Between Bruno Mars and our new president, Cardi B, taking us back to In Living Color with their video for “Finesse” and bingeing on Living Single after it made its way to Hulu last month, I’m in a ’90s mood. Listen, when Living Single debuted in August of ’93, I knew immediately that I wanted to be Khadijah James (played by Queen Latifah). She had my dream job (editor of a hip-hop magazine), lived in my dream city (New York City) and dressed exactly how I wanted to dress.
Khadijah was just the right amount of butch, with a cool, relaxed streetwear feel. I longed for the many African-American College Alliance sweatshirts, hoodies, T-shirts and hats that filled her closet. Plus, Queen Latifah is a curvy woman, so I felt like she rocked styles that would also work for me. I imagined that her wardrobe of tailored suits with the colorful vests underneath would fit me perfectly!
I spent most of the ’80s tuned into pop, vintage soul and hair bands, with most hip-hop on my periphery. But late-’80s new jack swing caught my attention, as artists started sampling, remaking and covering my beloved old-school soul and R&B artists. In 1992, when Dr. Dre dropped The Chronic, I recognized the rhythms from my childhood escapes into my pop’s record collection.
G-funk lifted the beauty of the bass, synth and live instrumental tracks of Parliament-Funkadelic to combine it with deep 808s. I would often point out to my friends that I’d already introduced them to the music they were bumping out of their speakers; and as the lyricism got tighter and R&B increased its flirtation with hip-hop, I found myself falling for not only the music but also the fashion.
In the ’90s, I was too broke to afford the clothes I wanted to wear. I was often underemployed and occasionally more worried about housing than clothing; but flipping through the Source magazine, I’d envision myself rocking Timberlands and Tommy Hilfiger with baggy jeans. I wanted to wear my hair in braids and sport baseball caps and bubble coats or Starter jackets. I couldn’t buy Air Force 1s, but I spent a lot of time just drooling over them in Foot Locker.
When Higher Learning hit theaters in 1995, I had my first real date with a woman. I’d had a girlfriend years before, but we were so closeted we moved through our own internalized homophobia as “best friends.” Higher Learning helped evolve not only my political consciousness but also my sense of style. I envied Busta’s dreads (my hair could never do that) and may not have had Cube’s Chucks, but seeing both of them on-screen helped push my relationship with my gender expression forward.
By the time the film Set It Off premiered a year later, I’d just finished reading the classic novel Stone Butch Blues, by the late Leslie Feinberg. I was finally attempting to figure out my gender expression and how I wanted to present to the world. Feinberg’s novel felt like a revelation to me and finally gave me an identity to aspire to: butch.
Back then, I didn’t have much of an idea what “butch” meant except through the lens of that book, so I began to fashion—at least in my mind—what that meant for me. When I saw Set It Off, I fell completely in love with the image of another iconic Latifah character, Cleo. I, too, wanted to be stone butch with a badass, blond-’fro-rocking black femme by my side.
When Love Jones rolled around in 1997, I was hanging out in chat rooms and connecting with a world of black lesbians. I’d firmly established myself as a stud, and aspired to be a spoken-word artist. I devoured that movie, believing that it painted an accurate picture of black, middle-class life in Chicago—my new dream city.
I loved Love Jones and its romance with culture and music and poetry. The leather jackets and boots felt reminiscent of the ’70s, while the blue tones of the cinematography felt simultaneously familiar and fresh, like a new jack Gordon Parks photo album. I imagined myself being as cool as the film’s hero, Darius, and while Nia Long’s Nina was beautiful, I wanted to fall in love with Lisa Nicole Carson.
All of these pop-cultural touchstones exposed me to a range of black aesthetics. The beauty of ’90s fashion was its fluidity, the way it brought together the masculine and the feminine. In many ways, women were able to play with gender norms and identity by poaching clothes from their boyfriends, male cousins, brothers or friends, adding feminine touches like bamboo earrings or large hoops (I’ve always been a hoop boi).
I spent the ’90s in search of what being butch/stud/masculine of center meant to me. My own emerging style was heavily influenced not only by seeing us on-screen but by up-and-coming black-owned brands like FUBU, Sean John and Phat Farm—brands that highlighted the reality that hip-hop had long moved out of New York City’s South Bronx and was on its way to becoming a global commodity.
But I often wonder when the shift happened in women’s clothing. Back in the ’90s, it felt like there was a range of female expression—from Lil’ Kim and Foxy Brown to Queen Latifah and Lauryn Hill. The women of Bad Boy famously cultivated a femme-aggressive look, mixing hard and soft together. When did women stop being able to rock a hoodie and baggy jeans and still be considered sexy? When did fashion for women become more about how much skin we’re showing?
Maybe it’s always been that way, and I’d just rather remember it differently.
While there are definitely some fashions we should leave in the ’90s (backward clothing, Cross Colours, shiny leather suits—or really any leather suits—and patchwork jeans), the ’90s were a decade of revolutionary style. Aside from helping a young stud find her way, it was an era that helped a generation of Xers make a mark on a world eager to ignore them—with swag to spare.