Fresh, Fly, and Fabulous: Fifty Years of Hip Hop Style
On ViewThe Museum at FIT
Fresh, Fly, and Fabulous: Fifty Years of Hip Hop Style
February 8–April 23, 2023
Rhythmic cadences and lyrical strategy; social analysis and celebration; fiery deliveries and melodious beats, handstands, backflips, the boom and the bap—whether it be through music or movement, hip hop has always encapsulated the art of the balancing act. Attempting once again to achieve equilibrium, this time between the past and present of hip hop’s iconic, internationally influential fashion history is The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology’s (FIT) Fresh, Fly, and Fabulous: Fifty Years of Hip Hop Style. The exhibition, which was co-curated by Elena Romero and Elizabeth Way and is accompanied by a book of the same name, is part of an ongoing, year-long celebration of hip hop’s 50th birthday, and, with over 100 featured pieces, is the largest-ever exhibition of its kind.
Upon entering, it’s immediately clear that this is a multisensory, multimedia experience. Accompanying a video compilation of interview clips with legendary hip hop designers (including Misa Hylton, Karl Kani, April Walker, and more), blown-up photographs of Jamal Shabazz’s street photography cover the doors heading down into the galleries. His photography, a key element of the exhibition, infuses the experience with the electric energy and anticipation that permeated the Bronx of the 1970s. This is where hip hop was born—influenced by both his native Jamaica’s sound system culture and the Black American genres of blues, jazz, and funk, DJ Kool Herc’s August 11, 1973 back-to-school party marked the creation of hip hop, immortalizing the Bronx as a cultural landmark in the genre’s history.
This setting’s depiction is one of the exhibition’s greatest triumphs: the opening space centers on the genre’s earliest sartorial markers, shedding light on often-overlooked design pioneers, whilst weaving in the story of the political, community-centric roots of hip hop’s culture. A then-experimental leather vest (1980s) worn by club dancer and artist Tracy Daniels, along with a custom, hand-painted Paradise Garage blue denim vest (1990s) by Luis Ramos (aka Inca the Graffiti Artist) honor the youth cultures responsible for birthing hip hop, with the latter accompanying a duo of shiny, vibrant satin Disco Fever “Juice” jackets (1979–1980) in representing the underground clubs of the seventies and eighties, some of the earliest examples of hip hop’s long history of garment branding.This section is a necessary nod to hip hop’s subversive origins; the exhibition presents a celebration of the underground, excluded communities that “incubated [hip hop] under the stress of discrimination, poverty, and urban redlining” and chose music and fashion to not only express who they were, but to project to the world who they wanted and were going to be.
The aspirational nature of the clothing is presented through a rigid attention to detailing and an emphasis on styling. Such decisions as the inclusion of historian and dancer Jorge “POPMASTER FABEL” Pabon’s Kangol Spitfire cap (1985), Playboy gloves (late 1980s), and customized “FABEL” belt buckle (1983) exemplify the importance of accessorizing in achieving the fresh look that defined the early moments of hip hop fashion.
Independent of the paired captions, the chosen outfit constructions bring a physicality to the garments that elicit a very distinctive feeling of time and place—they convey both the sartorial and societal contexts of the clothing, with neither getting lost in the mix.
At the center of the first area are video-projected oral histories of Disco Fever nightclub and early hip hop fashion by Disco Fever owner Sal Abbatiello and veejay Ralph McDaniels, who detail the story behind the first Phat Fashion shows. These, along with a collection of mixed-media pieces, present what is by far the most immersive moment of the exhibition. Surrounded by Shabazz’s Fly Girls of Flatbush (1982) to one side, and a “graffiti” wall filled with photography and concert fliers spanning the seventies, eighties, and nineties on the wall facing the projection, a clear evocation of this moment in time is achieved, with the otherwise-black walls providing a neutral background against which the disruptive, creative, and remarkably joyful nature of the various media stand in even starker contrast.
In the next and final showroom, that feeling of distinction and specificity becomes somewhat elusive, due to the unclear flow of the displays. Loosely chronological, with more emphasis on trend evolutions, popular brands, and celebrity style, what the room may be missing in direction it more than makes up for in the sheer volume and diversity of the garments on display. With the majority of the pieces housed here, this room brings the fashions out of the past and into the present. Immediately visible is a tower of displays; one dedicated to hip hop’s connections to European design houses like Gucci, Louis Vuitton, and Christian Dior tells the story of how luxury fashion became intertwined with hip hop culture, citing the work of designers and stylists like Misa Hylton, Dapper Dan, and more. Furthermore, hip hop’s branding evolution and logomania are also well represented, with bold, strikingly branded garments by the likes of MCM, Tommy Hilfiger, and Ralph Lauren also on display. Mainstay looks from the brands’ histories with hip hop are also included, most notably the Tommy Hilfiger bandeau, boxers, and jeans (1997) worn by Aaliyah in her iconic ad campaign with the brand.
A standout moment comes in the form of a glass-enclosed section at the very back, containing couture looks worn by artists on the red carpet. An intricately beaded, gold Moschino gown (2022) worn by Megan thee Stallion at the 2022 Met Gala, and a devastatingly beautiful white fringed Mugler gown and glove set (1997) worn by Cardi B for the 2019 Grammys are among them, with the showstopper being a multicolored, cocooning Thom Browne ensemble (2018) worn by Doja Cat as she hosted the 2021 MTV Video Music Awards. This section, especially, powerfully emphasizes the importance not only of streetwear but formalwear as well in the story of hip hop fashion. Speakers blaring popular hip hop style anthems (Nelly’s “Grillz” and A$AP Rocky’s “Fashion Killa” among them) also add to the energy of the room.
Although an exceptionally strong history of hip hop’s style history in New York, the exhibition does little to address regional developments in hip hop fashion from areas like the South and West Coast, or internationally. Outside of celebrity dress, specific sartorial contributions from hip hop’s other geographic strongholds are largely left out of the conversation. The same could be said for some of hip hop’s biggest women style stars—a marked lack of looks from landmark fashionistas like Lil Kim, Foxy Brown, and Kelis leaves a gap in the story told by the exhibition.
Despite its shortcomings, the exhibition’s impact is undeniable. Though not quite balanced in its content and organization, this counterintuitively almost enhances the experience, allowing the audacious, daring nature of the clothing to come to the fore, unrestrained—a keen interpolation of the dauntless culture it seeks to reflect.