Sugar Hill Gang (late '70s to early '80s)
As you can see here, early hip-hop was figuring out if it wanted to adopt disco-era flamboyance or take on its own style. The sweatsuit in the second picture would soon grow to be of importance later in the decade.
Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five (early '80s)
Although hip-hop has become recently accepting of varying styles, this sort of open-mindedness was already somewhat prevalent in the ‘80s. You weren’t going to get a man dress as a railroad worker and shirtless artist decked in leather in one group. That said, leather definitely was a constant.
Run DMC (mid-'80s)
Sporting all black and adidas without the laces, Run-DMC ushered one of the first and most important fashion movements in hip-hop history. The group was performing “My Adidas,” essentially an endorsement without the compensation, at a Madison Square Garden concert in 1986, where then adidas-represtentative Angelo Anastasio was present. He became moved at the sight of fans holding their adidas sneakers in unison, so he ran back to head quarters, and Run-DMC soon became the first hip-hop group to earn a paying ($1.6 million) endorsement deal on this scale
LL Cool J (late '80s)
If anybody embodied pretty boy B-Boy style, it was Radio-era LL Cool J with that Kangol and gold chain.
Native Tongues (early '90s)
The Native Tongues movement, particularly De La Soul and early A Tribe Called Quest days, brought in the new concept of hippie style to hip-hop. It’s sort of like what Childish Gambino wears today, except with some black symbolism behind it.
Nas (mid to late '90s)
Nas wasn’t the most fashionable dude, but his dedication to minimalism helps him look like the relatable dude from the streets of Queensbridge.
Biggie (mid to late '90s)
Biggie’s style was a smooth and versatile as his flow. He switched it up from Timbs to Coogi sweaters to full on suits effortlessly as he stood at the top of the game.
Shiny Suit Era (late '90s)
There are plenty of things traditionalist hip-hop fans that came up in the ‘90s have been clamoring for. Shiny suits surely come near last on that list.
Nelly (early '00s)
With the new millennium came the desire for jerseys and not wearing fitting clothes. Nelly, who was then one of hip-hop’s biggest-selling stars, was a pioneer in this style.
Jay Z (early '00s)
The Tom Ford-wearing Jay Z was also on his urban wear steez back in the day. Roca Wear, his clothing brand, was popular back in the day, too. Now, he doesn’t even wear Roca Wear.
G-Unit (mid '00s)
Perhaps the most urban of urban wear was G-Unit clothing, which was a mainstay in the streets of New York. That said, it was a short-lived mainstay; it’d be weird if the clothing brand outlasted the actual group that inspired it.
Cam'ron (mid '00s)
Cam’ron was one of the only people who could rock pink to this level. That’s why nobody tried; hence, the movement never really caught on.
Kanye West (mid '00s to current)
Kanye West was one of the few artist who consistently created his own trend outside of what was hot in the hip-hop culture. The man came through with a pink polo at a time when G-Unit was still at the top. Doesn’t get more brazen than that.
The days of purposely getting XXL shirts are long over. Getting fit clothes gradually started coming back in style. Danny Brown was once denied by G-Unit for wearing skinny jeans, and now, he's a modern day fashion icon and is perhaps more relevant than G-Unit when it comes to fashion (despite that comeback). A$AP Rocky is another rapper who helped make skinny jeans 'okay' and is an outspoken lover of high-fashion. If there's one example of how open the rap game has become, it's in their clothes.
Let's take a look back at the road to hip-hop's fashion evolution, from black leather and adidas to Tom Ford and Balmain Jeans.
Jay Z made a song dedicated to Tom Ford last year, one of Harlem's hottest rappers wears strictly skinny jeans (A$AP Rocky), and one of the industry's most talked about rappers (Kanye West) is addicted to high-fashion. A little over a decade ago, the genre's finest openly wore baggy clothing, throwback jerseys, and du-rags. It's an understatement to say hip-hop's fashion sense has changed a bit.
We're closing in on four decades of hip-hop, so the culture has been through multiple fashion trends. Many have encapsulated a moment in culture, like the Native Tongues movement and Run DMC's adidas. Of course, as the genre grew, it's become a leader in fashion — whether it came to footwear or brands. You know you've come a long way when you're gracing the covers of GQ after coming up from the streets of South Bronx.
Fashion has become part of some of the greatest rappers' legacy, too, including The Notorious B.I.G., LL Cool J, and Kanye West. Check out a few of the biggest examples on the Hip-Hop's Fashion Evolution gallery.