The Fabric of the Times

In recent years we have watched hoods become wholly emblematic of social uprisings, political movements, and unrest. Sometimes overt, at other moments they work silently in the background—not wholly ...

In recent years we have watched hoods become wholly emblematic of social uprisings, political movements, and unrest. Sometimes overt, at other moments they work silently in the background—not wholly involved, but present nevertheless. It’s hard to avoid them. Hoods infiltrate mass media, political discourse, supermarkets, school uniforms, New York Fashion Week, our homes—but it is easy to overlook them, or dismiss their ubiquity as apolitical and inconsequential, as a result.

Alison Kinney’s Hood is centrally constituted around reaffirming this inherent ordinariness, while magnifying the extraordinary contexts hoods so often become wrapped up in. Hood is published as an installment of the ongoing Object Lessons series, which prompts writers and readers alike to focus on the smaller objects that constitute a life, engage in imaginative intellectual play with them, subject them to inscrutable human curiosity, and utilize them as mirrors that reflect back upon a very human world.

I was hooked by Hood for all of the reasons mentioned above, but I was also very curious, because, for all the questions Kinney answered for me about violence, power, history, time, and race, she ushered just as many new ones in. Kinney’s ideas about the implications of the hood are not conclusive—we watch her explore a historical trajectory of the garment often laden with ethical ambiguity, and struggle to come to terms with a world that is murky, dangerous, and unsure of itself. Yet Kinney marches confidently on, questioning. As a reader, this is comforting. These questions and non-conclusions often say more about the world we live in than more definitive statements might. They also prompted a few of my own.

Lauren Stroh (LS): Why hoods?


Alison Kinney (AK): Because everybody wears hoods! They’re a practical, decorative, and ubiquitous feature of daily wear that’s been providing style, warmth, and protection for thousands of years. We all wear hoods, all for basically the same reasons. They’re so commonplace that we don’t see them, until we really see them—then what we project onto those hoods has everything to do with how we construct our identities and our relationships to power.

Because everybody wears hoods, hoods get involved in all other aspects of culture, from state violence to political conflict to resistance, religion, self-expression, and art. Hoods become laden with all kinds of associations, but still and all, people wear them every day, just to go about minding their own business.

The fact that we’re all wearing them doesn’t stop people from venturing strong and partial opinions about other people’s reasons for wearing them. Sometimes racist opinions, and sometimes murderous opinions. The meanings we assign to hoods have everything to do with what we regard as frightening and dangerous, and where we think that power resides. Sarah Palin posed for the cover of Newsweek to announce she wanted to run for President wearing a heather gray hoodie. Seven months later, Trayvon Martin was wearing a heather gray hoodie the day he was murdered.


LS: Your book is published as an installment to the ongoing Object Lessons series by Bloomsbury Academic, which examines an assortment of ordinary objects for their comprehensive cultural, political, philosophical, and critical worth. What sort of opportunities are to be gained by the reader from examining ordinary objects as semaphores for profound cultural and political exchanges? What sort of opportunities manifest for the writer?


AK: It gives both reader and writer the same opportunities: to focus and to denaturalize our relationships with our worlds. It helps us understand aspects of our cultures that are in plain sight. The long view also shakes up what we think we’ve understood.

 Before I started researching this book, I had no idea that the original Ku Klux Klan didn’t wear the hooded uniform; I didn’t know that they dressed up in women’s clothing, or put on blackface. I didn’t know that the concept of the hooded, masked executioner is pretty much a figment of the 19th-century imagination—that was one of the most fascinating things I learned, and the hardest to weed through the fantasy and facts. Neither of those stories were in my original proposal. I did a lot of reading to determine that Robin Hood didn’t wear a hood, which axed certain fun ideas I had about class war.

As a writer, it’s so exciting to do a deep dive like this. Spending several days just with the word “hood” in database searches, uncovering everything I possibly could on hoods in different places and times, was exhilarating. The project just opened up before me—though it was also terrifying, as I began to realize how much ground there was to cover in the seven months I had to deliver the manuscript.

John Singer Sargent, <em>Fumée d'Ambre Gris </em> (1880).

John Singer Sargent, Fumée d’Ambre Gris (1880).

LS: Although it certainly does not go without critique, your book predominantly focuses on the hood as it appears in relation to Western culture. What is it about Western societies that make such suitable backgrounds to explore the geopolitical nuances of the hood in all of its varying forms? Could you speculate about what alternative conclusions you may have drawn if Hood wasn’t rooted so deeply in the contemporary political climate of the United States?


AK: Because everybody wears hoods, for hoods to have meanings they have to run into some kind of cultural expectation. There were a lot of abuses at Abu Ghraib, but Abdou Hussain Saad Faleh’s image became “iconic” in part because of roughly 500 years of Western cultural meanings given to black hoods. George Zimmerman would have been a murdering racist regardless of what Trayvon Martin was wearing, but his self-justifications and the justifications given him by other racists had a lot to do with a culture of demonizing everything about young Black men, including their wardrobes.

 I concentrate on the US because I’m American, because I’m interested in American accountability, and because the weight the US gives to these images and artifacts is so heavy. What does a hood mean in the US in the 1870s ,where, on the one hand you’ve got Laura Ingalls Wilder in her various winter hoods for going sleighing with Almanzo Wilder—it’s just an everyday feminine garment—and, on the other hand, you’ve got medieval Christian confraternal practices, half a millennium of Northern European art, Enlightenment secret societies, traditions of Carnival masking, and 19th-century penal reform all colliding in the American South, to make the Klan hood? Yet the design doesn’t really take off until Hollywood and a PR team make them happen. All the things that combined to give these designs different meanings are mind-boggling.

We’ve seen anti-hoodie initiatives in the US, but also in the UK, Australia, and New Zealand, where the same cultural baggage, plus specific bigotries, are being brought to bear on their Black and/or immigrant and/or Indigenous and/or poor communities. We’ve seen these anti-hoodie initiatives in Greece, responding to the iconicity of dissent, the black hood, the anarchist or Anonymous hood. And how that played out in Bahrain, too, was very interesting! Hoodies are global now, and to a certain extent some very narrow cultural expectations of what a hood means are also going global. So what will other nations around the world do to combine their own histories of hood wearing with the globalization of imagery of the hood to bring to bear on their own most vulnerable hood-wearing populations? The Philippines and Kenya both have mid-century experiences with hood-wearing informants: how will the hoodie play out in either country in the next decades? It could mean everything or nothing at all.

LS: There’s an incredible Anna Wintour quote early in the book: “I’ve long believed that the content of fashion does not materialize spontaneously but, in ways both mysterious and uncanny, emerges from the fabric of the times. That fabric has recently been darkly threaded by war and uncertainty.” We are indeed living in uncertain times; with routine civil rights violations and political unrest, it seems that there is no better moment for fashion to resort to darker threads.

While reading Hood, I couldn’t help but draw connections between Nicole Phillips’s review on of Kanye West’s Spring 2016 ready-to-wear streetwear collection, abundantly populated with hooded sweatshirts: “As the show progressed, the clothes shaded from beiges and taupes to browns and blacks, and the models’ hair and skin tone got darker, with the darkest models and clothing coming last. At the finale they arrayed themselves front to back, white to black. In a year in which racial injustice has occupied the headlines, it was a potent tableau, seemingly loaded with meaning.

But if West was making a statement about inequality in America, he chose not to address it with this reporter. When asked about the casting, he said, “It’s just a painting, just using clothing as a canvas of proportion and color.” Your book draws a direct connection between the political state of the African American male and the hooded sweatshirt. How did you come to recognize this connection? I’m also curious about your thoughts on West’s collection. Why do you think he was inclined to dismiss parallels between his collections and contemporary political discourse, especially when he has been such an outspoken advocate for the #blacklivesmatter movement that arose following the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown, and Eric Garner? What about acknowledging the hoods he designs as a vital instrument in reorganizing respectability politics may be unnerving to him?

AK: This morning, I found an amazing photo published online by Vogue, and I’m just sorry it’s too late to request permission to put it in the book. It’s a photo of a little blonde girl, two or three years old, wearing a dark fleece hoodie, just like anybody else’s hoodie, in 1963 or 1964.

 This little girl is Diana Spencer, who’s going to grow up to be the Princess of Wales. It’s Baby Princess Di In a Hoodie. Oh. My. God.

I keep stressing that we all wear hoods. One person I talked to about my book told me, “But those kids out on the street don’t wear hoods the way I wear a hood on my anorak.” This was a white man talking about Black kids, and he was far from the only person to say something like this to me. People keep asking me if, in this book, I’m writing about why hoodies are so important to young Black urban men’s masculinity. The short answer to that is no. Because I assume that young Black urban men are individuals, with their own reasons for doing whatever they do, and the only generalization I’d venture is that those reasons probably look a lot like my own reasons for wearing hoodies, or Princess Di’s: they look good, they keep you comfortable, and everybody else is wearing them—and because sometimes, you want to be private and you want other people to leave you alone in public.

One of the things I wanted to do in the book was to really tear open these ideas. I talk about hoods that everybody wears, hoods used as actual torture devices, hoods that people wear to flee police violence, and hoods that function metaphorically to support systems of injustice and violence through obfuscation or fear or anonymity. I wrote the book because of Trayvon Martin, because his murder sums up all of these different ways that hoods work all at the same time.

A hood is just a flap of fabric until someone’s face is in it. It’s how people look at and act upon each other that determines what the hood means—if it’s a weapon, an excuse, a justification, or a form of protection. So much of this book is about people just living their lives and other people coming along to hurt them with hoods, sometimes using the victims’ own hoods. What we had to learn from the murder of Trayvon Martin was related to so many other incidents of hood use—it wasn’t an exception, but the very heart of this history I’m tracing with hoods.

But I do want to be clear that I’m not saying that is what the murder of Trayvon Martin is “about.” His murder wasn’t “about” anything except itself, a unique death among many other unique deaths, caused by institutionalized white supremacy. While all these other histories of violence I’m telling are relatable, they’re not interchangeable: each has its own dimensions, its own griefs, and its own power structures.

I started writing this book on June 1, 2014. I wanted to say something about the hood’s meanings, while simultaneously rejecting what Geraldo Rivera had said. Geraldo blamed Trayvon Martin’s murder on his hood. He might as well have said Trayvon’s Blackness killed him. But it wasn’t the hood or Blackness that killed him—it was George Zimmerman and white supremacy that killed him, racism and fear and complete disregard for life. Over the course of that summer and fall, while I was writing, Michael Brown and so many other Black people were murdered. In October, Claudia Rankine’s Citizen was published. I went to Black Lives Matter protests carrying a sign with forty names on it. When I was making my poster, I put in notes of all the everyday things that the victims were doing when they were murdered—throwing a football, taking out their wallet. Often, these were synonymous with the excuses that the killers gave to justify and exonerate their actions.

That’s what Hood is about: it’s the “because,” when killers and torturers say, “It’s okay to hurt this person because …” Because I’m wearing a state hood, I can get away with it. Because if I put a hood on him, he’ll feel like less of a human being. Because if I put a hood on him, he won’t be able to see my face. Because this person is wearing a hood, and I fear him, I can say that he shouldn’t have worn the hood if he didn’t want to get killed. Because we live in a world that accepts bullshit excuses like these over and over.

It’s also about resistance … people putting on their hoods and saying, fuck no.

If I were to guess what Kanye West was thinking, I’d say he is a Black man who lives in a white supremacist country, and he’s thinking all the time about what that means. He means something deliberate when he puts together a black-to-white collection. But part of being a person of color in this country is that you get tired of explaining race to people and you want them to draw their own conclusions. Maybe he doesn’t want to be asked a question that a white designer or an Asian designer might not be asked. Or, if freedom in this country means being a person who can walk around wearing a hoodie and not get shot, maybe he wants to get dressed in the morning and say, “I’m wearing this hoodie because I designed it and I like the proportions and colors—and for one day, I want that to be all that it means.” Maybe he wants his hoodie not to be loaded with meaning that’s outside his control, meaning that’s laid on him and could kill him. He wants the hoodie to be his, the way Trayvon Martin’s hoodie was his, until George Zimmerman and the media and the justice system robbed him of its meaning. icon

Featured image: Photograph by Vic Damsons / Flickr