The genius of Chris Rock’s Good Hair was that it understood that black hair was a subject that touched upon just about every facet of African-American culture. Sacha Jenkins’ documentary Fresh Dressed benefits from a similar understanding that the subject of hip-hop fashion is about infinitely more than just rappers and fans looking good. According to the film, it’s about identity, pride, aspirations, class, status, ambition, sex, culture, masculinity, freedom, self-expression, conformity, race, and the wonders and horrors of capitalism. It’s about just about everything, so while the subject might seem niche it’s actually so broad and expansive the film strains to cover it properly in a trim 82 minutes.
Fresh Dressed, from Ego Trip’s Sacha Jenkins, accordingly begins well before the advent of hip-hop by discussing the role clothing has played in African-American culture from the days of slavery through the flamboyant peacockery of Little Richard. From the beginning, hip-hop and fashion have been inextricably intertwined. What we now know as hip-hop culture grew alongside gang culture in the Bronx, and the first hip-hop fashion statements were also signs of gang affiliation, although Fresh Dressed notes that these urban outlaws derived much of their fashion cues from an unexpected source: the highly decorated denim of the bikers from Easy Rider.
Hip-hop fashion didn’t evolve in simple ways. It traveled in many different directions simultaneously, from the in-your-face gaudiness of rappers wearing clothes with their names and images airbrushed onto them to the rugged, iconic minimalism of Run DMC, whose look was almost as important to their success as their sound and just as infectiously raw and stripped-down.
The rise of hip-hop fashion posed a problem for traditional clothing manufacturers, who wanted the disposable income of the young black kids who were buying their clothing, but didn’t necessarily want them anywhere near their stores. This created a market for hip-hop clothing companies like Phat Farm, Sean John, and Rocawear that originated with the culture and consequently weren’t as squeamish about being associated with black kids from the streets.
But the real big bang from which so many hip-hop clothing lines and styles sprang was the popularity of Cross Colours, an urban brand that proved hip-hop clothes could be big business. A satisfying documentary could be made about the role sneakers alone have played in hip-hop, and Fresh Dressed doesn’t have the time or space to do justice to some of its more fascinating strains, like the recent rise of hip-hop hipster clothing from people like Tyler, The Creator and Kanye West, or the implosion of short-sighted personality-driven clothing lines like Eminem’s Shady collection.
Fresh Dressed nevertheless manages to cover an awful lot of ground in a small amount of time with a lively combination of quasi-academic rigor, vibrant animation, and ebullient pop-sociology. It’s not deep but it is thoroughly entertaining and edifying, albeit not quite as educational or as substantive as it could have been. Perhaps it was inevitable that a short documentary about fashion would be a little on the superficial side, but despite its lack of depth, Fresh Dressed has a fair amount to say. And just as importantly, it looks damned good while doing so.