The Complex Symbolism behind the Hoodie

Walking in the park, rocking my hoodie. Lausanne, Switzerland. April 4, 2019.

Walking in the park, rocking my hoodie. Lausanne, Switzerland. April 4, 2019.

You know I love hoodies. And you should know that, as do most people, I realize that hoodies have cultural baggage that wearing them will always evoke.

Research into the “why” didn’t turn up much. That more cultural historians and psychologists haven’t investigated the symbolism of the hoodie surprises me. After all, the phenomenon didn’t just crop up. Shift aside current associations and you’ll find historical associations going back centuries—to the dawn of the hoodie’s existence thousands of years in the past. (Even a long time ago, death wore a hood.)

Though I didn’t find too many solid data points for the whys and wherefores of hoodies’ cultural baggage through the years, let’s review what I did find (and a few of the things I surmise).

Context: The History of the Hoodie

Hoodies—mainly cloaks and cape-like garments with attached hoods—appear in art from ancient Greece and Rome. Though I’ve had mainly an occidental education and know less than I should know about eastern cultures and histories, I’d imagine hoodies appeared in the east at least as far back as they did in the western classical period.

Onward, hoodies continued to have prevalence in the middle ages, as evidenced by imagery from the time period. Medieval men and women wore hoodies for a variety of purposes across a variety of social classes, from elegant aristocratic women donning capes with hoods for travel to paupers wearing coarse-fabric cloaks for warmth.

Zooming further forward in time, cultural historians credit Champion (known at the time as the Knickerbocker Knitting Company) with creating the modern-day sweatshirt-style hoodie, replete with drawstring and kangaroo pocket. Intended as athletic wear, the modern hoodie got snapped up by athletes, as expected, and also by skateboarding and hip-hop kids and other counterculture movements and by nontraditional executives—like Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook fame.

In short, hoodies have served a plethora of purposes for a multitude of people across a variety of types throughout thousands of years. (Yes, really.)

The Symbolism of the Hoodie

A garment with such a lengthy history and with such a wide variety of uses and devotee types should stand association-neutral. After all, over years of multifaceted use across broad swaths of populations, how could any perception reasonably predominate? Jeans may once have served workmen only—mainly gold miners, per the Levi’s story—yet they’ve come into such ubiquity that they mean pretty much nothing on their own.

Not so for the hoodie, for which symbolism across the spectrum sways thinking and ensuing opinions. And though we may associate the hoodie with the latest cultural development or movement of our day, we need only look a short distance behind the now to see the past—and to get an entirely different impression of the hoodie in the process.

For example, hoodies today evoke Trayvon Martin—a young man murdered while wearing a hoodie with the hood up—and the Million Hoodie Marches and other protests that resulted from his slaying. In calling these associations to mind, the hoodie becomes infused with racial conflict, injustice, and tragedy. It gets tangled into cultural impressions of black masculinity—prejudiced, unfair attitudes that go back for centuries, the recalling of which make us rightly uncomfortable.

Yet not long before the Trayvon Martin tragedy, hoodies called to mind Silicon Valley entrepreneurs like the aforementioned Zuckerberg. In this context, the hoodie came across as irreverent and cool. It symbolized the nerds winning; it represented the power of intelligence over flash. Substance over surface.

Digging further can give you positive-and-negative-association whiplash. Hoodies get linked to death and destruction, as embodied as the Grim Reaper, executioners, and devils and demons. Conversely, hoodies evoke the benignly mythical and mystical in fairies and elves and supernatural woodland creatures. More neutrally—depending upon your bent—you can associate hoodies with monks, priests, and nuns of multiple denominations.

Practical Reasons for Wearing Hoodies

These monks, nuns, and priests—as well as mythical woodland creatures, if you’d like—employ the hoodie for at least partly practical purposes; via a single, efficient garment, a hoodie can keep a person warm and protect him from the elements.

Stripped of symbolism, the hoodie has immense practicality as a garment. (For explication on this point, read my previous article on the topic.) Unfortunately, people who might choose a hoodie for all the practical purposes may shy away from one due to all the symbolic baggage.

A shame, no? I’ve recognized this problem in the past, and I don’t know how to overcome it. Do we design hoodies in different forms and styles and fashions? Can we break the hoodie out of its cultural associations and bring its simplistic elegance and utility to the forefront? Can we find a way to give the hoodie the unfettered horizons it deserves?

Or does the garment inherently draw symbolism that we can’t avoid?

Perceptions, Human Psychology, and the Hoodie

I figured a cause must exist for a garment’s polarized symbolic associations, especially when it has such a long history and has had so many uses and users over the course of centuries.

Though I haven’t uncovered a specific psychological study about human instinct related to covered heads and faces, I’ve found several psychological studies showing the importance of reading facial expressions to assessing other people and situations.

That what we see in a person’s face links directly to his intrinsic character seems baked into the human psyche. For example, people judged as attractive benefit from better treatment spanning increased opportunity for social engagement to reduced consequences for bad behavior, including more lenient treatment from the criminal justice system. This tendency to interpret faces and their countenances shows up even in our evolutionary ancestors: Apes read facial expressions to develop perceptions and assessments of situations and they actively use facial expressions to communicate.

If faces have such importance to our assessment of people and situations, not seeing a face must, conversely, instinctively increase our insecurity about a person and his intentions.

Some of our hoodie perceptions seem to support this psychology. The human and supernatural beings who wear hoodies in popular imagination—death, executioners, specters—wear them for anonymity, ambiguity, disguised intentions, and the element of surprise. Sure, monks, nuns, and priests may wear hoodies with the hoods raised to show humility, modesty, and inward focus, but the rest of the world may not perceive their intentions as such.

If my suppositions around the psychological reactions to covered faces have validity, a hoodie worn with the hood raised must, by instinctive necessity, raise red flags. Conversely, a hoodie worn with the hood down might just look like cozy casual wear. After all, how often do you see an executioner with his hood down? Or Mark Zuckerberg with his hood up?

Do You Wear Hoodies?

Maybe a smart clothier could develop a line of hoodies to break free from the cultural baggage and raise the garment to the apex of clothing a la the t-shirt or the blue jeans. (I hope so. Personally, I’d buy several hoodies in elegant fabrics and fits that I could wear in professional and social contexts.)

Yet, whether fair or otherwise, human psychology and instinct may doom the hoodie—at least with the hood up—to symbolic ties.

A hoodie may never a pair of chinos be.

And so: Do you wear hoodies? Why and for what purposes? How do you feel when wearing one? And what do you feel a hoodie says about you—if anything?