Streetwear Design Essay Example


This paper will compare and contrast the differences between streetwear during its development throughout the 1980s to its rise in popularity in present day. Influenced by surfer and skater subcultures, streetwear was created under the pretense of rebellion and has become a creative outlet for expressing individuality through clothing. Streetwear is a style that challenges the traditional rules of fashion, resulting in separation from mass culture due to its distinct differences and rebellious essence compared to the societal norm of mainstream fashion.


Since its first appearance in the 1980s, Streetwear has become popularized by celebrities who have transformed a cheap way of self-expression into an expensive form of dress. Streetwear is truly a phenomenon in the history of fashion. Its unique simplicity, paired with its reliance on popular culture, makes streetwear an interesting outlier compared to other fashion styles. Style plays an important role in an individual’s personal image. It can represent an individual's lifestyle, financial status, and level of respect. Multiple subcultures, such as skaters, surfers, or hip hop artists, have utilized streetwear as a creative outlet for individuality while challenging the traditional rules of fashion at the time. This leads to the question: why did streetwear become so popular, and how did its inclusion into mainstream fashion cause changes in its style, price, and definition?

Theoretical frameworks will be utilized to analyze the sources used in this research paper. Hebdige’s book, Subculture: The Meaning of Style, dictates that new styles are created as a result of subcultures attempting to separate themselves from the social masses through changes in their appearance. Hebdige discusses how these subcultures distinguish themselves by creating or modifying their own version of music, fashion, and lifestyle. These new ideas will challenge the societal norms of the time period and perhaps even alienate the subculture from the rest of society in a negative way. This may strengthen the bond between the members of the subculture, which also explains the cult-like behaviour of some streetwear communities. Hebdige also discusses how the styles that are created by these subcultures are often heavily influenced by existing cultural objects. He supports this concept by using the style of Punk as an example. Hebdige says, “punk reproduced the entire sartorial history of post-war working-class youth cultures in ‘cut up’ form, combining elements which had originally belonged to completely different epochs” (Hebdige, 26). This shows how punk is a combination of both black and white culture, and that their style has taken elements from both cultures. Streetwear is a style that is constantly evolving with modern culture, so Hebdige’s framework provides a good explanation as to how streetwear is constantly evolving to keep up with the influences of popular culture. Elena Romero’s, Free Stylin': How Hip Hop Changed the Fashion Industry: How Hip Hop Changed the Fashion Industry utilizes a framework on how streetwear can be used to associate a wearer with a different subculture. Romero identifies how streetwear in the past was mainly a way for wearers to follow hip hop trends and showcase unique ways to change one’s look, but the style has also changed to associating oneself with “...hustlers and celebrities who flaunted their riches by the clothes they wore and the cars they drove” (Romero, 10). This frame can be used to further the main argument that streetwear has changed in meaning. Romero also writes about how the desire to feel rich, powerful, and respected drives the youth of America to purchase expensive streetwear. Streetwear has transformed from a non-conformist based culture into a culture that has underlying conformist agendas.

Streetwear is a fashion style that originated from the skater and surfer subculture during the 1980s. It was used to give wearers a unique look that would appear grungry and anti-conformist (Rajendran, 11). During the 1980s, streetwear was a creative outlet for youths to express their individualism under the pretense of rebellion (Rajendran, 11). Streetwear during this decade used techniques such as cuffing jeans and having different colored shoelaces (Zhang,6). During its brief existence between the eighties to present day, streetwear has completely rebuilt its meaning, which is a direct result of its sudden surge in popularity. This popularity is due to influences such as pop culture, celebrities, and hip hop (Romero, 9). This resulted in a controversy between the current and traditional definition of streetwear. Streetwear consumers would soon start to see the price of streetwear rising to as much as five times the original price. The popularization of streetwear created a sharp rise in demand while designers purposely kept a very low supply, sometimes never releasing a product again. Romero identifies how streetwear in the past was mainly a way for wearers to follow hip hop trends and showcase unique ways to change one’s look, but it has also changed to associating oneself with “...hustlers and celebrities who flaunted their riches by the clothes they wore and the cars they drove,” (Romero, 10). This is an important aspect to modern streetwear, as celebrities begin to use streetwear to flaunt their wealth. This impacted streetwear from being an easily accessible style to being one of the most expensive and lucrative styles to wear.

Streetwear is a constantly evolving style because it is utilized by youth culture to distinguish themselves from the societal norm. In order to be unique and stylish, streetwear has to constantly change forms so that its wearers can always stand out from a crowd. As shown by Mayan Rajendran’s, "The Development of Streetwear and the Role Of New York City, London, and Supreme NY, streetwear can be viewed as more than just clothing, as many people see it as a ‘social interactionist object. The term ‘social interactionist object’ describes how streetwear is an important social tool due to its ability to convey deeper social messages to others.

In this paper, the origins of streetwear will analyze the beginning of streetwear as a style and the demographic of its early adopters so that it can be compared to modern streetwear for differences in demographic, affordability, and meaning. The popularization of streetwear will define the causes for streetwear to become popular, which will be supported by the frameworks provided by Hebdige’s writing on the creation and rise of a subculture, along with Romero’s insight on the consumer mindset and social interaction. The designer aspect of streetwear, and post mainstream streetwear will be used to show supporting evidence of the changes between early and modern streetwear.

Section 2: Origins of Streetwear

In order to understand the controversies behind streetwear, it is important to first discuss the origins of streetwear. Streetwear began as an affordable and comfortable style for surfers and skaters in Los Angeles during the 1980s (Block,1). It was created to be uni-sex but generally caters to a young male demographic, between the ages of 20 and 35, similar to the demographic of surfers and skaters during the 1980s (Rajendran,15). Multiple races have used streetwear as a common ground for social interaction due to its main influences such as skating, surfing, and hip hop, being open to all races (Rajendran,21).

As shown by the image above (Fatema,1), streetwear would become a way for members of the skater or hip hop community to express their individualism and rebelliousness but still be comfortable enough to skate in. As streetwear was popularized by hip hop artists in New York, different styles of streetwear would begin to emerge as the hip hop subculture began to distinguish themselves from other subcultures.

As shown by the image above (Castillo,1), this style of streetwear was influenced by the style of hip hop artists at the time, using bucket hats, Adidas track jackets, and Adidas shell-toe shoes. This unique style took influence from popular hip hop group Run-D.M.C. Romero writes, “Each New York borough had its own unique flavor. As Queens guys, we all wore Adidas shell toes because of Run-D.M.C. and donned a BVD look, which consisted of a BVD short-sleeve t-shirt with a bvd tank top over it,” (Romero, 9). This is not the first time a subculture created a unique fashion style. As shown by Hebdige, “The unlikely alliance of diverse and superficially incompatible musical traditions, mysteriously accomplished under punk, found ramifications in equally eclectic clothing styles which reproduces the same kind of cacophony on a visual level” (Hebdige, 27). Hebdige is describing how the Punk subculture dresses in an anarchic, eclectic style that matches the intensity of their music genre. As shown by Romero and Hebdige, fashion styles such as Punk and streetwear are a result of the Punk and hip hop subculture challenging traditional fashion ideas and creating their own unique style in order to symbolically separate themselves from the mass culture.

Zhang’s dissertation analyzes the motivations of those who wore streetwear during its early days. “My definition of streetwear is that what we learned, we learned on the street. We learned how to iron our clothes by being on the street. We learned how to cuff our pants. We learned how to rip your shirt. We learned how to dress based on our experience on the street”(Zhang,11). Most consumers during the early stages of streetwear did not wear streetwear for the brand name, but instead were more proud of the “Ghetto” or “Street” subculture they would reflect wearing the style. This early “Street” or “Ghetto” connotation would be a direct result of how popular streetwear would be associated more with a financially poorer demographic due to how hip hop, skating, and surfing subcultures appealed to poorer areas that were considered “Ghetto by society.

Section 3: Popularizing Streetwear

Streetwear has become a popular style in present day fashion due to a combination of cultural and societal factors. In terms of societal factors, the dominating trait of the 21st century fashion system is “individual aesthetic autonomy” (Lipovetsky 35). What this means is that present day fashion has evolved to be individualistic. As a result, styles such as streetwear thrive amongst youth culture because it allows wearers to become a unique individual due to how different the streetwear style is compared to the societal norm. This may no longer be the case due to streetwear growing to become part of mainstream culture, which means it is no longer individualistic but more conformist than ever.

In terms of cultural factors, streetwear is a fashion style that is strongly influenced by modern culture, so it comes as no surprise that the internet and social media play such a heavy role towards the popularization of streetwear. As Rajendran’s research shows, “Results suggest that streetwear may evolve into apparel with a heavier presence online than on the street due to the growing rate of e-shopping and editorials,” (Rajendran, 3). More pop culture icons started wearing streetwear brands and in turn more streetwear brands started collaborating new designs with pop culture icons. In Alex Williams’ article “Guerilla Fashion” he talks about the famous streetwear brand Supreme. He explains how this small skate shop in New York became a top seller in the fashion industry after famous artists, such as hip hop artist Tyler the Creator, praised the Supreme brand as “a secret society,” (Williams, 1). Shortly after, other pop culture icons, such as Kanye West, would be seen wearing the Supreme brand (Williams, 1). The sudden increase in celebrities wearing streetwear put a spotlight on streetwear to the general public. Soon enough, most of the general public has seen streetwear either through social media, on the streets, or word of mouth, making it more popular than ever.

Due to the increase in demand and limited supply, the price of streetwear would rise exorbitantly to match the demand. A Supreme and North Face jacket collaboration is $298 for retail and sells upwards of $700 online (Williams, 2). Why would consumers pay so much for clothing that offer the same practical use as other smaller brands? Elizabeth Wilson describes in chapter two of Adorned in Dreams how during the French Revolution (1789), “members of the poorest class wore the cheapest cloth” (Wilson,22), whereas “individuals that belonged to various callings wore distinctive dress” (Wilson, 22). This class distinction separates the poor and the rich apart in fashion style. In comparison, the high prices of streetwear, unique looks, along with the association with celebrities has made streetwear give off the connotation of being wealthy or famous. Similarly, Lipovetsky writes about how Patou released a new perfume called “Joy” in 1923. It became known as “the world's most expensive perfume” and soon became 90% of the Patau’s revenue at the time (Lipovetsky, 89). From Lipovetsky’s writing, it would seem as if consumers enjoy buying high priced luxury items because it makes them appear more wealthy than they actually were. This desire is part of the reason why modern consumers are willing to pay high prices for streetwear. The exclusivity, and high prices of modern day streetwear has changed the connotation of streetwear from reflecting a “Ghetto” or “Street” lifestyle to reflecting a luxurious lifestyle, a contradiction of its origins.

Section 4: The Designer Aspect of Streetwear

An important aspect of streetwear are the designers and their designs. Considering how early streetwear emphasized on modifying normal day to day wear in unique ways, it comes to no surprise that modern streetwear clothing pieces are usually designs that are printed or sewn onto existing mainstream clothing options, such as hoodies, T-shirts, pants, socks, caps, or other forms of modern day to day wear. Due to the general lack of intricate folds and cuts needed in the design process, streetwear has become a style that possesses a low skill requirement for amateur designers to enter, and a high skill ceiling where more experienced designers reign. Another important aspect of streetwear is that the designs can be generally unisex. As shown by "Dilettante Amateurism in Streetwear Design", “Given the DIY ethos of streetwear and the “street” nature of dilettantes, it can be said that in street culture, designers and wearers are essentially one and the same” (Bai, Yu-Li, and Ying-Chun Zang, 918). This is significant because certain fashion designers that design for the opposite gender may not be able to firsthand try on their own designs. To a professional designer, this may not be a problem, but for amateur fashion designers, wearing a self-made design allows for instant feedback on the feel of the fabrics, restriction on movements, and puts more pressure on creating better designs because any negative feedback will come to the designer personally. Also a designer wearing his or her own designs is akin to a chef tasting a dish while it is being cooked. The designer can catch certain flaws in their design before it hits the main market. The easy entry level of designing streetwear, mixed with its unisex appeal, has resulted in the streetwear market being flooded with a multitude of amateur designers and custom designs (Bai, Yu-Li, and Ying-Chun Zang, 915).

Amateur or professional, it is certain that streetwear designs have visually changed between the 1980s and modern day. The physical changes of streetwear are a direct result of the style accommodating to its rise in popularity and change in the demographic wearing it. During the 1980s, streetwear was worn by skaters, surfers, and hip hop aficionados with usually a low budget constraint. Modern streetwear appeals to celebrities, hip hop artists, and wealthier collectors. This change in demographic resulted in a change in potential money to be made by companies. Companies may pick certain designs and collaborations to make the most money, but on the other hand, big name streetwear brands such as Supreme has released statements such as, “Supreme does not try to be in every department store in the world, preferring instead to stay underground and boutique…. Supreme is a company that refuses to sell out” (Ferla,1). Regardless of selling out or not, streetwear designers certainly have changed the look of streetwear as it grows in popularity.

Streetwear started from simple do-it-yourself modifications, being affordable and accessible, to the heavily branded luxury sets that teenagers would wait on lines that wrap around the blocks of streetwear stores due to releases being extremely limited (Williams,1). As shown by this HYPEBEAST interview, “You know being a designer now means something different than the designer the previous sort of generation” (HYPEBEAST, 0:33). Off-White designer/CEO, Virgil Abloh, addresses in this interview how modern streetwear designers are very different to old streetwear designers due to how much streetwear has changed overtime. Early streetwear was more concerned about being different from the societal norm in order to distinguish themselves as an emerging subculture. Therefore, old streetwear designers focused on being unique and really pioneered the designs that broke the rules of fashion. Meanwhile modern streetwear designers, such as Virgil Abloh, are still focused on being unique but also have the social aspect of streetwear to consider, due to how popular streetwear has grown. In result, heavy branding of streetwear clothes has become part of mainstream streetwear subculture. Modern designers have to consider that their buyers want to be recognized out of a crowd wearing their brand, something that old streetwear never had to consider during the design process.

As shown by this Supreme and Louis Vuitton collaboration (Dubrisingh,1), the heavy branding of streetwear clothing is what makes streetwear pop out amongst other tradition. This long sleeve is covered in both the Louis Vuitton and Supreme company brand. The long sleeve also uses the famous red color that Supreme uses in their logo as well. The entire design of the long sleeve is centered around branding. It is very common for collaborations between Supreme and Louis Vuitton, or Comme Des Garcons and Nike, to heavily incorporate each other’s brand into their designs. Collaborations between streetwear companies have created the most coveted and highest selling pieces in the community. As shown by Alice Clapp’s, “A New Resonant Vision of Luxury”, “Secondly, luxury consumers and spectators are in constant pursuit of the new, and collaborations are a particularly captivating and emergent expression of rarity and luxury, one that even the most discerning and jaded consumers aspire to” (Clapp,1). Clapp is describing how even the most experienced streetwear consumers will be excited for the collaborations of streetwear brands. It is the collaboration itself that makes certain streetwear pieces feel more rare and luxurious, a must-have for collectors. It is certain that modern day designers acknowledge that branding sells, and how important branding is when it comes to design. As shown by HYPEBEAST, “We can use design, we can use trends, and these brand and good ideas to sort of share information” (HYPEBEAST, 11:13). Virgil Abloh shows how designers can share information to others through their branding and designs. This makes streetwear a “social interactionist object,” a term coined by Rajendran, “the term streetwear was also not concretely definable and responses from interview candidates suggested that more than apparel, streetwear is a social interactionist object and connotes a state of mind rather than a style of dress” (Rajendran, 4). By wearing streetwear, an individual can endorse the subliminal message that the designer put into the design, whether that be a political message or pop culture reference, or simply that the wearer is a part of this brand’s subculture.

Post Mainstream Streetwear

The post mainstream streetwear aesthetic is an amalgamation of different influences and styles that come from modern culture.

As shown by Allenclaudius and the image above (Yahya,1), “Streetwear blends a diverse mix of styles: casual sportswear, military pieces, Americana of the sort Tommy Hilfiger designs, hip-hop and “urban wear” influences, skate references, workwear, and more” (Allenclaudius, 1). The reason why streetwear has so many different influences and styles is due to all the different subcultures that have adopted streetwear and modified it to make it unique to their own culture. For example, the Punk fashion style takes elements from both Black and White culture, “punk reproduced the entire sartorial history of post-war working-class youth cultures in ‘cut up’ form, combining elements which had originally belonged to completely different epochs” (Hebdige, 26). Hebdige shows the concept that styles can be influenced by multiple distinctly different subcultures, but exist due to the subcultures interacting with each other whether that be through positive or negative interactions. The idea is supported by the notion that if two cultures are interacting, their ideas may also start to mix and blend into a different unique subculture and result in a variation of their fashion styles. Similarly, streetwear may find similar styles based on the influences of certain areas. The Bronx might take the style of a famous Bronx hip hop artist, whereas Queens would have their own style. But the area between the Bronx and Queens may take influences from both styles, and create their own unique mix.

Regardless of the style or influence it came from, mainstream streetwear takes pride in its brand names. Often companies such as Supreme would make their brand name the centerpiece of their clothes (Williams, 2). The simplicity of the design often confuses non-streetwear wearers as the notion of daywear having luxury brand pricing is absurd to some. For example, what is the difference between a Supreme graphic tee and any other branded graphic tee any individual can find at shopping centers? Other than the exorbitant price differences, it is because the name behind the brand has built such a strong community behind it. The streetwear subculture acknowledges that a lot of the pricing behind streetwear is absurd. This kind of confusion is what the streetwear community strives on, it challenges the rules of fashion which only makes the subculture more unique. As shown by Hebdige’s writing on what makes a subculture, “The meaning of subculture, then, is always in dispute, and style is the arena in which opposing definitions clash with the most dramatic force." (Hebdige, 3). Hebdige’s framework show that subcultures need to rebel against mass culture by representing their identity with new cultural breakthroughs in fields such as fashion, or music. Therefore, style is a tool that allows subcultures to distinguish themselves from the masses and what was considered mainstream at the time. Modern streetwear is a direct result of multiple subcultures using the style as a creative outlet to separate themselves from the masses. As a result, modern streetwear has taken on many different styles that are present in the community today.


To conclude, when compared to early 1980s streetwear, mainstream streetwear has definitely changed in both physical aesthetic and social aesthetic. The changes in streetwear are a direct result of the changes in its demographic and in how society values individualism in fashion as supported by Lipovetsky. As cultural influences changed, different subcultures, such as hip hop, have adopted streetwear and modified it to make it their own unique style. The multiple adaptation to the style from different subcultures leads to a more unique styles of clothing being created. This is supported by Hebdige’s framework on the use of fashion styles by subcultures to challenge traditional rules of fashion, and to distance themselves from the cultural masses. Streetwear has and will continue to be a unique way of dressing as long as the desire to be a unique individual remains in the community.

On the other hand, there are counterarguments that streetwear is too mainstream and that the due to the size of the community, the style can no longer specialize in being the representative for individualism. This sentiment is shown by HYPEBEAST writer Bobby Hundreds, “If you’re into streetwear today, it’s because everyone else is into it,” (Pathak,1).

As supported by Romero’s and Rajendran’s framework, it is clear that streetwear has evolved past the realm of clothes and fabrics, but instead turned itself into a social interactionist object capable of representing a multitude of subcultures, such as skaters, surfers, hip hop artists, and the wealthy. Streetwear can also reflect on an individual’s financial status. In conclusion, streetwear continues to evolve as the culture of its consumers change, but will always be the creative outlet for those who wish to express individuality. Whether it may be through lifestyle, music taste, financial background, or subculture, streetwear will be there individualize anybody’s wardrobe.


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