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8 Gen Z Style Trends With Roots In Black Culture

In their butterfly-patterned dresses and baggy fits, young celebrities like Olivia Rodrigo and Billie Eilish exemplify Gen Z’s obsession with the resurgence of early Y2K and ’90s style — but what these celebrities and the mainstream fashion world fail to acknowledge is that these style trends are rooted in Black culture.

The world doesn’t move without Black creativity. Black people have built and influenced this country since 1619 when the first enslaved person was brought to the United States hundreds of years ago. Chattel slavery, when one person has total ownership over another, prompted the inception of a political and economic system, whose industries thrive from capitalizing on less powerful beings, from stealing intellectual property to exploiting physical labor

The fashion industry is no exception. Many brands and celebrities blatantly appropriate, whitewash, and profit off Black culture without respectfully acknowledging Black contributions. Jaize Francis, who styled Victoria Paris for Her Campus’ Influence Issue and has extensively studied fashion history and trends, spoke with Her Campus to provide insight about Black contributions that continue to go unrecognized or appropriated. 

What is appropriation?

While appropriation means “to take or make use of without authority or right,” cultural appropriation is a complicated topic in the sense that it considers many different motivations, including appreciation, profit, and clout. According to Verywell Mind, cultural appropriation can be defined as “the use of objects or elements of a non-dominant culture in a way that reinforces stereotypes or contributes to oppression and doesn’t respect their original meaning or give credit to their source.” 

Engaging in appropriation is an individual choice with harmful system-wide consequences. Excluding people of color while using their cultures as aesthetics, in addition to systemic racism, makes it difficult for Black designers and brands to get themselves established. “Large fashion houses like Gucci and white-owned businesses such as WeWoreWhat have been known for creating culturally offensive clothing and appropriating designs from Black designers without remorse,” Francis tells Her Campus.

A microaggression is when an individual is unaware of the hidden message or another form of covert prejudice, whereas a macroaggression, like appropriation, is overt discrimination and contributes to larger systemic forms of oppression. But don’t let the name fool you — microaggressions are just as harmful as their counterpart, as they contribute to the foundation of systemic racism. The takeaway: be aware and intentional. 

Cultural crossover in society is inevitable, but it’s important to know what it took to get those clothes you’re wearing and their potential costs. These eight Gen Z style trends originated in Black culture, and we should celebrate and recognize them for that. 

y2k Fashion

At the turn of the century, fashion consisted of colorful Juicy velour tracksuits, micro tops, embroidered denim, and “boots with the fur,” among other items Flo Rida raps about in his song “Low.” The fashion trend cycle runs like clockwork, known as the 20-year rule. Now, over 20 years after the start of the new millennium, people are revisiting the ghosts of fashion’s past. Bright colors are back in style, as are low-rise jeans and fun jewelry

Today’s Y2K fashion looks are playful and hyperfeminine, with baby pink ensembles and butterfly motifs sprinkled throughout, but current fashionistas tend to emulate the white and thin versions of the Y2K aesthetic. (Think pop princesses and famous heiresses.) “Although this trend is typically associated with whiteness and thinness (as many others are), white celebrities during this time were better known for gaudy outfits consisting of lots of denim and layering,” Francis tells Her Campus. The thin and white paradigm in the current consciousness is antithetical to its historical origins. 

Sociologist and UC Irvine Professor Sabrina Strings, author of Fearing the Black Body: The Racial Origins of Fat Phobia, researched the intersection of race and fatphobia in her 2019 essay, “Women (Re)making whiteness: the sexual exclusion of the fat ‘Black’ Irish.” Using qualitative content analysis of 19th-century popular media outlets, Strings writes that “blackness has long been the recognized ‘mirror’ for whiteness… Fatness was deemed evidence of racial otherness.” The exclusionary practice of defining the Y2K aesthetic based on flat tummies is not only fatphobic, but also draws on anti-Black theory and practice. 

While some of the original pioneers of the Y2K aesthetic were Black artists in the late ‘90s, Francis highlights some of the most recognizable examples as Destiny’s Child, Salt-n-Pepa, Nelly, Aaliyah, and Missy Elliot. 

Bucket Hats

During the height of the VSCO girl domination, bucket hats seemed inescapable. The VSCO girlies needed to shade their eyes from the sun while out on beach days, taking polaroids, and in the middle of laughing “sksksk” and saying “and I — oop.” Maybe you thought bucket hats originated from your uncle’s fishing hat — which does hold some weight — but it was primarily popularized by the ‘80s hip-hop community, especially by LL Cool J, Run DMC, and Big Bank Hank.

But bucket hats remain in style because they’re versatile in their fashion and protective functionality. “The way a plethora of fabrics, textures, and patterns are able to be transmitted onto bucket hats allows for them to adapt to different time periods and become the perfect statement piece for any outfit,” Francis tells Her Campus.

Oversized Fit Clothing

Gen Z singer-songwriter Billie Eilish’s first signature look was always an oversized ensemble, which she later revealed helped her maintain a semblance of privacy. While she has allowed her fashion persona to expand since then, the oversized fit style remains alive and well. “Oversized clothing is one of the most comfortable trends that is easy to replicate, giving many people access to it,” Francis says. “Since people of all ages, body types, and levels of ability are able to partake in this trend, it has maintained its popularity over the years and easily adapted to fit the times.”

This style also originated from ‘80s hip-hop culture, featuring loose-fitting and baggy clothing. Remember MC Hammer pants? The harem pants allowed for fluid disco dance moves while also drawing attention. They were further popularized by the rap duo Kris Kross, who needed big pants to wear them backward

Nameplate Necklaces

Sex and The City’s Carrie Bradshaw sported a nameplate necklace back in the ‘90s, but she didn’t appreciate its history, explicitly calling gold jewelry “ghetto” and only “for fun.” (She engaged in other anti-Black behavior, but I digress.) The history of gold jewelry and the usage of the word “ghetto” is long and complex, so it’s no surprise that the significance or history of the jewelry was undermined.  

Oneka LaBennett, a professor of Africana Studies at Cornell University, told The Guardian, “The trends that Black youth have created have always been absorbed by mainstream society, and the nameplate necklace is no different. [It’s] using Black culture as an alternative playground for whites so when mainstream society wants to cut loose and be wild, that’s when Black culture can be absorbed.” But the makers of SATC were aware of the necklace’s history. Patricia Field, the show’s costume designer, even said in an interview with the Archive of American Television, “That name necklace was something that Black kids, Puerto Rican kids, borough kids, had been wearing forever. That was just a staple.” 

The history of the nameplate necklace is much more specific. From the same video, archivist Q. Douglas said, “It really literally started from a select few influential street hustlers and pimps. These guys, like Big Daddy Kane and Slick Rick, were wearing initial nameplates and initial pinky rings. Those medallions and personal jewelry morphed into the stripped-down styling of the nameplate necklace.” 

Showcasing your name on your jewelry signals pride in your cultural heritage and identity. Names have weight, especially ethnic names, as those are less likely to be called back for job interviews, less considered for housing, and more likely to be labeled as troublemakers by teachers. For the Black and Latinx communities that popularized the necklace, it allowed those individuals to choose their own label, then publicly own it with flair.

Logomania

Logomania employs monogrammed branding like a print. “Amazing designers from Harlem, like Dapper Dan, have worked hard to maintain the popularity of logomania over decades,” Francis says. “By popularizing monograms in the 1980s, Dapper Dan was able to create a trend that has spread to every major fashion house and stood the test of time.” You’ve likely seen logomania absorbed by several big-name brands like Fendi, Louis Vuitton, and Burberry, helping them reach icon status in the public Gen Z consciousness — which is a feat in itself as Gen Z isn’t too impressed with exclusive designer content. With logomania, it’s hard to forget what you’ve seen countless times. The trend pleases fashion and marketing needs, using the mere exposure effect to make an item enviable. 

“I’ve had the privilege of meeting Dapper Dan in person, and his charming personality and dedication to the craft have definitely contributed to his success over the years,” Francis tells Her Campus. “The simplistic yet eye-catching patterns of logomania have allowed it to be easily replicated by many companies and worn by people of all backgrounds.” The style feels classic, and it can be dressed up or down for continued popularity.  

Big brands better know who to give credit to — and preferably with their wallets.

Lettuce Hems

Another influential designer, Stephen Burrows, was one of the first Black fashion designers to internationally sell with his “lettuce hems.” Burrows was well-known in the fashion world for his experimentation with the zigzag stitch in the 1970s, and his trademark style eventually became nicknamed with the green vegetable. These curly edges are playful yet transferable, fitting in on any piece or silhouette.

“Lettuce hems add personality to boring clothing pieces without being too overbearing,” Francis says. “This style of hemming offers a modern twist on a classic and can add a slight flair in order to make regular t-shirts more interesting, allowing them to be worn without going out of style.” 

Instagram Baddie Aesthetic

You know what I’m referring to: perfect makeup, a plethora of jewelry, nails done, cinched waist — everything about her is cool and desirable. An Instagram Baddie maintains a trendy image and is overflowing with clout, from their hair to how they speak. It becomes a question of whether they’re starting trends or simply reinforcing them. (Think the Kardashians.)

Countless other style and beauty trends, such as acrylic nails and hoop earrings, came from the Black community without praise, and many of them are quintessential to the IG Baddie aesthetic.

Braided Hairstyles

Hairstyles made for natural hair like cornrows, Fulani hair, Bantu knots, box braids, and many others are deprived of their rich cultural significance, reduced to a gimmick in the name of profit and clout. For example, in the world of high fashion, the Japanese label Comme des Garçons had their white models wear cornrow wigs during Paris Fashion Week 2018, using this ethnic style to help elevate their look and sell products.

Francis shares her experience with a repeat offender IG baddie, Kim Kardashian herself. “Although Kim Kardashian was very friendly when I did her makeup, I still take issue with the way she appropriates Black aesthetics so easily and normalizes cultural appropriation,” Francis says. “The love of Blackness on white canvases has led the beauty standard to shift towards mixed race and light skin Black women when dark skin Black women are the original creators of the most popular trends.” 

The rampant colorism illustrates why non-Black people can wear ethnic hairstyles while Black women are often ostracized for having “unprofessional” hair. “As trend cycles shorten and material continues to be recycled in the fashion world, it’s inevitable that more instances of appropriation will arise,” Francis explains. “Black people have been an inspiration to the fashion world for ages; however, we’re often excluded from high fashion unless we’re being used for diversity or being exploited as an ‘exotic’ aesthetic.” 

There is a crucial difference between appreciating and appropriating someone’s culture, and it’s important to keep that in mind when assessing your own wardrobe and personal style. Consciously think about and consider the types of clothes you wear and where they come from, and think before you impulsively buy into trends. Where did these trends really come from, and are you wearing something for the right reasons?

“Black girls are not valued for the amount of creativity they introduce into mainstream culture and the world of high fashion,” Francis says. “They’re praised for reinventing trends that have existed in Black communities for centuries.” Give Black girls — and Black culture — credit.

You are what you love. In my case, it's riot grrrl music, healing reads, and bell hooks quotes. I am a national HC writer and a chapter editor at UC Irvine, where I study political science and social ecology.
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