Dilia López-Gydosh & Joseph Hancock. The Journal of American Culture. Volume 32, Issue 1. March 2009.
African-American and Latino men adorn and wear clothing as an integral part of personal identity. Their styles, fashions, and popular music have impacted American culture during both the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Ironically, there is little written about these two groups as innovators of male fashion style responsible for such looks as zoot suits, mambo, rhythm and blues (R&B), salsa, Motown, Latino pop, and reggaetón. These musical social movements allowed both blacks and Latinos to construct visual and social identities that were unique to their ethnic groups. Highlighting major fashion movements associated with music allows for a critique of some of the fashion styles of African-American and Latino identities from the 1940s to today. While some of these looks may be seen as exclusively “Latin” or “black,” many have been adopted and assimilated into Western fashion. The construction of these Latino and African- American identities is detailed in the following historical overview of fashions, styles, and musical genres that have impacted and shaped all of American culture.
Defining African-American and Latin Style
As defined by Josephine Moreno in the Encyclopedia of Fashion and Culture, “Latino style is a contemporary manner of dressing by Latinos who pay particular attention to personal, fashion, or ethnic style that sets them apart from other ethnic groups in the United States” (Moreno 335). When exploring Latino style, one has to consider that Latinos, as a group, are as diverse as their fashion and music; therefore, they cannot be categorized into one neat label.
Confirming these same notions of individuality, Helen Bradley Foster contends that while the clothing of American blacks has traditionally been clustered into one style, it possesses many unique looks and qualities that reflect the dichotomy between American and African. She also argues that while African Americans have traditionally “adopted the prevailing cultural dress of each period, their style often sets them apart” (Foster 16). She notes that American fashions came from Europe until the 1950s; however, black styles began to inspire the fashions of white American dress as well.
Many items from both Latino and black style have been adopted as mass fashion, including sneakers that minority athletes have worn first, doo rags made popular by African Americans and Latinos during the late 1960s, Yamamoto Kansai sweaters (also known as Bill Cosby sweaters), and hip-hop and reggaetón apparel (Foster 16). However, it is the zoot suit that launches the associations of minority men to fashion in the United States.
Zoot Suits and Pachucos
In the early 1940s, African-American and Mexican-American youths adopted the zoot suit, a fashion connected with the swing jazz craze and interpreted through such dances as the Lindy hop, swing, and jitterbug in halls and clubs across the United States (Alvarez 303; Pagan 466-68; Tortora and Eubank 415). Besides its connection with music, this dandified suit was a statement of defiance by a generation of young men negotiating their place in society. As noted in Street Style: From Sidewalk to Catwalk, the zoot suit, with its lavish fabrics (e.g., sharkskin) and accessories was the vehicle for minority youths to advertise, “I’ve got it made” (Polhemus 17; “Zoot Suit Riots”).
The zoot suit is an extreme version of the 1930s and 1940s English drape suit and the sack suit for men (Candelaria 265; FarrellBeck and Parsons 103; Pickens 339; Tortora and Eubank 465). It consists of a long, almost kneelength single- or double-breasted coat with wide shoulders and lapels as well as fingertip-length sleeves. The trousers are very baggy, with “reat” (exaggerated) pleats, fitting high on the waist, tapering to extremely narrow cuffs and held in place with suspenders. The zoot suit attire is accessorized with a wide-brimmed “pancake” or “porkpie” hat, a necktie or bow tie, a very long watch chain, and thick-soled shoes (Escobar 897-98; Webb 231-33, 235-36).
For Mexican Americans, who felt rejected by both Mexicans as being too “American” and by Anglos as being too “Mexican,” the zoot suit became an emblem of identity, a symbol of membership to a group that was a hybrid of Mexican and American culture (Cosgrove 4, 7-8; Webb 232). They would take the zoot suit and make it their own, including differentiating between the African-American zooters and their eye-catching colors and patterns, with theirs being more discreet in appearance (Pagan 466-68). For both black and Latino men, modifications in the style of the suit were made. Some would only wear the baggy, pegged top trousers while others would wear the zoot suit only during the weekends. And then there were the pachucos. Of the young Mexican Americans sporting the zoot suit, the pachucos would take this attire and add an arrogant posture to it, creating an image of rebellion against traditional Mexican and mainstream American culture. With their zoot suits, ducktail haircuts, and chain necklaces with hanging crosses, the pachucos would frequent the streets and dance halls of the city asserting their distinct Mexican-American subculture. In the Encyclopedia of Latino Popular Culture, Edward Escobar mentions how this counterculture youth movement “fully adopted La Vida Loca (the crazy life) with its defiant and hostile attitude and antisocial and even pathological tendencies” (Cosgrove 4, 78, 10; Escobar 897-98; Escobedo 300-02).
Even though the fashion for zoot suits declined after World War II, other elements of men’s apparel, such as the suit with its wide-shouldered silhouette, did not show major changes from those of the wartime period and continued into the 1950s. New styles, such as the Cubaverra shirt jacket, would come into fashion. This casual/ sportswear garment with its Cubaverra brand name registered to Mall Marshall of Miami, Florida, was designed after the Cuban Guayaberra shirt. The Cubaverra shirt jacket would continue its popularity into the next decade coinciding with the Cuban mambo craze of the 1950s (Schoeffler and Gale 218, 654; Tortora and Eubank 444).
The Mambo Craze and Bebop Jazz
In the Smithsonian Magazine article “Before the Revolution,” Cuba historian Louis Perez notes how “Havana was then what Las Vegas has become (qtd. in Del Toro).” It was about having a good time with music, dancing, gambling, and even prostitution. The city hosted such celebrities as movie star Ava Gardner, crooner Frank Sinatra, and author Ernest Hemingway to name a few (Del Toro; Polhemus 21). Besides the “rich and famous,” Havana also played host to African- American musicians, who with their jazz and zoot suits influenced the music and fashion of Cuban musicians. When these Cuban musicians went to the United States, they imported with them the Latin sounds that would bring the mambo as well as a manner of dress reminiscent of the zoot suit, but in the more tropical shades of pastel or white (Polhemus 21).
The 1940s witnessed the evolution of big-band music for both African Americans and Latinos, with its swing jazz format being fused with Afro and Cuban/Latin rhythms to create mambo. With its underlying rhythms of the conga drum, the mambo became a musical and dance craze in the 1950s. The Mecca of the mambo craze, the place to hear and dance to Latin music in Manhattan, was the Palladium. Its closing in 1966 symbolized the official end of the mambo era and, with it, the end of emulating the pre-Castro Havana high life connected to the craze (Albarrán 389-90; Chesleigh 63; Gutierrez et al. 57; Manuel 47-48; Morales 45, 64).
Remnants of the zoot suit silhouette persisted with both blacks and Latinos with the Bold Look, a continuation of the English drape suit with a broad-shouldered, double-breasted, longer jacket and an emphasis on a coordinated look. This look would last until the mid-1950s and be popularized by entertainers and sport figures in the United States (Costantino 85; Tortora and Eubank 445). Other elements of the 1950s men’s fashion that characterized black and Latino musicians and entertainers included the 1940s sack suit in a looser and longer cut and evening apparel such as tailcoats, tuxedos, and dinner jackets. Mustaches made a fashionable return and a popular hairstyle with the mambo set consisted of the hair combed back from the forehead, giving the look of a modified pompadour (Schoeffler and Gale 481; Tortora and Eubank 449-50).
The image of Cuban dance rhythms, including the mambo, was portrayed in media and entertainment as glamorous, romantic, and fun, a notion that goes hand in hand with the idea of pre-1959 Cuba as a playground for Americans (Roberts 82, 84). In The Latin Tinge, John S. Roberts includes a quote by Xavier Cugat, one of the most popular bandleaders of the mambo craze, describing how “Americans know nothing about Latin music. They neither understand nor feel it. So they have to be given music more for the eyes than the ears. Eighty percent visual, the rest aural” (87). Consistent with Cugat’s comment, the mambo craze was not just about music and dancing, it was also about a visual image or style and showmanship to complement the music.
One way that African-American, and especially Latino, bandleaders created a visual style was by having the band members all dress alike in either matching tuxedos or, even more eye-catching, in costumes reminiscent of folkloric or cultural dress. Dorothy G. Spicer describes an example in Latin American Costumes that the traditional male Cuban dance costume consists of a “shirt with long sleeves covered in rows of ruffles. Pants are long and often are decorated with contrasting braid or other trim on the outer seams. The other distinguishing features are a straw hat, with a low crown and a broad brim, and a neck scarf and sash made from cotton or silk” (38). It was not just the band members who took part in the creation of a visual image; the bandleaders also played a part either by their manner of dress and/or their showmanship.
A bandleader known for his showmanship and image was I Love Lucy’s Desi Arnaz, who popularized the conga, and had the “looks, charm, (and) chutzpah” to make him a premier entertainer of the Latin music scene (Roberts 82, 84). As the first Latino television star in the United States, Arnaz used this medium to promote Latin music and its image as glamorous, romantic, and fun (Smith 39). Many scenes in / Love Lucy feature mambo and other Cuban rhythms in his character’s Latin nightclub. When performing with the band, Arnaz sported a wardrobe that ranged from tuxedos to white dinner jackets, while the band itself would be costumed in more traditional Cuban dress. With his stylish attire and modified pompadour hairstyle, Arnaz helped to promote the image of the Latin lover in popular culture. So popular would the show become that men who were interested in wearing / Love Lucy dress shirts, jackets, and even pajamas could do so by purchasing endorsed Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball apparel or Advance brand clothing patterns thus embracing their own Latin lover look (Albarrán 390).
During this time, for African Americans the genre of jazz music switched from swing to the bebop and so did the clothes. The zooties of the swing era traded their single-breasted suits with pleated tapered legged baggy pants for double-breasted suits with double-pleated straightlegged pants that reflected the Bold Look. The design of these suits required lesser fabric than the previous zoot suits. Woolen fabrics were woven in solids, stripes, and even plaids. While the silhouette of this style would seem loose by today’s standards, this new bebop jazz look was a slim fit compared with the zoot suit (Polhemus 28).
To create community among this culture, bebop leaders like Cab Calloway developed a language and published a dictionary called Hipster’s Dictionary in 1938. Calling themselves “hip cats” and “hipsters” and using words like “man” or “dig it” and “oo papa,” these African-American men accessorized their outfits with elements of style that made them appear snazzy among their peers. Still ostracized by white society, the radical bebop style incorporated such clothing items as bowties, silk scarves tied around the neck, cosmic cool wrap dark sunglasses, black berets, fedoras, hornrimmed glasses, and ties with terrific picturesque prints (Polhemus 29). Other men who were leaders of style during this time included Dizzie Gillespie, Malcolm X, Charlie Parker, and Thelonious Monk, who were the bohemians of street style. However, some new style icons developed during the next decade.
Salsa and R&B
In the 1960s, both Latinos and Blacks across the United States found themselves inspired by the Civil Rights Movement and serving in the military thus creating a new social consciousness and a sense of pride in being ethnic men. As a result, this new social consciousness called for a new musical movement to symbolize the spirit of the barrio (the district or neighborhood), a new musical movement that would crystallize the Latino identity in New York in the 1960s and the 1970s. As several writers note, “The soundtrack for the Latino pride movement” became known as salsa (Albarrán 389-90; Manuel 89-90, 92; Morales 55).
Reflective of the peacock fancifulness of salsa, a new genre of music developed in the African-American communities. R&B was reflective in the massive musical giant of the time- Motown. The golden age of R&B dates from the late 1960s to the 1970s; however, the style is still prevalent in today’s music. The style of R&B is an established genre of music that combines gospel, blues, and sexual innuendo to create a style that is unique and very energized (Thigpen 50).
Salsa is not a musical genre. It is a way, a mode of making Latin music. It is a hybrid genre combining jazz, American rhythms and blues, pop, plena, bomba, guaguancó, and many other forms of Latin-American and Afro-Caribbean music. In its origins, performed mainly by Puerto Ricans in New York, the salsa lyrics were about love with traces of machismo or about the barrio, reflecting the ambiance, characters, and the discriminatory socioeconomic conditions experienced by Latinos across the United States (Albarrán 389-90; Roberts 257, 261, 266; Diaz-Ayala 59-61; Duany 187). In The New York Times article “The Return of the Label that Made Salsa Hot,” salsa pioneer Willie Colón is quoted describing the salsa lyrics: “We were making city music, talking about, you know, city things- what’s happening on the corner, stories about drugs, violence, looking for a job … We were kind of doing an urban folklore” (Rosen).
The 1970s were the heyday of salsa and during this time men’s fashion continued its revolution the peacock revolution of the late 1960s. With its credo for individuality, the Peacock revolution offered men more variety of clothing than previously available. From this point forward, the fashion-conscious man would have the opportunity to select clothes that could help him make a fashion, political, cultural, or any type of statement he desired. For the men of this period, clothes became a vehicle of self-expression, an important notion to this generation (Manuel 93; Schoeffler and Gale 225, 291).
Through the first half of the 1970s, men’s suits were available in a variety of styles, including single, double-breasted, or three-piece. In general, these suits would have a more-fitted jacket with wide lapels, trousers with a flat front and flared leg, and for the three-piece, a matching waistcoat also with a tighter fit. These would be worn with wide-collared shirts in a variety of prints, patterns, and colors. Men could accessorize the shirts with wide neckties or just wear the shirts unbuttoned to reveal gold jewelry. Some casual-wear options included turtlenecks and dashiki shirts, an ornate collarless variety of African descent. Variety in hairstyles and facial hair ranged from moderately long hair with long side-burns to frizzed Afro cuts, while facial hair included beards and “Viva Zapata” mustaches (de Marly 136; Farrell-Beck and Parsons 205-06; McDowell 148; Schoeffler and Gale 593; Tortora and Eubank 463, 488, 490).
For Salsa musicians and vocalists in the 1970s, clothing choices not only communicated their own personal styles but also became tools to create images to market in conjunction with the salsa movement. The Conjuntos, music bands or ensembles, created a cohesive message and image by having all members of the group dress alike. In some instances, the bandleader wore the same type of clothing but in a different color. Salsa bands such as Tipica’ 73 and El Gran Combo dressed in 1970s fashions, including leisure suits with printed shirts, dashiki shirts, and three-piece suits with the open-collared shirts. It is also noted that a majority of group members would be sporting some type of facial hair, specifically, mustaches. In relation to the image of salsa bands, Peter Manuel, in Caribbean Currents: Caribbean Music from Rumba to Reggae, comments on band members’ matching polyester leisure suits (Manuel 95).
Willie Colón and Héctor Lavoe are two key figures in the development of salsa. The former, a bandleader, trombonist, singer, composer, arranger, and producer, was known for his New York street tough-guy image. The latter, a lead vocalist, cultivated a different image, one of el jibaro (Puerto Rican for “hick”). Colón emphasized his tough-guy image with 1920s/1930s gangster iconography and related clothing, such as guns, pinstriped double-breasted suits, and fedora hats. To complete the “bad guy” look, he sported a Viva Zapata bandit mustache. Unlike Colon’s image, which was more for publicity, Lavoe’s style was more a reflection of his personality. Wearing the fashionable three-piece suit with an open-collar shirt, Lavoe individualized his style by wearing lots of gold jewelry- multiple necklaces, bracelets, and rings, a common practice in Puerto Rico- and adopting aviator-style glasses (Hernández 421).
Colón’s gangster image connects with the rough, macho salsa, while Lavoe’s jíbaro coincides with the idea of being Puerto Rican. These two personalities of the golden age of salsa characterized the “cultural nationalism and masculine discourse” of the movement through their music and image (Hernández 412-22; Manuel 109; Pfaff; Willie Colón).
The boring style of the 1950s white conservatism was awakened with the national scene of the sparkle and glamour of Motown! Performers such as Little Richard (born Richard Penniman) in 1955 shook the world, forming an impression that has influenced the styles of such performers as Elton John, Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, and Prince. Suits of silk and other fine fabrics accessorized with sparkling jewelry created a signature style that was uniquely Richard’s. Motown stars such as James Brown, Sly Stone, George Clinton, and the Inkspots generated the buzz about what was fashionable for African-American men to wear. R&B and the men who followed the style wore a look that was drawn from the street. Like salsa, the inspiration for R&B was combined from street style, ghetto culture, and alternative subversive and other culture groups-the look was alternative style (Boston 53).
The diversity among Motown performers’ fashions is quite obvious. While Little Richard stood out from the pack with his outrageous style, other performers preferred more classic styles with splashes of soul. Performers like Stevie Wonder, The Mills Brothers, Marvin Gaye (Boston 53), and even the average guy on the street such as Sidney Darden adorned a traditional creamy white suit while sporting a trim satin/silk bright tie accessorizing it, with a straw hat and dark wrap-around shades. The look was stylish and distinguishably ethnic cool paving the way for hip-hop culture.
Hip-Hop and the Cholo Style
In the 1970s and 1980s, New York’s African-American and Latino neighborhoods saw the emergence of a hip-hop culture. This cultural movement developed by African-American and Latino youths incorporates four components: DJing (scratching), MCing (rapping), graffiti, and B-boying (breakdancing). As rap music and hip-hop culture made their way into mainstream American culture in the 1980s, they became mainly associated with African Americans, overlooking the Latino innovators. Since that time, the sights and sounds of Puerto Ricans, Mexican Americans, and other Latinos have become a part of the hip-hop culture (McFarland 347-49; Quintero Rivera 88-90).
Hip-hop fashion complements the expressions and the attitude of the culture. Original clothing included such items as multicolored appliqué leather jackets, athletic warm-up pants, designer jeans, moniker belts, gold jewelry, and Puma sneakers with fat laces. During the 1990s, hip-hop fashion consisted of oversized, baggy pants, matching football or baseball shirts, and baseball caps worn backwards. By the second half of the 1990s, the fashion had moved on to include oversized white T-shirts, basketball and hockey jerseys, low riding baggy denim jeans or cargo pants, and some style of combat or hiking boot. In addition, tattoos and shaved or braided hair as well as a preference for designer labels would take hiphop fashion into the twenty-first century (Lewis 214, 216-17; Tortora and Eubank 517, 520).
For Latinos, including Mexican Americans involved in the hip-hop culture, their own cultural identity may or may not be reflected through hiphop music and fashion. As a result, differences can be ascertained between hip-hop “core” participants, Latin rappers, and even hip-hop cholos. In Hip Hop and New York Puerto Rican, Raquel Rivera describes hip-hop “core” as the musical zone dominated by African Americans and English-language rap (Rivera 128-29). Latinos participating in hip-hop “core” have a tendency to adopt contemporary African-American dress and mannerisms thus negating prescribed notions of Latino aesthetics and culture. At the other end of the hip-hop spectrum are Latin rap and hip-hop cholo style, both of which celebrate their Latino roots either by rapping in Spanish or Spanglish and/or wearing apparel with Latino iconography (Manuel 111; Rivera 128-29). The first Latin rap hit was Gerardo’s 1991 Spanglish single “Rico Suave.” Beside his music, Gerardo was also known for his manner of dress or undress- a bandana, skintight jeans, and shirtless torso. Latin hip-hop and rap groups, like Spanish Fly, Psycho Realm, and Deliquent Habits, promote the cholo look. Widely associated in the past with Mexican-American urban gangs, the cholo style has transcended into hip-hop garb. With its street-tough look, it combines a loose-fitting oversized T-shirt, low-slung chinos or cutoffs worn with white socks pulled up to the knees, bandannas folded low on the head, and ornate religious tattoos. It is the religious iconography, crosses in necklaces, the Virgin of Guadalupe on tattoos or T-shirts, as well as Gothic lettering with messages like “Mi Vida Loca” that reaffirms Latino culture in the cholo style. The style has already made it to mainstream America and retailers such as The Gap, which, in 2003, sold a line of monogrammed jeans and corduroy pants embroidered in cholo Gothic letters (Candelaria 265; La Ferla).
The Pop Scene: “Sexual Healing” and Latin Lovers
During the 1980s, African-American men gained a national voice not only in the R&B genre but by crossover hits into the pop genre as well. Some of these hits not only became successful Billboard top dance hits, awarding them music awards, but also celebrated black style. The song “Sexual Healing” by Marvin Gaye maintained its number one spot on the American charts for ten weeks, marking it as one of the most successful songs of the decade. The lyrics exemplify a true celebration of black male sexuality and identity. Gaye sings:
Ooh, now let’s get down tonight
Baby I’m hot just like an oven
I need some lovin’
And baby, I can’t hold it much longer
It’s getting stronger and stronger
And when I get that feeling
I want Sexual Healing
Sexual Healing, oh baby
Makes me feel so fine
Helps to relieve my mind
Sexual Healing baby, is good for me
Sexual Healing is something that’s good for me …
(Gaye et al.)
Other talented African-American performers like Michael Jackson became not only pop stars but style and merchandising icons as well. With his trim figure, wearing an embellished red leather jacket, white T-shirt, black skin-tight pants, purple glitter socks, black loafers, and his signature white gloves, Jackson gave a new voice to black male sexuality. Like Jackson, Prince, with his androgynous looks in his smash hit movie Purple Rain, received constant scrutiny about his feminine speech and nontraditional masculine looks. These two men questioned what it meant to be a masculine black man according to historical codes of fashion. However, during the 1980s, not only did African-American men gain style and notoriety so too did Latino men.
In the pop music sphere, Latino singers and groups worked their way into mainstream genres by taking on the stereotype of the Latin lover. Spanish crooner Julio Iglesias set the foundation for a Latin pop genre. It was expanded by the boy band Menudo in the 1980s and “exploded” at the end of the 1990s (Albarrán 389-90). As explained by Ed Morales in The Latin Beat:
By the end of the 1990s, the pop music worlds of Anglo and Latin America overlapped, generating a phenomenon that became known as the Latin Pop Explosion. When Ricky Martin suddenly appeared on millions of television sets shaking his bon-bon and singing his riotously infectious Livin’ La Vida Loca, he brought the idea of Latin pop music to the forefront of the North American scene. (Morales xxii-xxiii)
Ricky Martin was at the leading edge of a new crop of Latino pop singers, including Enrique Iglesias, with his “matinee idol looks,” and the more established artist Marc Anthony. These artists continue the tradition of Latino pop singers associated with the Latin-lover image not only with their songs and showmanship but also with their wardrobes and style. For the Latinos of the Latin Pop Explosion, the stereotype of the Latin lover at the end of the twentieth century is a romanticized image updated with sex appeal (Bender 140-42; Morales 157; Oakley 384-85). As described in Suave: The Latin Male, Marc Anthony is one of those artists who has “set and maintained the gold standard for romance and sex appeal” (Moreno 335). He has achieved this not only through his music but also through the body language of a romantic leading man, with an overall casual elegance in his manner of dress (Gutierrez et al. 7-8).
Ricky Martin, as a “Latin lover” of the Latin Pop Explosion, exudes handsome masculinity and creates sex appeal not only by the way he moves when performing but also in his clothing. Martin’s signature style during this period includes leather pants, colorful clinging shirts, and frosted locks. The Diesel jeans company outfitted the artist in its Style Lab collection. Ricky Martin as well as Marc Anthony achieved a desired style by wearing a lot of Armani, including suits, a look the two helped popularize (Cunningham 17; Gutierrez et al. 13; Jumping on the Band Wagon 11; Moreno 335; Negrón-Muntaner 248-49, 262). Not only did Martin promote the Armani look but his signature style also became a fashion. In The New York Times article titled “Latino Style Is Cool. Oh, All Right: It’s Hot,” Martin’s fashion influence is featured under the caption “Daniel Esper, in a Ricky Martinesque turtleneck” (La Ferla 2).
With the Latin Pop Explosion, suddenly all things Latino became cool, including Latin-influenced fashion. Overall, with men’s fashion dominated by sportswear and the casual look, Latin apparel, such as the guayabera, would become fashionable. Young men who were into all things Latino appropriated the Cuban classic shirt with its four-patch pockets and pleats up the front, as Rick Marin states, to style “themselves for ‘la vida loca,’ the crazy life promised by Ricky Martin on MTV” (Marin STl; Stapinski 63). The fashion designer John Bartlet has even suggested that the guayabera shirt is a symbol of masculine elegance in the Latin-American culture (Marin STl). The guayabera shirt even made it into the urban apparel market, including Willie Escobar Montañez’s ESCO line. Other Latin-influenced fashions during this period included baseball shirts with the number 787 on them- the former area code of Puerto Rico, straw hats, and Che Guevara T-shirts (Cihlar; Stapinski 63).
In 2005, Daddy Yankee’s reggaetón single “Gasolina” was burning up the airwaves across the United States with millions of non-Latino listeners shouting along, “Dame más gasolina!” Just like Ricky Martin’s 1999 hit “Livin’ La Vida Loca” brought Latino pop into mainstream America, so did Yankee’s “Gasolina” with reggaetón music (Levin 20; Manuel 112-13). Reggaetón is a Caribbean and American hybrid born in a hip-hop environment. It is a fusion of dancehall reggae, hip-hop, salsa, merengue, bomba, and other Latin and Caribbean beats (Cepeda; Wadhwani). In many ways, it crosses over with rap, but is different, in that the lyrics are sung, mainly in Spanish, and generally celebrate partying, dancing, and putting the moves on women. The videos continue the concept of a party by portraying the “macho good life of gold chains, SUVs, and gatas (chicks) galore” (Manuel 112-13; Páreles, “Spicy” El; Páreles, “Caribbean” E3). Reggaetón’s appeal stems from its combination of danceable beats, infectious rhythms, and intense raps. Couples dance in an explicitly sexual manner called perreo (Quintero Rivera 90-91; Wadhwani). Currently, reggaetón’s message is evolving from just about partying and the “bling bling life” to one infused with lyrics taking on social, political, and cultural issues of importance to Latinos. With its Afro-Caribbean traditions and its new message, reggaetón is following the social and musical tradition of salsa (Burr; “Daddy Yankee Uncut”; Quintero Rivera 90-91).
In “A Caribbean Party With a Hip-Hop Beat,” Jon Páreles notes how reggaetón “attitudes and wardrobe- from athletic jerseys to Daddy Yankee’s bling-bling jewelry to the rakish suits and hats of Mackie Ranks y Yaga- reflect hip-hop” (Páreles “Caribbean” E3). Other elements of hiphop fashion seen as part of the reggaetón style include baggy jeans, striped polo shirts, large or shorter length T-shirts, zip-up hoodies, belts with large decorative buckles, gold or platinum chains, bandannas or fitted caps with or without do-rags, and sneakers. Beside urban hip-hop wear, the reggaetón wardrobe is also influenced by the “suits and business casual hip-hop look” exemplified by such artists as P. Diddy and Jay-Z. This fashion includes single- and double-breasted suits as well as three-piece suits, particularly popular in a pinstripe pattern. The look is completed with a buttoned-up shirt and necktie (Farrell-Beck and Parsons 264; Lewis 214, 216-17; Tortora and Eubank 517). Reggaetón fashion is not just a duplicate of hip-hop, it is evolving into its own style by incorporating Latino aesthetic elements of appearance and dress. These elements encompass grooming (eyebrows), hairstyles (braids, cropped hair), jewelry (crosses), accessories (sunglasses), and apparel (jeans with embellishment).
Three of the most famous interpreters of reggaetón are Don Omar, Tego Calderón, and Daddy Yankee. Combining elements of hip-hop fashion and Latino aesthetics, each artist has created his own fashion style and image. Don Omar, who has been compared with R. Kelly in appeal, is known for his “perfectly groomed eyebrows” and decorative braids hairstyle (Cepeda). With regard to the eyebrows, in a 2007 interview for Latina Magazine, Daddy Yankee was asked, “Why are the men in reggaetón so manicured?” To this he responded, “A lot of people get their eyebrows done, sometimes real thin. In Puerto Rico, all men get down-like that …. But seriously, you have to understand that’s a Latino thing. In Puerto Rico, a majority of the peoplemen–(get their eyebrows waxed). It’s cool for them (“Daddy Yankee, Our Newest Superstar”). The decorative braids hairstyle has been described by Julia Chaplin in The New York Times as “a souped-out take on cornrows with intricate patterns … reggaetón’s most appealing fashion byproduct.” Many performers and fans of reggaetón are wearing the braids. One fan, sporting a braided sunflower pattern, equates the hairstyle to the 1960s Afro and its importance in sustaining an ethnic identity. He states: “I feel elegant when I have good ones, and the girls really like it” (Chaplin). Another element of dress to consider with regard to Don Omar’s image is jewelry. He sports some bling, highlighted by a long chain with a large pendant and his initials “DO.” When not wearing such a pendant, Don Omar dons a cross to hang from his long chain. This is meaningful because, as discussed by Ruth La Feria in the article “Latino Style Is Cool. Oh, All Right: It’s Hot,” the Latino style emerging across America is one “heavily steeped in Hispanic iconography,” which includes crosses (La Ferla 2).
In the reggaetón scene, Tego Calderón stands out not only for his voice and lyrics but also for his looks. His style is less urban hip-hop and more “business casual,” fashioned with a dress shirt and simple coat jacket, potentially matching the ensemble with a sweater vest, or a three-piece suit without the jacket. Calderóne hairstyle does not reflect the braids or cropped hair popular within the reggaetón community. Instead, Calderón sports an Afro, which has been described as massive. Another feature of his style is sunglasses. Calderón is famous for constantly wearing dark shades, even at night or when performing. The practice of wearing shades, from oversized to aviator-style, at all times and for all occasions, is being adopted across the reggaetón circuit (Cepeda).
Daddy Yankee, dubbed “The King of Reggaetón” by The New York Times and named one of Time magazine’s one hundred most influential people of 2006, has a personal style inspired by urban hip-hop. He is recognized for a cleanshaven look, which, as he told Latina Magazine, does not include the “Latino thing” of eyebrow waxing. This look is complemented by the closecropped hairstyle, a modified buzz-cut with its trademark straight line shaved across the forehead. It is a hairstyle identified with African Americans and mostly with Latino youths and the reggaetón crowd (“Daddy Yankee, Our Newest Superstar”). A sign of Daddy Yankee’s more hiphop style is his fondness for bling-bling jewelry, baseball caps, T-shirts, and baggy jeans. His blingbling consists of wearing large diamond stud earrings, “iced” (diamond encrusted) bracelets and watches, and gold or platinum chains with a large “iced” pendant. Sporting his initials “DY” or the name of his record company “El Cartel,” the pendants themselves have become a part of his mystique. Adding to his image is a preference for baseball caps, including ones with the New York Yankees emblem, and the wearing of sunglasses. Completing his hip-hop-inspired style is the “T-shirt tucked into the front of the jeans look,” exposing an ornate belt or belt buckle. He also wears embellished jeans, characterized by front and/or back decoration ranging from appliqué, embroidery, and painted prints. The embellishment can be subtle, for example, a small patch with an emblem by a front pocket and a larger one covering an entire back pocket. In the same manner, the decoration of the pants can be quite loud, such as the entire back seat of the pants exhibiting an acrylic printed scene or having both large back pockets covered in an embroidered design (Cepeda).
Reggaetón has expanded beyond its music borders, with performers such as Daddy Yankee launching their own apparel and footwear lines and brands such as “Blanco Label,” with its Latininspired hip-hop/urban style clothing. As Daddy Yankee once said, “When you see kids dressing like us and rhyming like us, you can see that (reggaetón) it’s not a fad, it’s a subculture” (Wadhwani).
A Whole New Beginning …
African-American and Latino men adorn and wear clothing styles that have played an integral part of defining national identity for Americans both now and during the century. Moving toward the future, Western men are not narrowly defined by one fashion or type but by a multitude of national attires and cultural movements, all contributing to American style. Examining the lives of Latino and African-American men allows us to understand how a true melting pot of ethnic identities has played a part in defining the American consciousness and of what it means to be fashionable men in our culture.
Highlighting zoot suits, mambo, R&B, salsa, Motown, Latino pop, and reggaetón initiates an examination of some of the fashion styles of African-American and Latino identities. What will the future of these men’s fashions be in the upcoming decades? Who will influence and be the leaders of African-American and Latino styles? With President-elect Barack Obama as the leading US politician, it is evident that black and Latino men will continually hold spotlights and influence men’s fashion in American culture.