I don’t know which substance I was mourning, rice or weed, when I ordered the hoodie online. I bought it to clothe a heavier body, which is the product of what my overindulgence with the other things had wrought. After a hazy summer of couchlock, with intermittent visits to the hospital where my uncle was fading away; after recurring Google searches with variations of the term “mantle cell lymphoma” scattered in tabs; crying jags in chain restaurants; instances of escalating shock; haggling sessions with visitor services’ security guards; a discussion with a head nurse on duty about what the term “actively dying” actually means; bleary-eyed visits to hospital ice machines; episodes of syndicated TV on screens that weren’t quite large enough to even temporarily distract from the deteriorating soul in front of me; and eventual capitulation to “comfort care” which was designed to put an end to my uncle’s suffering, I had lost my appetite for both chronic and simple carbs. It turns out I actually don’t like being numb, either from carbo-loading or unending giggling at spatial audio. But being aware of all of the bad feelings had proved to be too much for a short time, a moment that also coincided with lots of changes with work, so I comforted myself with vices. The truth was I didn’t have a problem with substances, I had a problem with grief.
Echoing millions, this was not the grand opening summer I’d hoped it would be, for more than one reason; in fact, I’d become more withdrawn. Instead of racking up ticket stubs, band T-shirts, and concert memorabilia, I have prayer cards and glossy obits ornamenting my desk. Seeking merch from this eventful moment of my life, in which I’d lost loved ones to Covid-19, cancer, and COPD in less than six months, I bought an item of clothing that would mark the time and also allow me to look hip while I worked to be healthier. Instead of overeating or making myself sick with too much THC, I eventually substituted those excesses with a different kind of profligacy. I spent money on things I already had. Of course, purchasing things was not a satisfying solution, nor a healthy replacement for intoxicants, nor was it actually self-care, but it was the best I could do at the time. Sometime in late September, on a tear of purchases at my go-tos, the newer streetwear brand Bephies Beauty Supply, and stalwart shops Madewell and Anthropologie, the latter of which Meghan Daum quipped “is to adult women what princesses are to little girls,” “Disney with a slightly more sophisticated but no less carefully engineered aesthetic,” and “a twirling motion in the form of an international brand.” Under the wandwork of commerce, and the aegis of American consumption post-stimulus, I was hoping to transform, like some downtrodden fairy tale figure, cursed by too many edibles (magic beans and otherwise), into someone who had it more together. After I’d started to heal myself from the worst coping mechanisms, I turned to Ye (the artist formerly known as Kanye West), the patron saint of public grief and, for the past fifteen years, the enfant terrible of American pop culture.
The truth was I didn’t have a problem with substances, I had a problem with grief.
Ye’s second offering from his partnership with the Gap (a collaboration known as “Yeezy Gap” that began this summer with a puffy and pricy blue jacket) is a hoodie that went live online just while I was resorting to retail therapy. It has a price tag of $90 and comes in six hues (blue, black, red, purple, brown, light brown). The item is called the “Perfect Hoodie,” and of course it is. It’s perfectly manufactured, in that it’s a mass-produced garment engineered to be identical to others like it. Perfect as it might be, it’s not something I’d usually go for.
Ye’s music matters to me, but his Yeezy line of fashion didn’t. I’d been only peripherally interested in the spectacles he’s created, with diminishing curiosity over the years. But the hoopla around this hoodie coincided with sorrow, and clicking around the internet helped with my itching to get out from under anguish. The Yeezy Gap hub was part of a hype-machine that got my adrenaline pumping. There’s the drama of going to the website, which, like an art gallery, was mostly white with lots of negative space surrounding images of the hoodies, which were the only items for sale. The sensation of knowing I only had seconds to make a decision on the color and size of a hoodie (purple, medium) before the bots and hypebeasts swiped it out from under me was embarrassingly exhilarating. There was also the thrilling notion, weird as it was, that after more than a year of isolating from others, I was doing something very specific at the same time as thousands—if not millions—of people. Perusing the Yeezy Gap website the day the hoodies dropped was the virtual equivalent of rushing a merch tent.
Of course, it’s been impossible to ignore Ye’s fashion events or his outbursts, which become media events. His public flare-ups, which may or may not have to do with his documented struggles with mental health, have felt, rightly or wrongly, akin to temper tantrums—his anger at being left out of the fashion industry’s inner circle, his outrageous statements about the ancestors we share, his petty one upmanship with other rappers. This time, though, the fact that one of his initial signature clothing items for Gap is a hoodie took on more personal relevance. Over the course of Gap’s promotion of the sweatshirt, abstract pictures of hoodies floating in rarefied web commerce space were supplanted by images of Ye wearing them while out and about. There were listicles detailing each time he publicly wore a hoodie, and others showing him in the Perfect Hoodie, including instances within the last eighteen months. These pieces created a pattern, and a kind of narrative of life not just over the pandemic, but also throughout the heady post-Obama era. This time, something clicked.
After years of seeing paparazzi pictures of Ye wearing hoodies in public, I connected to the far-off look in his eyes, the blank visage on display in a picture of him wearing a custom Rick and Morty hoodie, the defiance of his stance in a black hoodie at his first Yeezy fashion show in 2015, or the vaguely annoyed or confused energy that seemed to radiate from him when he wore a white hoodie and squinted at his phone. Maybe the image of him at a fashion show in 2006, rocking LRG’s “Dead Serious” hoodie with a skeleton print and a broken heart visible beneath the illustrated rib cage, is a bit on the nose for 2021, but it feels of a piece with the damn near daily dose of memento mori many people register as the pandemic continues. Just as Ben Affleck memes, including the viral one known as “Tired Ben Affleck,” featuring the actor smoking a cigarette and appearing depressed “represent what many of us feel deep in our souls,” according to Rachel Leishman of The Mary Sue, it seems that Ye wearing a hoodie and looking absolutely gobsmacked represents what I’ve been feeling lately: dazed, distressed, overwhelmed, and desperate to be anywhere but outside. Mortified by my own sentimentality, and the very real possibility I would tear up on the bus, or in line at the grocery store, I dodged strangers’ eyes in public the same way celebrities avoid paparazzi. For months I’d shuffled around wearing gigantic sunglasses, a crochet bucket hat, a baggy top, and a pair of yoga pants. It occurs to me now that I probably looked like one of those cartoonish piles of gerbils wearing an oversized trench coat, squirming around the city, a strong gust away from tumbling over and being exposed.
My uncle died in July and my aunt died in August. In the aftermath, I had determined to become more disciplined with my health and wellness. I pledged to focus on the simple things. I vowed to save more money, and to be generally more efficient during this period, a project that involved becoming a more mindful vegan, phasing out french fries with more and more nutrient-dense foods, as well as drinking alcohol only socially. Being totally clear-headed for the first time in months would be a way to connect with their legacies and tune in with their spirits, which I believed to be hovering around me in a protective embrace. I would exercise and meditate twice a day. I would live up to life. I would bask in the gift of it. But, aside from a brief trip in early August, I hardly went anywhere, or when I did, I felt like I was going nowhere; even my daily long-distance walks had started to feel like strolls in the yard, or circumnavigation around the rut in my life. I was feeling hemmed in, both physically and mentally; despite being aware of the emotional avoidance endemic to retail therapy and the entrapment of consumerism, purchasing something I didn’t need felt instantaneously freeing.
In buying the hoodie, I “pulled a Kanye” on myself, to use a term that became popular after Ye infamously interrupted Taylor Swift at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards. For a second, I interrupted my own progress. I became pure id—I agitated my ideal self, and poked at my responsible and critical impulses. I raged against the promise I made to myself to avoid purchasing frivolous things. I momentarily eschewed my interest in low-waste living, sustainability, and supporting ethical workplace conditions. I rebelled against my bank account. I stepped off the treadmill and out of my workout gear for something less constraining. I masked the ongoing grief and niggling feelings of despair with the mask’s upper-body equivalent—the hoodie.
In 2007, when I was a freshman in college, I prepared for a job interview at the Gap by reacquainting myself with the store’s old TV ads, via YouTube. I watched vintage holiday commercials that prized cultural fusion through literal remixing (a series of ads for winter clothes directed by Michel Gondry, which spliced Leroy Anderson’s “Sleigh Ride” with New Edition’s “Cool it Now” and Vanilla Ice’s “Ice Ice Baby”). There was an ad called “Khaki soul” that blended Bill Withers’s “Lovely Day” with Faith Evans’s “All Night Long” and saw acclaimed choreographer Fatima Robinson stylishly slithering with models. With delight, I re-watched a 2003 Gap ad that featured Madonna and Missy Elliott bopping down a city block to “Into the Groove,” while the two of them lip-synced lyrics. (I’d first seen it when I was in high school, and my best friend and I beelined to the same Philly store I was preparing to work at for a chance to pick up our own M-initialed jeans.) I watched Juliette Lewis dance with Daft Punk; Common rap about hoodies; Lenny Kravitz and Sarah Jessica Parker promote jeans and Kravitz’s music; the O’Jays “Love Train” remixed in an ad for scarves; JC Chasez sing Earth, Wind & Fire’s “Shining Star” in a commercial for sparkly holiday gifts; Will Kemp dance to Quincy Jones’s “Stuff Like That” and proclaim loose-fit Gap jeans are “for every generation.”
This penchant for bringing Boomer-era music into conversation with ’80s and ’90s pop and hip-hop, multiracial casting, and cross-context play-acting between movie stars and musicians couldn’t be any less obvious: it cemented the Gap’s place in American monoculture. The Gap’s corporate strategy, which began as early as its founding in 1969, in San Francisco, I learned, was to be a bridge between age groups, a mission evinced by a name that nodded to “the generation gap.” Evidently, this strategy worked. Aside from its famous TV ads, the Gap’s in-store playlists, which were “sonic packaging for the otherwise simple clothes on display,” as Eric Harvey detailed in a 2017 piece for The New Yorker, had become influential in expanding the brand’s cultural impact. “By the late nineties,” Harvey explained, “Gap had positioned itself in the mainstream of pop-music trends” using the earworms of the past and present to establish a place in the zeitgeist. Among other now-treasured music I first encountered on the job, I discovered David Bowie’s “Sound and Vision” while folding jeans and T-shirts. Although I eventually left the Gap for academic part-time jobs on campus and the slightly edgier, hipster appeal of American Apparel and Urban Outfitters, I found myself missing whatever nostalgia those ads connoted, and the feeling of being part of some grand, unifying project.
The Gap’s “Who Wore Khakis” ad campaign, which began in August 1993 and retrofitted the retailer’s place in pop history, threaded an intellectual and cosmopolitan lineage into khaki pants. These ads, which featured Miles Davis, Marilyn Monroe, Elia Kazan, and Allen Ginsberg among many other famous people, “entered the consciousness of the country,” said ad exec Rita Winters in 1994. Lillian Maresch, a marketing consultant who studied the campaign’s cultural impact, told the Chicago Tribune that the campaign appealed to Boomers because of the buyers’ “anti-status” style, and also intimated that Gap’s up-market basics held a psychosocial appeal for Boomers. “Many have found that the ’90s have not delivered the goods to them financially and emotionally,” Maresch said. “They’re gravitating to internal satisfaction, not materialistic status. They’re looking for comfort in their lives and in their clothes.” According to Maresch, the ads “trigger[ed] emotional involvement” in Boomers.
To my mind, none of the other Gap advertising projects convey the brand’s integration of emotional manipulation, nostalgia, and faux-solidarity more than the iconic “Everybody in . . . ” TV ads, which ran in 1999. “Everybody in Vests,” “Everybody in Cords,” and “Everybody in Leather” ads stage teens and twenty-somethings (including a fresh-faced Rashida Jones) in Gap vests, corduroy pants, and leather jackets, while they sing along to Madonna’s “Dress You Up,” Donovan’s “Mellow Yellow,” and Depeche Mode’s “Just Can’t Get Enough,” signifiers of cool from previous decades. These thirty-second spots bring to mind Ye and Vanessa Beecroft’s Yeezy shows, as all the models are arranged tableaux vivants-style as they trade off lyrics. These clips are part music video, part “Buy the World a Coke.” As Jeremy G. Butler wrote in Television: Critical Methods and Applications, a book of TV studies, the ads presented young Americans “paradoxically alone together,” which is not an altogether poor description of contemporary social trends in this country. (Last year, #AloneTogether was a popular health and safety slogan designed to help Americans access resources and learn best social distancing practices.)
Ye also worked at a Gap retail store before his partnership with the clothier, while he was waiting for his music career to take off. In his 2004 song “Spaceship,” he ruefully recalled his days as the company’s beleaguered “token Blackie,” subject to the corporation’s racial microaggressions and mistreated even as he did the valuable work of making the retailer appear more diverse. By 2015, he’d slightly recast the story, or he simply felt differently about it. He told Vanity Fair about his “romance with the Gap,” and how he’d always wanted to be the creative director of the company. He may have internalized some of the same lessons I learned when I worked at the store, about its broad appeal and grand, omnicultural mission. While Ye is not literally commanding people to wear his Gap hoodies, he’s certainly in support of their ubiquity and the high-minded messaging behind them. Moreover, there’s a narrative throughline between Ye’s fashion presentations and the “Everybody in . . . ” Gap ads. Since the rollout of his first Yeezy fashion show in 2015, his personal brand has been that of a “nonconforming individual within constraints,” a term historian Jeremy Varon used to detail the subtext of the way the models featured in the “Everybody in . . . ” ad campaign are staged, and which may as well be the template for anyone who’s read and embraced the ultracapitalism of Atlas Shrugged (*kanye shrug*). Ye’s praise of individualism, the perplexing claim that “slavery sounds like a choice,” the Twitter defense of Bill Cosby, as well as the way he spun his association with Donald Trump and embraced the red MAGA hat as a boon for his “free thought,” exemplify this ethos. (Maybe Sojourner Truth, or Fannie Lou Hamer, or Pauli Murray, or Elaine Brown, a few of this country’s foremost “free-thinkers,” should have worn khakis to be recognized as such by Ye.)
Those ’90s and early ’00s Gap ads were the last gasp of a dying American monoculture, and Ye, like the retailer, both seem to be seeking renewed cultural relevance. While Ye never fully fell out of public interest like the Gap, which experienced plummeting sales for years before the pandemic, he’s now aged out of rap dominance, as his second-place finish in the album-sales battle with Drake bears out, and which he admitted himself in a recent interview. His fashion ventures, first in luxury and now via Gap’s more accessible mass market apparel, will allow him to reign over new ideological territory. At this point, both Ye’s work and the Gap are “masstige” cultural products, meant to appeal to the mass market while retaining the luster of prestige—in the latter’s case a preppy, urbane, WASPy identity (despite its multicultural, gap-bridging branding). In joining forces with his old employer, now as a partner, and mass-producing a garment that speaks to the prevailing mood of this moment, Ye has positioned himself to make a lot of money mixing his philosophical interest in the psychology and experiential nature of fashion with an established desire to be a member of the industry’s vanguard, in both sales and status. Given the instant success of the Perfect Hoodie, which sold out in less than a day, it appears that the Yeezy Gap experiment is off to a great start.
The fusion of fashion and forthrightness I’ve noticed in Ye and the clothing item he’s most closely linked with right now is not unintentional. In a September 2015 interview with Vanity Fair, Ye talked about activewear, his love of the Gap, and the merging of outfits and internal modalities. “I want the clothes to almost go away, to almost be invisible, to be one with the personality,” he said. “You know when you see people’s dogs look like them? I want people’s clothes to look like them.” What he’s describing feels akin to fashion as phrenology, only the cranial lumps and abscesses of medieval medicine are replaced by bulky fabrics, wrinkled patterns, and sickly colorways. In a 2019 talk with Dave Letterman for the latter’s Netflix show, My Next Guest Needs No Introduction, Ye talked about how his pink Ralph Lauren polo shirts, which he wore early in his career, set him apart as, if not more artistic and sensitive than his male rapper peers, then certainly more vulnerable than them. (At the time, adding to this image, his public avatar was the “dropout bear,” a giant anthropomorphic Ralph Lauren teddy bear he used as a mascot on album art and which frequently adopted a solitary, defeated stance.) He also showed Letterman T-shirts with images of famous people printed on them (including Donda West), items he deemed “Spirit Shirts.” Describing them as “a window to the soul,” Ye claimed that he inhabits the aura of the people on the shirts, including the late Eazy-E, who he called “an original Black business shark” and whom he attempts to channel when he goes to business meetings with the top on. “When I wear the Eazy-E T-shirt, I do feel, like, the spirit of Eazy-E,” he said.
Echoing this fusion of fashion and feeling, there is something striking about the linked impulses for self-improvement, polished external appearance, and outspokenness in the public statements Ye has made. In a 2004 MTV interview, he explained that his eclectic music and penchant for both preppy gear and hanging out in the hood were synonymous, and the story of his going from shopping at TJ Maxx to Chicago’s Polo Mansion seemed a bildungsroman on par with the arc of his fledgling musical career. On My Next Guest Needs No Introduction, the musician critiqued the American media, mentioned wanting to lose twenty pounds, and talked about the mental health medication that “made you fat”; in a conversation with Zane Lowe later that year while promoting the album Jesus Is King, where he spoke out against the temptations of social media and poked fun at liberal politics, he expressed a desire to limit alcohol and give up porn. Most famously, in 2018, when he was on TMZ to promote his album ye and said that slavery “seemed like a choice” (he later apologized for that statement), the artist also revealed that he’d suffered an opioid addiction and that he’d gotten liposuction to look good in public, or, rather, so that people would think he looked good. (Is it a coincidence that when he lectured the TMZ staff, he wore a white T-shirt, grey zip-up hoodie, and gold necklace bearing the word “Donda”?) It’s also telling that in an interview on the Drink Champs podcast, during which Ye philosophically discussed love, relationships, and spiritual development, he revealed that he’d want a biopic about him to be called “Garmento,” as if that term stitched his whole life together.
Of course, most of these interviews were negotiated, wide-ranging conversations that were scheduled during a promotional cycle, so in some ways they were designed to feature an assortment of topics, especially those primed to generate headlines. And yet, I don’t know another celebrity—of any gender—who consistently melds interest in the somatic and psychological, and who packages internal and external critique together in their (seemingly) spontaneous public statements. In his art, he’s also omnivorous—The College Dropout features cheeky satires of exercise culture (“The New Workout Plan”) and thoughtful engagements with grief (“Family Business”); ye also includes tracks that explore the complexities of mental health, bipolar disorder, and egotism (“I Thought About Killing You”) with those that exalt the miracle of semen and voluptuous, fabric-busting “supermodel thick” bodies he can “lose my mind in” (“All Mine”).
I don’t know another celebrity—of any gender—who consistently melds interest in the somatic and psychological.
This double-minded approach to the body and mind finds a parallel in Ye’s general approach to public relations. The impulse to simultaneously please the public and tell them to fuck off is Ye in a nutshell—wanting to be liked while disdaining the self-sacrifice it takes to attain widespread likability (if such a thing even exists) has traditionally been his modus operandi. (He told Vanity Fair, “eventually I want the whole world to accept me.”) Ye’s public persona is the Cartesian mind-body divide expressed in a consistently loose tongue and a body that he’s said he’s cared for with mental health medications, painkillers, and at least one plastic surgery.
This juxtaposition of candor and physical restraint came together in the first fashion show of Ye’s I watched, 2016’s Yeezy Season 3 event, which also doubled as the release party for his album The Life of Pablo. There, as Ye and his friends danced to music and his provocative lyrics floated through Madison Square Garden like famous, game-ending jump shots, models squirmed within pantyhose and other corporeal constraints; it was as if one of Senga Nengudi’s activations had been denatured and adapted for mass appeal. The show featured an array of models positioned in tableaux vivants of stillness and disinterested world-weariness. As songs like “Ultralight Beam,” “Father Stretch My Hands, Pt. 1,” “Famous,” “Highlights,” and “Fade” blared a contemplative fusion of gospel, house music, and alternately disaffected, inspired, and chest-thumping raps, the models stared straight ahead, fashionably bored. Most of them stood stock-still, like living mannequins, while Young Thug placed his head in his hands and supermodels Naomi Campbell and Veronica Webb preened and reveled in applause. Unlike in a conventional fashion show, where models strut down a runway, achieving a kind of looping progress, metaphorically pushing fashion forward—down and back, down and back—as they change into new outfits or are replaced by their counterparts, these models stood still in rows, miming existential stasis. As if waiting for Godot (or instruction from Vanessa Beecroft, the show’s performance director), they barely moved. The use of tableaux vivants is one of Beecroft’s signature artistic gestures, and her interest in the “estrangement” of bodies in space, according to Rome’s La Galleria Nazionale, is captivating, even if her application of this artistic interest, including a penchant for using nude female models who are allegedly subject to long hours and strict rules regarding their physical movement, has been characterized by its “almost calculating cruelty,” as one writer described Beecroft’s aesthetic in 2005. The estrangement of the Yeezy Season 3 models in MSG, a heavily mediated and storied place (it’s known as “the world’s most famous arena”), while they were draped in vaguely post-apocalyptic threads—sweatshirts with holes in them, tights, jackets that appear to be made with the same material as down comforters—would turn out to be an uncanny dress rehearsal for our pandemic days.
Ye’s latest performative spectacle is a series of listening parties for DONDA, the album he released in September. DONDA is a tribute to his late mother Dr. Donda West, who died of complications stemming from cosmetic surgery in 2007. The listening parties, which were held at Chicago’s Soldier Field and Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium and livestreamed by Apple, were replete with dreary symbolism, including shrouds and a mysterious, Cimmerian color scheme. The show involved a bevy of black SUVs circling and then idling around people in dark police gear who jogged around a large platform and swarmed a replica of Ye’s childhood home. At one point, the artist lit himself on fire (with the help of a safety team, of course, who extinguished the flames almost immediately). DONDA’s premiere and constantly shifting tracklist recalls Pablo’s riveting, if also chaotic, rollout. Both album releases emphasized the intersection of revision and technology, and the fact that an album could be, to use a cliché, a “living, breathing” thing, as opposed to how music business operation unfolded in the era of physical discs and tapes, when projects locked weeks or even months before they were released to the public. The rollouts provided a reminder that art, like us, can morph, and can be reflective of a changing mind. This is ritual—mourning rites as well as Ye’s recent creative process of live-editing “living” art.
Something of the DONDA release, in concert with Ye’s Gap campaign, resonated with me. I plucked some meaning from the streams and social media ads. It’s possible I chose the Perfect Hoodie out of a sense of not necessarily wanting to be a part of something, but feeling a part of something and wanting something obvious to commemorate the something I was feeling. (“I Lost My Family and All I Got Was This T-Shirt.”) Maybe the consumerist, capitalist inside me just wanted to be a hypebeast for a day. I still haven’t figured that part out. But, nonetheless, I have it now. The hoodie arrived in a paper pouch that was itself inside of a plastic mailer (the part of me that scrolls Reddit for low-waste tips laughed and then recoiled at that). When I removed the hoodie from the paper it fell onto my lap like a small animal. It is so heavy.
The hoodie, which is made with organic cotton and designed in a double layer construction, feels like a weighted blanket. When I wear it I feel like I’m still in bed, dreaming, or wrestling with nightmares, but comforted nonetheless. I don’t think Ye was off with his observation about inner constitution and clothing commingling; I’ve noticed my personality and the hoodie glomming together like Doctor Doom’s mask melted onto his face. I feel this hoodie everywhere, in my skin and even architecturally: hoodie—the bags under my eyes; hoodie—the extra weight I put on during the pandemic, my belly the fabric kangaroo pouch; hoodie—my apartment, overly warm in the fall and winter as the heat rises up from other floors. Hoodie—my entire body. Hood—my head, and the place I retreated into during this maddening time.
In this moment characterized by the rise of fast fashion, of which Gap, Inc. had been an ailing pioneer before the Ye partnership was announced; the soaring popularity and ubiquity of athleisure, which Anne Helen Petersen wrote speaks to “self-optimization”; Silicon Valley’s influence and the popularity of tech-bro attire; and, most significantly, the political symbolism of Trayvon Martin’s murder, the hoodie might be the representative clothing item of the last ten years. Long an essential component of working-class fashion, hip-hop couture, and streetwear, the hoodie turned into a political lightning rod in 2012, when George Zimmerman murdered Martin, who was wearing one when he was gunned down. Days after Martin’s killing, writer Linton Weeks called the hoodie “a wearable Rorschach of contemporary American culture.” (Recently, the discourse about the racial implications of wearing hoodies returned to American news via an interview Sandra Bullock gave to The Grio, in which she revealed that she once forbid her young Black son to wear one.) The way bell-bottoms are synonymous with the ’70s, and jackets with shoulder pads the ’80s, the hoodie is that for this tumultuous moment. Just as James Dean’s image is incomplete without a white T-shirt and blue jeans, and Paris Hilton’s is enmeshed with Juicy Couture, so is the hoodie iconically attached to Ye, who is himself a Rorschach of American culture.
Ye recognizes the hoodie’s significance. In 2015, he told Vanity Fair, “I think people just wear yoga pants and sweatshirts,” and that, vis-a-vis his Yeezy work, he intended “to make the most beautiful version of that possible.” In an interview with WSJ Magazine from March of last year, he said that “Yeezy is the McDonald’s and the Apple of apparel” and detailed his vision for the Gap: “In order to make the Apple of apparel the next Gap, it has to be a new invention. To invent something that’s so good that you don’t even get credit for it because it’s the norm.” Apparently the good, normal thing involves the hoodie, which he held up as exemplary, saying, “The hoodie is arguably the most important piece of apparel of the last decade.”
It also seems that Gap has found political import in the hoodie; the day after Election Day 2020, the company released a widely-reviled ad for a half-red, half-blue zip-up hoodie, the zipper its makeshift Mason-Dixon line and Mississippi River. The tweet promoting the garment read, “The one thing we know, is that together, we can move forward,” before it was taken down. A Gap representative claimed that the company never intended to sell the hoodie, and that decision, however true, demonstrates how powerful the hoodie’s symbolism is. The effort the company put into marketing the hoodie as an emblem of a unified America, even if the item didn’t exist as an actual product, is telling of its allusive potential. Pepsi’s infamous ad featuring Kendall Jenner as a model who crosses picket lines of a protest to hand a cop a can of soda proved that the days when a company like Coca Cola could believably advertise its product within the frame of an anodyne hilltop sing-a-long were long gone in American culture. So, too, did Gap’s attempt at figuratively mapping purple states onto the bodies of its customers. It turns out that hoodies, which Geraldo Rivera famously claimed wearers could not “rehabilitate,” are doing a lot more work than previously imagined.
Despite the diminishing powers of his public stunts and his move into Gap’s normcore space, Ye is still one of America’s most enduring provocateurs, and his DONDA release parties bear out that idea. Over the years, despite many logically muddy and unprincipled takes, Ye has demonstrated a preternatural ability to tap into the psychological weather of the time, whether in 2005, when he audaciously stated “George Bush doesn’t care about Black people” during a Hurricane Katrina telethon, or now. Presently, this weather requires hoodies, those garments with roots in monk’s robes, which suggest they’re made for rumination, and the sweatshirt, an item that skyrocketed in popularity once makers and wearers realized its advertising potential, as Francesca Sterlacci and Joanne Arbuckle detail in Historical Dictionary of the Fashion Industry. According to writer Jennifer Park, who wrote a brief history of the sweatshirt,
The sweatshirt’s potential as a portable advertising tool was discovered in the 1960s when U.S. universities began printing their names on the medium. For students and parents alike, university names on sweats became the preferred casual attire for exhibiting school pride. The sweatshirt, along with the T-shirt, provided a cheap and effective way of disseminating information on a mass scale. The T-shirt slogan fad of the seventies inevitably translated to sweatshirts. Recognizing the relative simplicity of customization and the power of clever graphics combined with catchphrases, sweatshirts became a vehicle for personal expression for both the designer and the person wearing them.
But what is Ye, with the Perfect Hoodie, selling exactly, besides the garment itself? Broadly speaking, and acknowledging tremendous variation with respect to race, class, and gender identity, if American attire in the 1950s reflected postwar optimism, the ’60s nascent sexual and political freedom, the ’80s Reaganist economic power, and the ’90s pluralism, as Daniel Delis Hill wrote in As Seen in Vogue: A Century of American Fashion in Advertising, what do our clothes mean now? In Reagan-era parlance, what of those previous eras trickled down into American fashion? Maybe a little bit of everything. Current trends suggest we’re generally communicating a mix of resignation, forced upbeatness, and optimization, like the mood of a preoccupied repast host, who’s alternately comforting mourners, feeding them, and stealing off to the bathroom for a quick, surreptitious cry of her own. I would argue that now, our bodies are billboards for bereavement, whatever that looks like. Whether fast fashion enables us to help kill the planet and exploit the workers who make cheap clothing, lament our changing bodies, accept the physical limitations of aging, honor the fallen, promote bigotry and conspiracy theories, or distract us from our lost loved ones, we’re wearing dispossession on our sleeves. In the funereal days of the past twenty months, keeping a clean set of black clothes has been paramount. In this moment of corporeal change, when weight fluctuations, long term physical disability, and death are common on a public scale, in adopting the hoodie, wearers are also plugging the need for comfort, or covering up the result of too much comfort food. By publicly donning the Perfect Hoodie and other non-Gap hooded apparel during this extended, ongoing, decade-plus tribute to his mother, one that has also seen him negotiate his own body image, mental health, and sartorial sensibility, Ye has put together much of what’s in the ether—commerce and convalescence, retail and recovery, body politics and the process of bemoaning loss—advertising nothing and everything on the usually blank front of his thick sweatshirts.
Despite Geraldo Rivera’s claim that the hoodie cannot be rehabilitated, it might help to comfort some of us as we rehabilitate ourselves.
Before the DONDA release parties, Ye used public appearances at 2005’s Hurricane Katrina telethon; the 2010 VMAs, which he dedicated to his mother; a January 2020 Sunday Service performance hours after Kobe Bryant’s death; and DMX’s April 2021 homegoing service, where he and his choir performed, to channel collective pain. (In fact, this thread of public mourning runs throughout his body of work, even to the very beginning—Ye’s music career took on new life when he survived a near-fatal 2002 car crash and transformed the ambiguous grief resulting from that accident into “Through the Wire,” his breakout single.) “Wolves,” a stand out from The Life of Pablo, also turned out to be an exercise in processing torment; on the song he manages the blues, bilious greens, and moral grey areas. He hums a melody that sounds improvised, as if on a reference track, and utters half-spoken, half-sung ad-libs; the whole thing feels at once well-constructed and unfinished, simultaneously advanced and inchoate as the blinkered, newfound condition so many people share under the escalating extremes of late-stage capitalism. It sounds like the soundtrack to someone leaving a clearing for darker wood. On the track, Ye declares himself “lost and beat up,” “turned out, burned up.” The song is a kind of modern fairy tale spun through New Testament agony and pseudo-historical allegory, heavy filters, sonic dissonance, and brooding minor-key chord changes. “You too wild,” he sings, his voice deeply distorted by auto-tune and howling, whirring sounds, as diverting as strong winds. “Wolves” is an enchanted forest in song, one Ye can see for the trees, and like another of his hit songs, there’s blood on the leaves. A voice harmonizes a high-pitched whistle-register wail, the notes sailing like a searching raven. The “wild” observation is clearly directed at a woman, but might he also be looking at himself in the mirror? (In his 2015 SNL appearance, during which the artist performed “Wolves” with Sia and Vic Mensa, he wore a black hoodie and crawled on the ground, imitating both a wolf and a primitive style of moving.) As the song concludes, Ye restates its main refrain, “We surrounded by the fuckin’ wolves.”
In these recent promotional cycles, in which the artist hawked albums and clothing lines, he also commercialized a certain state of mind. Though in wearing the hoodie, he not only commodified it, he also advanced a sense of fashion as feeling, as mood ring, and publicly endorsed a kind of cloaking. We might not feel like Little Red Riding Hood, but we’re in the woods, the weeds, and a wilderness we’ve not seen on a mass scale for a very long time. There are metaphorical wolves—and insurrectionists dressed in fur—lurking everywhere. Meanwhile, some people like me who are learning how to grieve properly again have swaddled ourselves in fuckin’ double-layered cotton, becoming only slightly less frightened than newborn babies.
On “Spaceship,” Ye cleverly deployed a sample of Marvin Gaye’s “Distant Lover” and references to both the gospel classic “I’ll Fly Away” and Old Negro Spirituals to stunning effect. Featured artists GLC and Consequence contribute verses about different kinds of loss and missed opportunities. On the song, we learn that the tax of two grueling jobs, which were both a choice and a calling, caused Ye psychological distress, prompting him to use his break to take hits of a blunt next to a “no smoking” sign in the mall (that tragicomic image is another Ye specialty, which pays off twice when the idea of him getting high at work turns “token Blackie” from earlier in the verse to “tokin’ Blackie”). On the chorus, he expressed he was working a “grave shift,” both at the Gap, and as an artist, meaning toiling in the middle of the night, exerting extra effort. Now the bereaved Ye, who’s yet again a Gap representative, is also working a kind of grave shift, scattered around America processing death and trauma, saddened and swathed in heavy fabric. (On November 30, when he attended the final fashion show of the late Virgil Abloh, his friend and collaborator, he wore a black leather Louis Vuitton jacket.) While the artist finished recording DONDA, he lived in Mercedes-Benz Stadium and put on arena shows to grieve his beloved mother, working overtime until the album was complete. And so, too, his Perfect Hoodie is doing double duty. Despite Geraldo Rivera’s claim that the hoodie cannot be rehabilitated, it might help to comfort some of us as we rehabilitate ourselves.
The last time I saw my uncle as a lively, mostly upright person was in April, and we were both wearing sweatshirts for the occasion—he was a boxing trainer and had promised to help me shake some pandemic weight. I did jumping jacks and toe touches in a park while he barked at me to do extra reps. From a bench, a grandmother cheered me on and asked my uncle for the exercise list he’d given me. (He also gave me a pair of boxing gloves, which I brought with me that day, and while they might not be Ye’s Spirit Shirts, they serve a similar purpose.) In the months that followed, when he shrunk down to nothing, I wished I could graft all of the extra everything I had—weight, vigor, hope—onto him. Instead I held his hand and half-watched TNT. Then we both died. Him, completely, corporeally, whatever; me, in small ways I’m still discovering. Now, when I walk around with my palms stuffed inside my hoodie’s kangaroo pouch (“palms” no longer “fists” because I’m learning to be less angry about everything that’s happened), I feel in the pocket the absence of his knuckles, which I used to thumb over while visiting his bedside. In that pouch I’ve noticed a transformation, a time-lapse of balled-up flesh unfurling into something more nuanced and graceful, that’s usually thought of as only occurring inside prenatal bellies.