© Universal Pictures Germany

Sign of the Times

The Black Hoodie

The noble hoodie: an icon of youth and street culture that is likewise now emblematic of Silicon Valley. They are popular as both workwear and sportswear, protecting against cold and wind. But since the rioting at the G20 summit in Hamburg, the garment’s image has become problematic in Germany, especially in the color black. Our semiotic analysis shows: It’s all about context.

Hoodies have many advantages: inexpensive, comfortable, not unflatteringly revealing thanks to a loose fit … The drawstringed hood protects the head against the elements, and the front pouch can help keep hands warm. They are snug for wearing at home, keeping the head covered and the face partially enveloped from the side. And the garment is practical for sports and outdoor work. Yet out on the streets with the hood up, the deliberate distancing from the environment they communicate—an enclosed, “keeping-to-myself” vibe—can be a liability, causing others to misperceive the wearer’s intentions. This ‘keep out’ aspect is part of the clothing item’s youth and subcultural appeal, conveying a deviant opposition to the mainstream. Like other clothing items, it can be a source of closed group identity, despite its near-universal popularity, across class lines, in the UK, US and other countries. But though widespread, hoodies remain controversial, being seen by some as a symbol of non-conformist and criminal lifestyles. Wearing a hoodie outside of certain accepted milieus can in some cases attract general suspicion. The death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in the US as a result of such discriminatory, race-based suspicions gave rise to a ‘hoodie movement’ in which the garment is made emblematic of the fight against racism.

A black hoodie amplifies the distancing from the wearer’s surroundings through an absence of color that contrasts against the colorful, busy world out there. In Western society, the color black is associated with “grief and death, but also connotes a certain ascetic rejection of the worldly and a powerful, disciplined spartanism,” writes Diana Weis in her book Cool Aussehen in studying the phenomenon of the black leather jacket. This is why black outerwear has been so diversely adopted by French existentialists, punk and goth subculture, Steve Jobs and some extremist movements, for example. The meaning of hoodie wearing is ambiguous and at all times contextually dependent, as evident in regard to the G20 protests in Hamburg, where the black hoodie was the preferred garb of vandals and violent offenders, taking on a decidedly negative connotation in the public mind. The black hoodie was worn there like a cotton street uniform of political significance, but in other settings it is more of an aesthetic statement. Thus fundamentally it is a blank slate for making a bold statement of one kind or other.