Dressing to survive

Kate Bigam

A soft-spoken, thugged-out-looking 14-year-old named Victor changed my view on inner-city fashion.

While working on a story for a local magazine, I visited schools on Cleveland’s West Side to interview kids about fashion sense. When I arrived and took a look at the way the boys, especially, were clothed, I knew I was in for a wild ride.

Raised in the middle-class, white-bread ‘burbs of Akron, my male friends grew up wearing cargo pants and collared Old Navy shirts and later evolved into 20-somethings who wear grown-up versions of the same style. The baggiest pants they ever dared wear were JNCOs, which you might remember as short-lived fashion staples of the late ’90s, and male piercings didn’t come into play until we hit the college emo stage.

So imagine my surprise when I walked into a world of underaged Cleveland testosterone wearing pants for men twice their size and baggy white T-shirts that Mimi from “The Drew Carey Show” could have worn as oversized shirtdresses. These boys, with their J. Lo-big bling and their stark white Air Forces, sent my suburban “What Not To Wear”-loving self reeling.

The horror! How could these boys leave the house in such clothing? I braced myself for their replies.

One boy, John, guessed that he owns 25 plain white tees. “They go with everything,” he insisted, pointing out four classmates within a 50-foot radius wearing the same thing.

I talked to Timothy, a junior who admitted his fashion sense depicted a “street guy,” rather than the academically focused student he is.

But it was Victor, a quiet, 6-foot-tall 8th grader, who made me see, in part, the true meaning behind his generation’s fashion sense.

The inspiration? Local gangs.

But Victor isn’t in a gang, and he doesn’t want anyone thinking he is – so he wears black and white. Gangs are associated with certain colors, so Victor doesn’t wear his favorite color, red, because he doesn’t want others to assume he’s dangerous. Black and white T-shirts (like John’s) are a safe bet because no gang owns them.

Victor said his classmates worry about being jumped on days they wear new clothes to school, and some hesitate to wear their new Jordans and LeBrons in public for fear of being beaten and robbed.

Victor dresses tough because he doesn’t want anyone messing with him and he doesn’t want gangs recruiting him. But his clothes are a front for his otherwise soft personality – he cracked jokes with our photographer and told me he studies hard.

While his peers complained about the Cleveland Public Schools’ impending uniforms and dress code, Victor said he supports them. He won’t miss his own baggy shorts or expensive Air Forces – if the dress code makes kids feel safer, he said, then he’s all for it.

It was insightful, teenage Victor who made me realize that big jeans, baggy T-shirts and bling are another form of self-expression.

But they are also something more.

Inner-city style differs from suburban style in more ways than one, but it’s this one that stands out – I am dressing to impress. Victor is dressing to survive.

Forum editor Kate Bigam is a senior magazine journalism major. Contact her at [email protected].