Director Sacha Jenkins’ Fresh Dressed (2015) harks back to the early 1990s, the nascent days of hip-hop and the change in fashion engendered by an entirely new musical form. Beneath the bold, multi-coloured graffiti-inspired designs, baggy pants and bling there’s more to this stylish documentary than initially meets the eye. There is some crossover early on with Shan Nicholson’s 2010 documentary Rubble Kings – which ploughs through the devastating violence and arson of the South Bronx in the 1970s.
Library footage shows gang members proudly wearing jackets emblazoned with crew insignia and colours. When arms were finally forsaken and a truce struck between vicious rivals, battles were fought with words and dance rather than guns. From these two threads came the birth of rap and hip-hop, and just as the former gangs of New York identified themselves with clothing so would a new generation from the Bronx, Brooklyn, Harlem and elsewhere. Via interviews with pioneering designers and rap stars, Jenkins charts the movement from custom ‘streetwear’ on the edgy margins of white America to the big bucks of mainstream brands, the clothing and music hand in hand each step of the way.
For a few fleeting images of TLC and Salt-N-Pepa, along with the thoughts of a handful of women, the female perspective is dealt a bit of a duff hand here, the primary focus being major male artists and the grip they held on the market. It is telling that men who are now multi-millionaires humbly testify to the fact that in the beginning outward displays of wealth and status belied abject poverty behind closed doors. Looking ‘fresh’ and wearing quality clothes was a status symbol, a sign of aspiring to better things, even if you didn’t have a wardrobe to hang them in. An amusing anecdote even suggests that Ralph Lauren would hand out garments to be worn by this influential youth for marketing purposes. Where the ostensible signs of wealth and the evil of materialism take a dark turn in Fresh Dressed is with the contemporary suggestion that teenagers wearing a nice jacket could be stabbed or shot as a result.
As much as this commercial façade covers certain ills, sweeping all social problems under the carpet just isn’t possible. A philosophical Pharrell Williams muses: “That’s what freedom is, it’s to be yourself.” Platitudes aside, Fresh Dressed offers fashion lovers and music fans the story behind the scenes of the glitz and glamour of a catwalk. Whilst its talking heads, sporadically striking animation fillers, use of photograph stills and punchy soundtrack may be fairly run of the mill doc techniques, Jenkins’ film stitches together questions of individuality, self-expression, ethnicity, classicism and the ever-elusive American Dream to make the overall ensemble an engaging contemplation of African-American culture from an unusual angle.
Matthew Anderson | @behind_theseens