Late fashion designer Virgil Abloh made a lot of people unhappy when he floated the idea that streetwear was dying. He said in 2019 that streetwear’s time would eventually be up. It would be dead at some point. Unfriendly reactions led him to go back and clarify his remarks in subsequent interviews.
In fairness, Abloh did not view streetwear as specific articles of clothing. He saw streetwear as a cultural movement, as a community and the expression of that community. But strangely enough, he also didn’t consider things like T-shirts and sweatshirts legitimate streetwear. This, despite the fact that the communities he was referring to embraced T-shirts and sweatshirts wholeheartedly.
So, here is the million-dollar question: are T-shirts and sweatshirts streetwear or not? How you answer the question may also determine whether you agree with Abloh’s comments on the death of streetwear in America.
1. Streetwear As Corporate Fashion
Once Abloh clarified his remarks and linked streetwear to cultural expression, others in the fashion world slowly started agreeing with him. One by one they recognized that the actual garments that made up streetwear design are worn by people who more or less live their lives on the streets.
Some in the fashion world now agree with Abloh’s sentiment but for a different reason. Rather than the culture itself being in decline, they see the clothing and apparel aspects of the culture being absorbed by the corporate fashion industry. Streetwear these days is less about boutique labels and small-scale manufacturers and more about corporate fashion and mass-produced products.
Still, that does not answer the question of whether T-shirts and sweatshirts constitute streetwear. They have to, if you attach articles of clothing to the cultural movement streetwear supposedly is.
2. Not Wearing Suits and Ties
The very people at the heart of the streetwear movement are not hanging out on street corners wearing suits and ties. They are not dressed in their Sunday best. They certainly are not hanging out and socializing with the elite movers and shakers in corporate fashion.
You see them hanging out on street corners wearing T-shirts, sweatshirts, and jeans. They wear what they wear because it is suitable to their environment and daily life. That makes their T-shirts and sweatshirts streetwear by even the most narrow definition.
UmaiClothing is a boutique clothing brand well known for its original anime artwork. T-shirts and sweatshirts are their bestsellers, though the company also sells blankets, phone cases, and other products. Their T-shirts and sweatshirts should be considered streetwear just like any other T-shirt or sweatshirt the streetwear demographic might choose.
3. Clothing Is Always an Expression
It is easy to understand where Abloh was coming from with his remarks on streetwear. It is easy to understand why he never used the term when describing T-shirts, hoodies, sneakers, and the like. In his mind, streetwear is an expression of community that surpasses the actual articles of clothing members of that community wear. But still, we cannot escape the reality that clothing is always an expression of the people who wear it.
Take the steam punk culture. Those who live in it dress a certain way. You associate their clothing with the movement. So in that sense, steam punk is not a type or article of clothing. And yet, you have to wear a certain type of clothing in order to be part of that community.
By the same token, people living in the streetwear culture wear a certain type of clothing. Their clothing choices include T-shirts and sweatshirts. That is all the evidence you need to say that T-shirts and sweatshirts are legitimate streetwear.