There's far more to society's most maligned garment than just youthful rebellion, argues Nigel Barley
Smash facist hoodie ban!" It is scrawled on a wall round the corner from University College London, but I don't know whether "facist" is a handy new word or further evidence of the deplorable state of spelling among Britain's students.
Universities and medical schools are just the latest to hop on the anti-hoodie bandwagon and forbid the wearing of the sinister garment - alongside the shopping malls that quite happily still sell them, just as the East India Company once peddled opium to China, but only in non-company ships. All claim serious security concerns as the reason for the ban, but Tony Blair seems to see the decline of Western values and the entire collapse of social order foreshadowed in a flimsy garment that obscures the face. As the way to hoodwink intrusive CCTV cameras, it is second only to the dark-visored helicopter I was offered as a bolt-on extra to a holiday in a terrorist zone.
It's nothing new for adults to argue passionately about adolescent clothing. We are undergoing one of our periodic bouts of hysteria about the young. Their aspirations and values are unfathomably shallow, which means that they are dangerous, unpredictable and we can no longer physically flog them to make them pay for our pensions. The young flaunt antisocial behaviour orders as if they were OBEs, security tags as if they were Rolexes and watch The X Factor for hours while their parents fantasise dreamily in front of Brat Camp .
In the West, the process of growing up is traditionally encoded in terms of control of the body. At what age can it be pierced, tattooed, exhibited, painted and penetrated? At what age does the owner gain full control of it? And who rules it before that? Bodies out of control are a threat to social order, so illness and delinquency involve loss of rights over our own bodies and a regression to infancy. No wonder adolescence turns into a series of lethal battles about absurdly petty things - length of hair, shortness of skirts - that are totally meaningless in themselves. Perhaps we need a proper rite of passage - circumcision maybe or, more likely, some anodyne Blairite citizenship ritual - that would convey such rights in one neat package.
In my day, the big issue was the width of trouser turn-ups and, like ancient physical anthropologists, teachers stalked the corridors of my school with tape measures to scientifically calibrate the gap between civilisation and barbarity. The locus has shifted upwards from the ankles, but the battle remains the same.
Yet there does seem to be something new here. In the old days, the situation was all quite clear. Since the Garden of Eden and the loss of primal innocence, decent people covered up, wicked people showed their bodies. Look at Madonna whipping off her nun's cowl in a concert to shocking effect, huge profit and papal condemnation. Now, suddenly, it is the other way round. In one of the somersaults typical of fashion, the wicked no longer flaunt their private parts. Instead, they cover up their public parts in a monastic modesty garment made by Asian slave labour, for nowadays identity is the prime issue and "respectability" is long dead.
New? Well, not really. In the old days, after all, we had shades and that old, old Oxford story about Maurice Bowra at Parson's Pleasure, the men's nude bathing spot on the river. A sour feminist piloting her own punt broke the rule that ladies should walk round the enclosure and plunged right in.
Most men clutched towels around their waists to protect their modesty, while Bowra draped his over his head, declaring that it was by his face that he was normally recognised in town. Nowadays, we all live in Bowra's world, for a hoodie is only half the costume of youthful rebellion. The other half is showing your knickers or G-string.
But a hoodie is not just a hoodie. Apparently it is subject to an aesthetic appraisal as sensitive as a fine wine on a gourmet's palate. Naturally, a number of colours and snood-fastening arrangements are available, some deemed cool, some uncool, but absolutely crucial is the brand logo emblazoned on the hoodie and the peaked cap worn underneath it. To be adidas in a world where only Nike is accepted is a terrible thing, and to wear a cheap supermarket hoodie is simply to lose all social face. So the hoodie obliterates individual identity to establish another in the name of consumer solidarity.
Yet another factor singles out the hoodie. It is understandably galling to the dentured classes when their sons and daughters dress as streetwalkers and pimps, but doubly so when these are foreign pimps and streetwalkers. In the shires, it must feel as if the old, familiar Imperial-measure lout, who at least loved his mum, is being replaced by the new Euro-lout - smaller, nastier, more expensive and unisex, except that the hoodie is very much a refugee from the American ghetto. It may, indeed, be the case that the only time when rap artists take off their hoodies is to shrug on orange prison overalls. As one parent commented sadly on his ensnooded son: "He looks like the sort of person who thinks Hallowe'en is a real holiday." To end up on the same side of the anti-American barricade as rabid Islamists is an uncomfortable experience for many, yet as students of Third World material culture have long known, one man's scorned Americanisation is another's desirable modernisation, and arguments about freedom and constraint are elaborately deployed by both sides. When people act as we wish, it is from free choice; when they do otherwise, it is stupidity, peer pressure, a male plot or evil cultural oppression.
It is doubtless significant that when Imperial College London banned hoodies, the newspapers immediately tried to couple it with a ban on hijabs. In fact, the college deliberately avoided such a connection, since this form of Islamic dress does not cover the features - any more than Sikh turbans or Jewish yarmulkes do - but it included scarves wound round the face in traditional student style. But having dodged one quagmire of dispute, it then opened the floodgates to endless challenge by also claiming the right to ban "offensive logos". Would "Smash the facist hoodie ban" qualify? Why anyone should deliberately put themselves back in such a foolish and controversial position, that of a parent, is hard to see. Even now stroppy Imperial students are growing anti-fascist beards.
The pushers of the terrorist scare invite us to believe that if only we could truly know who everyone is, then we would be safe. Yet we would mock a return to the only really reliable world, that of systematic sumptuary laws, where to wear the wrong clothes and have the wrong possessions is to commit a crime by lying about your identity, since everyone's precise identity is written all over them as in the Armed Forces. The Elizabethans and the ancient Chinese lived in a world at least partly like that and found no great advantage to it. It simply meant they spent all their time rowing over swords, gloves and hat buttons instead of hoodies.
Here, the cult of ID cards, both institutional and national, has meant the death of older picturesque forms of identity validation. There was a time when museum curators, like prison guards, proved their professional status by flashing a large bunch of keys. The bigger the bunch, the higher the status. There is something comforting in the fact that the new plastic talismans are not taken as serious proof of identity in banks, where the only gold-standard currency remains the homely gas bill.
Perhaps I should come off the fence. I have a hoodie myself, just one, and it was bought for me against my better judgment. But it has wormed its way into my affections as a practical and sensible garment - warm, washable, having capacious pockets and obviating the need for that treacherous comic prop, the umbrella. Admittedly, it has no logo, but has proved much more useful than the MA hood I foolishly bought so many years ago. True, I was once asked to leave a public building because of it - I felt highly flattered to be seen as a threat to good order - but then I have been ejected from many better places over the years on sartorial grounds - the Bibliotheque Nationale (shorts), the British Library (overcoat) and the State Library of Sarawak (sandals). And it is topical. Santa is a hoodie, possibly the main dude of all us bad hoodies. Youth, of course, sniggers at the one I wear. "That's not a hoodie. That's an anorak!" Ah, the anorak. But that's another story.
Nigel Barley is a writer and anthropologist.