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Museum at FIT: Celebrating 50 Years of Hip Hop in American fashion

By Ameera Steward


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View of the Hip Hop collection room. Image courtesy of the Museum at FIT

When you open the doors of the Museum at FIT their red carpet guides you down two roads, one of which leads you through double doors decorated with two photos of fashionable everyday New Yorkers taken by photographer Jamel Shabazz.

As you walk through and down the stairwell you’re greeted with more colorful photos taken by Shabazz which all exude the essence of Hip Hop culture. These photos are a preview of FIT’s newest exhibit – Fresh, Fly, and Fabulous: Fifty Years of Hip Hop Style which will be available to the public from February 8 until April 23, 2023.

As you walk through the last set of double doors, you’re greeted with a brief synopsis of what the exhibit is all about. To your right the accompanying book to the exhibit sits with open pages for visitors to sneak a peak at some of the stories associated with Hip Hop culture.

Image courtesy of the Museum at FIT.

Visitors can either continue down the hall to see video, a photo collage, and a few window-displays of clothing from the time of Hip Hop. Or they can walk through another set of double doors to an entire room, filled from top to bottom, with clothes, accessories, jewelry and shoes explaining the legacy of Hip Hop better than words.

With well over 100 pieces, the exhibit embodies the innovation and creativity that came alive within Hip Hop culture. From Dapper Dan to Virgil Abloh, the pieces displayed show just how Hip-Hop fashion was able to influence as well as grow with each generation.

Image courtesy of the Museum at FIT.

Not only do the pieces display how creative and bold Hip-Hop fashion is, but these pieces can be seen as acts of protest, pride, and show how Hip-Hop fashion doesn’t have to be limited to Hip-Hop spaces.

For example, both curators of the exhibit – Elena Romero and Elizabeth Way – have their personal favorite pieces, not because they’re cool or pretty but because those pieces relay a message regarding the history of Hip-Hop style.

Chance the Rapper at the Met

Romero, journalist and assistant chair in the marketing communication department at FIT, said one of her favorite pieces is a custom red carpet look for Chance the Rapper worn at the 2021 Met Gala. She said this piece does a great job of emulating what tailored clothing looks like when it meets Hip-Hop style.

“What Chance is wearing is a tailored suit that is specifically out of the Stadium Series…of the Polo Collection, and that really is significant because the Stadium Series in the 90s was very, very popular within Hip Hop,” Romero explained. “And being able to pay homage to Hip-Hop’s fashion roots in that sense, along with showing tailored clothing – which is also something that’s not always associated with Hip Hop. It’s the marriage of those two things that really make it a very unique piece.”

One of Way’s favorite pieces makes a statement in a different sense. According to Way, the red, white and blue Tommy Hilfiger ensemble worn by Aaliyah in 1997 is an embodiment of how much female style has evolved within the Hip-Hop industry.

“Elena and I are both women, we really wanted to highlight female style as in female designers, and creators, and stylists as well as men because sometimes Hip Hop is described as more of a masculine arena,” explained Way, associate curator of costume at the Museum at FIT.

“So early on a lot of the looks were very androgynous for b-girls, for MCs, they wanted to blend in with the guys, to have that respect, to be able to compete on an equal basis. It wasn’t until later we have artists like Salt-N-Peppa who start to bleed in some of those feminine silhouettes but still mixing in the androgynous pieces - but of course we have the hair, we have the makeup, we have the jewelry that shows the femininity,” Way continued. “But by the time we get to Aaliyah we see the way that women specifically are embodying these Hip-Hop styles making it their own, and this is a period where we see the mass culture adopt Hip-Hop style and it just becomes American fashion.”

Image courtesy of the Museum at FIT.

Hip-Hop style is American fashion

The realization that hip hop is American fashion is ultimately what both Way and Romero want visitors to take away from the exhibit. Way explained that Hip-Hop style “is a huge contribution that American fashion has made to international style.”

“Hip Hop is not this monolithic group in terms of style or people. And so, when they walk the show they’ll be able to see how Hip Hop has touched just about every product category known in fashion,” added Romero.

Hip Hop style jewelry. Image courtesy of the Museum at FIT.
Hip Hop style jewelry. Image courtesy of the Museum at FIT.

The co-curators believe it’s important to acknowledge, celebrate and pay homage to the black and brown people within Hip-Hop culture who helped fuel the business.

“Who are not necessarily household names but are urban legends within our own community. And I think it’s important to show their designs, to tell their stories in this all-comprehensive narrative of what has become Hip-Hop style today” Romero explained.

Image courtesy of the Museum at FIT.

She added, “So much of [Hip-Hop style] gets kind of stereotyped because it is part of youth fashion, it is part of Black fashion, it is part of an international phenomenon. Once people visit this exhibition our hope is that they’ll be able to see the breadth of designs and styles that were created by young people who wanted to be seen. In the simplest form they wanted to be seen and not othered, and they had a need to have clothing that fit them, that catered to them, that spoke to them. And that in essence is what birthed Hip-Hop style.”

Image courtesy of the Museum at FIT.
Fashion Institute of Technology
Museum at FIT