” by the PM’s critics, but Cameron won office nonetheless. There is a sense that he has come to regret the speech following days of violent riots and looting by young people in 2011—many of the participants clad in hoodies—but it would be a shame if his message was lost in the violence. Cameron’s prescription was accurate, but cuts in social services under his government exacerbated the hoodies’ problems.

If, despite Cameron’s rhetoric, many in the United Kingdom are blaming sweatshirts for deeper problems, we can be glad most people in the United States haven’t jumped to the same backwards theory of causation, in part because complaints about class and race in the U.S. have been expressed in non-violent movements, not paroxysms of violence. "Most people" excluding radio personality Geraldo Rivera, who suggested clothing might be the culprit in Trayvon's death.

“I am urging the parents of black and Latino youngsters, particularly, to not let their young children go out wearing hoodies,” Rivera said on his show Friday. “I think the hoodie is as much responsible for Trayvon Martin’s death as George Zimmerman was.”

The public outcry against Rivera was quick and pointed; apparently, even Rivera’s own son reprimanded him. It’s a good thing that our national conversation is largely trending away from that kind of simplistic narrative. While it’s easier to demonize a few square feet of cotton than face up to endemic racism and poverty, it doesn’t get us any closer to tackling the real problems.

via (cc) Flickr user ssoosay

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