The hoodie has as much to say about it’s wearer as, say, the white t-shirt does. By which I mean that, depending on context, it can say anything. The white t-shirt can imply clean, erotic, the worker – or a combination of all three. In the eyes of contemporary media, the hoodie largely suggests youth. Shady youth, someone not keen to reveal their identity because they are planning on robbing you or worse. Put the hoodie on a black man and it is pretty much akin to walking down the street in a striped jumper with a sack marked ‘swag’. Luke Cage is not set to change that perception, but it does make us reevaluate the role of the hoodie on screen. For the first time in a long time, perhaps ever, a black man in a hoodie in Harlem is not a suspect. In fact he’s a goddamn hero.
Luke Cage’s hoodie is very specific: a black custom made Carhartt fixed hood pullover lined in yellow. This particular style serves two functions. Firstly it frames actor Mike Colter’s face beautifully, something akin to a golden halo. Secondly it harks back to the Luke Cage comic introduced by Marvel in 1972. The comic was a knee jerk reaction to the huge rise of blaxploitation cinema. It was created by white scribes Archie Goodwin and John Romita, Sr. They were capitalising on a trend, whereas the TV series, headed by black showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker, attempts to reshape this concept into a genuiely representative black hero. Yet it remains true to blaxploitation roots. The soundtrack score by Ali Shaheed and Adrian Younge is almost campily referential, while costumes by Stephanie Maslanky have been updated as a reflection of contemporary Harlem. However Cage’s yellow lined Carhartt hoodie remains a nod to the gaudy chest exposing shirt he wore in the comic. In fact in episode 4 ‘Step in the Arena’, when Cage (then Carl Lucas) escapes Seagate prison, he plucks a yellow satin shirt from a washing line. Still with the cellular regeneration ‘tiara’ on his head, a permanent feature from the comic, he catches sight of himself in a car window: “You look like a damn fool” he mutters. In the following scene he dons the yellow lined hoodie for the first time, given to him by psychiatrist and burgeoning love interest Reva Connors (Parisa Fitz-Henley). In the timeline of the show, i.e. before the flashbacks, the first occasion Cage wears his hoodie is when he saves Genghis Connie’s restaurant from a protection racket. It’s his first premeditated ‘hero moment’. He may not have a hero costume as such, which is actually the key to Luke Cage’s appeal as champion of the street, but he is still recognised for his choice of apparel. Later in episode 12 ‘Soliloquy of Chaos’, citizens of Harlem come out in a display of solidarity for Cage by hoodies, some of which are ‘Swiss-cheesed’ with bullet holes. The hoodie is so heavily symbolic of Cage that you’d almost be disappointed if he rescued you wearing something else. It’s like if Batman decided to slip on a gas-mask and slacks for the evening.
When we consider the way the hoodie has been utilised in film it’s primarily as a form of disguise – e.g. David Dunn in Unbreakable (2000), Bruce Banner in The Incredible Hulk (2008) and Ethan Hunt in Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol (2011). Occasionally it’s used as actual sportswear, in the likes of Rocky (1976) or Juno (2007), and occasionally as a hero silhouette such as Robin Hood (2010) and Arrow (2012+, TV). With Luke Cage the hoodie is often mentioned within the show itself (“Some dude in a hoodie rolled through”) and forms a strict sartorial barrier between Cage and hoodlum Cornell ‘Cottonmouth’ Stokes (Mahershala Ali). Cottonmouth is a fresh incarnation of the early 1980s untrustworthy suit wearer. Even James Bond was ditching suits for casual wear at this point, a hangover from the scruffy seventies anti-establishment hero. Cottonmouth is too smooth and sharp for his own good. He wears his wealth like hoods of 1930s Chicago, only with less vulgarity. Cottonmouth lets the sheen and obvious quality of his suits do the talking instead. He’s basically saying, ‘I don’t need to try’. Interestingly, suits have never been more popular for younger men than now. Maybe because the hoodlum archetype is presently as revered for his wealth and power as the hero. To look good, to look ‘money’, you must aspire to wear a suit. What does Henry Hill do the moment he starts making money in Goodfellas (1990)? Buys a suit and flashy shoes that cause his mother to wince, “You look like a gangster!”. Luke Cage draws further attention to inherent aspirations of the suit when real life tailor ‘Dapper Dan’ aka Daniel Day makes an appearance. He fits Cage for a suit to attend Pop’s funeral. This is clearly viewed as a step up for the character. A freshly sewn, let’s-see-you-out-of-that-hoodie moment. Not that it lasts long as Cage is soon thrust back into physical action. Point of note, these fights occur after Cage has removed his very expensive jacket. Hard not to imagine this was a cost consideration for the show. Dapper Dan suits are not cheap, you know.
It becomes a running joke after a while, just how many hoodies Cage goes through as each new replacement is either shot or torn to smithereens. “I’m about sick of buying new clothes” he grumbles at one point. Cage even pilfers a hoodie from diminutive gangster Colon’s gym. If he had a mother in the show she’d surely knit him one for Christmas. That his hoodie also becomes part of the narrative was perhaps inevitable. When villain Willis Stryker aka Diamondback (Erik LaRay Harvey) arrives on the scene, he discredits Cage by dressing as him and killing innocent people. Essentially this ‘disguise’ constitutes being a tall black man in a black hoodie. It works though; the tide initially turns against our hero. Not that this holds any water with Method Man (yes, really him), who happens to be shopping in a supermarket when Cage nips in to save the day. They swap clothes, with Cage donning Method Man’s camouflage hoodie (nothing like actual jungle camouflage for the urban jungle), which then incidentally kicks off the solidarity montage and subsequent waste of police time as they pursue every black man in a hooded top. It’s a quiet dig at the prejudice facing young black males every day. Connotations of hiding something still remain, but must a mystery always pertain to something bad? The hoodie both conceals and celebrates Luke Cage’s identity.
Stephanie Maslanky’s costume design for Luke Cage is some of her most important for the Netflix Marvel universe, simply because it so significant to the plot and happy to break the fourth wall. When Diamondback marches into Pop’s Barber Shop wearing his armoured Hammertech get-up, Bobby Fish (Ron Cephas Jones) immediately gets a jibe in: “What kind of Jean Paul Gaultier shit is this?” he mocks, “Are you a pimp Stormtrooper?”. There is an attempt to set Luke Cage within the real world, or as much as you can in a story about a man with impenetrable skin. The hoodie in Luke Cage’s is the norm. It is not used to evoke caution or menace. If anything the lounge suit is more affecting in this regard. Cage is the hero we would like to be; reluctant enough to be enigmatic, but ultimately steps up and does the right thing dressed in what is, at its most basic level, sportswear. “How many of these do you own?” sighs Fish seeing Cage in yet another fresh hoodie. He said what we are all thinking. Right before, “Whoever thought a black man in a hoodie could be a hero?”. Something else we were all thinking. Well, finally, the time has come.
© 2016, Lord Christopher Laverty.