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The Influences of New York City on the Urban Wear fashion of  the 1980s-1990s.

Updated: Jul 26, 2022

Streetwear, or as it was known during the mid-80s to late 90s Urban Wear, was born out of the streets of New York City. Originating out of the urban ghettos of New York City it was ‘initially 'geared primarily towards African American youths’ (Rajendran 2012). It was later on adopted and popularised by many rappers including the Wu-Tang Clan (Figure.1), the Notorious B.I.G and Jay Z (Guzman 2019). This trend was known for its of use oversized shirts and jeans, fitted baseball caps, sports jerseys, sneakers, and timberland boots (Figure.2). The brands leading the urban wear movement included FUBU, Karl Kani, Phat Farm, Walker wear and Cross Colours (Figure.3). These brands were often defined by accessible price points, baggy silhouettes and most importantly functionality. Equally as important during this time was the emergence of high-priced urban wear brands or as they were most commonly referred to as ‘Ghetto Fabulous’. This included the incorporation of gold jewellery and customised garments using fabrics from well known designer houses. In the following article, we will discuss New York city’s unique geographical, demographic, and political conditions during 1980 to 1995. Amongst these factors were harsh weather, economic downturn, homelessness and most notoriously the crack epidemic and its ramifications within marginalised neighbourhoods. Subsequently, demonstrating in detail the major impact these variables have had on the urban wear trend and their long-term implications on streetwear as a whole.

New York City

The Big Apple in the 1980s was far from the safe and thriving cosmopolitan urban playground It Is today. The ‘Crack Epidemic Was Raging, crime was at a near-record high and homelessness was a major issue’ (Compan 2017). It was only a few years earlier that city was facing a serious fiscal crisis and on the brink of bankruptcy. During Abraham Beame’s run as the mayor, ‘New York city was facing a cash shortage and was unable to pay for its operating expenses’ (Freudenberg 2006). Furthermore, it was unable to borrow any funds from the federal government to cover its $600 million dollar debt. It faced the prospect of ‘defaulting on its obligations and declaring bankruptcy’ (Fein 2003), only to be saved by President Gerald Ford. A last-ditch effort by Ford, in an attempt to win votes for his second term. Then there were the power blackouts of July 13, 1977, that lasted for 25 hours, during which black and Hispanic neighbourhoods fell prey to destruction and looting.

It led to the arrest of ‘over 3,000 people and the city's already crowded prisons were pushed to their limits’ (Genevie 1987). The financial crisis, high crime rates and damage from the blackouts led to a widespread belief that New York City was in an irreversible decline and beyond redemption. By the end of the 1970s, nearly a million people had left, a population loss that would not be recouped for another twenty years. The Mid 80s to early 90s was a time where the city was attempting to rebuild itself and move away from its reputation as the ‘Fear City’ (Baker 2015). New Yorkers many of whom had high aspirations for a better life, hustled their way to through the harsh environment. Daniel Day’s legendary Harlem Boutique was amongst this new business trying to make it in the concrete jungle. Dapper Dan, as he would later be known would rework fabric from designer brands such as Gucci and louis Vuitton into jackets, pants, and suits. At a time where most fashion houses overlooked black consumers, he had created a place where his wealthy clientele which often would consist of drug kingpins, gangsters, professional boxers, and rappers could get custom made designer pieces. His clothing ditched the slim European sizing for a much more comfortable fit as well as a variety of interesting customisable features (E.g., exotic fur and bulletproof lining) tailored to the needs of his costumers. Dapper Dan understood what designer clothing meant to his customers and more importantly how it made them feel. Day’s high profile costumer base would cause its boutique to be subject to regular police raids, which led to its eventual closure in 1992. Today Dapper Dan is celebrated for his contribution in the field of Ready-to-wear designer fashion and has gone onto collaborate with Gucci on a number of successful capsule collections.

Equally as important to the growth of Urban wear trend were the geographical characteristics of New York itself. The city on average experiences 69 days per year where the temperatures drop below 0. In fact, between 1980 to 1990 the average daily temperature were 17.2 C and the city experienced 20 days of heavy snow per annum (National Centres for Environmental Information 2016). In comparison Los Angeles saw daily average temperatures of 24.5 C during the same time period It can therefore be argued with certainty that New York city experienced much colder days in the given period then most other states. This gave rise to the popularity of puffer jackets, Kangol caps and Coogi Sweaters (Johnson 2018). The rise in popularity of these items among African American youth could also be partly credited to the frequent name-drops by Brooklyn based rapper The Notorious B.I.G.

The Crack epidemic

It was in 1982 when cocaine dealers had perfected a way to ‘turn expensive powdered coke into inexpensive, small rocks’ (Golub & Johnson 1996). They did this by ‘adding baking soda and water to the cocaine’ (Hawley 1995), then boiling the mixture into small pieces that gave off a cracking sound when smoked. This enabled them to transform a ‘$1,000 ounce of powder into 280 100-milligram vials of crack that could be sold for $10 apiece’ (Hamid 1992). This enabled cocaine (a previously drug of the affluent) to became much more affordable to those with low income. Crack packed an even bigger punch than its counterpart and caused the typical user to become addicted much faster. The drug vapour travelled to the brain in about five seconds, causing a short burst of euphoric rush. This was followed by an overwhelming feeling of depression, curable only by another hit on the crack pipe. This made the user rush fast back to dealers for another fix,’ pinning them in an endless cycle of drug abuse’ (Mustain 2017). New York city at that time was the breeding ground for drug abusers, with a large proportion of who were African and Hispanic minorities (Beaver 2010). In fact, severely distressed inner-city families often had one or more adults (16 and older) who was a heavy drug abuser or drug seller. As a result, ‘40% of poor Hispanic and Black households spent at least 70% of their income on purchase of drugs’ (Hendricks & Wilson 2013), leaving little money for food and other necessities such as clothing. This led to the children of these families having to wear hand me down clothes, ones which were often too sizes too big. The mothers of these families would pass down clothing from older sibling to younger ones, saving on costs of re purchase new garments. In the same way many of these families would purchase clothing that were bigger in size and let their kids “grow into them”. This provided the consumers with a longer life span for the garment. Thus, the above-mentioned practices were responsible for the rise of the baggy silhouette in the urban wear movement. Furthermore, if the clothes developed holes or rips in them, they would be repaired with embroidery patches. An iconic garment of the time the ‘NBA patches denim jean, was inspired by this repair and reuse culture’ (Block 2017).

War On Drugs and Drug Wars

In 1986 to battle the rapidly growing crack epidemic president Regan developed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act, which established a ‘mandatory minimum prison sentences for certain drug offenses’ (Intlekofer 2018). This included the penalty for possession or ‘distribution of 5-10 grams of crack cocaine to be equivalent to the sentence for a crime involving five hundred or one thousand grams of powder cocaine’ (Beaver 2010). The now heavily criticised law meant a longer prison sentence for offenses involving the same amount of crack cocaine (used more often by African American and Hispanic minorities) as powder cocaine (more often used by white Americans). As a result, the prisoner population expanded drastically during the mid-1980s, going from ‘301,470 occupants in 1979 to 710,054 by 1989’ (Dunlap & Johnson 2009). By the year 1991, 1.25 million Americans were behind bars (Porter 2016). Many of whom resided in Harlem, Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn, and several other marginalised areas of New York city. The ramifications of such law also meant many of these crack infested neighbourhoods were occupied by households whose fathers and older brothers were locked up. This in turn caused further poverty and forced these disadvantaged families to shop at flea markets. The plaid shirt trend of this era has its roots in the swap meet stores and their affordable pricing. On the other hand, the illicit drug economy would grow and flourish during these years, providing an exponential source of income to many African American youths. These earnings are reported to be at times several times higher than the minimum wage or legal earnings (Fryer 2013). This led to households who were ‘impoverished for generations suddenly have some members with money in their pockets to buy what they wanted’ (Ferranti 2018). The eldest sons of families whose fathers were incarcerated would hit the streets with pockets full of crack rocks trying to become the breadwinner. These crack dealers often referred to as ‘Hustlers’ would then spend their earnings on jewellery (e.g., gold chains and diamond earrings) and designer items from the likes of Dapper Dan. Subsequently this also led to another popular urban wear trend of that period the Timberland boots. These construction boots were favoured by drug dealers as they provided much needed warmth in the harsh New York weather as well as they could be used to “stomp” out rival gang members.

In a twist of irony, the ease of selling drugs also lead to a saturated market of drug dealers which in turn resulted in gang turf wars between rival neighbourhoods. These dealers would often get into altercations and shoot outs, battling it out for their piece of the market. Members of various neighbourhood gangs used hats, jackets, and shirts of professional sports teams to identify rival gangs. The colors and logos of these teams were used to identify larger gangs as well as what subset they belonged to subset. These outfits if worn in the wrong neighbourhoods had severe consequence (Wilbon & Sheinin 1992). A few examples of these gang affiliated caps and jerseys were the Houston Astros (Hoover Street Crips), Cincinnati reds (Piru Blood Gang) and the Pittsburgh Pirates worn by members of Latin kings gang and various Blood gang subsets. The above-mentioned factors would go on to popularize one of the biggest characteristics of the urban wear movement, the use of sports merchandise as part of fashion.


Streetwear's significant impact on fashion in the recent years is owed to its origins as the ‘Urban Wear’ trend of 80s and 90s. This was an era that was defined by puffer coats, Construction boots, sports team starter jackets, baseball caps and Baggy apparel that disguised the contours of the body. As well as gold jewellery, Kangol bucket hats and customised tracksuits from the likes of Dapper Dan. There are a number of economic, environmental, social, and political factors that have influenced the urban weaker trend. Amongst which include the decline of New York cities economical decline, leading to an increase in rate of crimes and homelessness. Additionally, the social distance (if not physical distance) of African American and Hispanic minorities living in marginalized communities in comparison to them to the White middle class counterpart. In the same way the introduction of Crack epidemic within these neighbourhoods led to further poverty and poor living conditions. The establishment of the anti Drug act of 1986 would cause further abandonment of these neglected communities by introducing harsher penalties that would decrease their chances for success. Despite these factors New Yorkers would find success even in the darkest of times by joining the drug trade and earning substantial income. As result many rivalling neighbourhoods would go on to engage in turf war fair, battling out for their piece of the drug trade. These gang members wore sports jerseys and caps as a way to identify the particular set they were from, a tradition that still continues till this day. While many of the urban wear brands of that era are no longer active, their impact on the world of fashion is undeniable.


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