into the kitchen to say the prerequisite goodbye to my mother. She turned her head, took a short
vertical scan of my shoulder length hair, Levi jean jacket, worn denims with patches and old
Adidas and said, ‘You look like a homeless person!’, “Why do you want to dress like that?” I
said, “What do you mean?, These are cool!’ It was a familiar exchange. I said my goodbyes and
quickly made my way to the back door.
There was a certain satisfaction in meeting her disapproval over my dress. In retrospect, she
was wise, she’d been down this road before and kept the confrontation to a dull roar. She knew it
is in the nature of teens to avoid most of what ‘old folks’ want for us. She understood the reality
that my clothes were just a youth uniform of the day. We thought we were rebels, but we were,
just rebels without a clue.
Of course the clothes I liked were a pale imitation of the generation of hippies that came before
me. Our clothes, like the our language were laced with American counter culture images and
drug speak, ‘right on’, far out’, ‘psychedelic’ ‘trippy’. It was uniform of many middle class baby
boomers who felt disenfranchised from the mainstream that their parents worked so hard to
achieve. I didn’t know any of this at the time, I was just following the group. We didn’t even
know what ‘turning on, tuning in and dropping out’ meant or anything about leaders like Timothy
Leary. We just thought it was ‘cool man!’.
Flash forward to the turn of the century and I am scanning the fashion of teen boys in my
classes: baggy jeans hanging below the cheeks of their ass, running shoes or work boots, laces
undone, baseball caps, the swagger, the talk, ‘yo’, ‘whaz up’, ‘sick’ ‘Gangsta’, ‘Dis’‘. Same old
attitude, different uniform and jargon.
While my outfit was a product of a generation, so too are the uniforms of every generation of
teens. At the turn of the century Rap music produced the anthems of the youth. Similar to most
of the music from my generation its origins were in the big cities of the US. The main difference
was that Rap wasn’t music of the mainstream middle class; originally, it was the music of the
economically disenfranchised urban youth. Gangster rap was popular and with it came the
‘thug life’ uniform and speech.
Originally, boys wore baggy clothes to conceal weapons, hair was short to discourage grip in a
street fight, running shoes for making quick exits from incriminating situations. Kids would get
arrested, processed by the judicial system, shoe laces and belts were taken and often not returned.
A kid would return to his ‘hood’ strutting the symbols a confrontation with the law. It became
cool to wear heavy boots without laces, beltless baggy pants slipped below the cheeks of the ass,
name brand boxer shorts became fashionable, baggy sports team shirts, all symbols of the thug
Twelve years later Rap had morphed into mainstream pop music. Role model rappers 50
Cent and Puff Daddy are legitimate businessmen now. They both wear fashionable mainstream
corporate uniforms, complete with custom suits and silk ties. The music doesn’t carry the same
punch anymore, but there are still a few boys walking around the school dressed in the thug life
uniform. Most everything purchased by mom and dad at your local big box department store.
So, I’m standing outside a big box movie theater waiting for my friend to return from the
washroom and a white mini-van pulls up. In the driver's seat a stocky middle aged woman, staring
forward, both hands on the wheel, tight lipped, looking battle weary. The side door slides
open and two teenaged boys wiggle their way out onto the asphalt. Both of them dressed in boots
with no laces, baggy pants, boxer shorts hanging out under the basketball jersey.
I know these two from work, taught them both. They are not thugs. They look at me with a
slight tinge of surprise on their faces. (This happens often, students are surprised we leave the
school for some reason) One says, ‘Yo sir!’ , ‘Whad up!’ I said, ‘Not much’, ‘New jeans?’ He
gives a quick glance down at his pants and says, ‘Ya, just bought ‘em today.” I said, ‘very cool,
enjoy the movie.’
I look at the mother, staring forward, preparing to leave. She quickly turns her head and
says , ‘Bye, have fun.” Part of me wanted to go over and ask her, ‘Why do you want to dress
your kid like that? He looks like a thug?’ But I’m wiser now. Thanks mom!