Film Review – Fresh Dressed
The most insightful observation in Sacha Jenkins’ Fresh Dressed (2015) comes from record producer/fashion designer Damon Dash. When talking about urban and hip-hop clothing, Dash states that the style of street wear is a “status symbol based on insecurity.”
He couldn’t have hit the nail more on the head than that. Whether people want to admit it or not, what you wear says a lot about who you are and where you come from. Even people who say they don’t care about what they wear are clearly making a choice about it. Especially in the hip-hop world, clothing is an indicator of monetary wealth and a representation of your cultural background. We all want to be accepted and belong to something bigger than ourselves, and for a lot of the interviewees in Jenkins’ documentary, being “fresh dressed” carries a lot of importance.
This is a breezy and light documentary, which in essence is about a particular form of capitalism. Entrepreneurs, athletes, musicians, and designers are interviewed to give an account on how the hip-hop style grew from humble beginnings in the Bronx to become the international standard it is today. Jenkins interviews a lot of people, from celebrities like Kanye West and Pharrell Williams to those who may only be known around the local neighborhoods. There might actually be too many faces here, all giving their experiences with how street fashion developed over the decades. Accompanying the testimonies are animated sequences allowing visual support to the interviews. The animated pieces add to the fun and energetic tone.
Urban fashion can’t be examined without looking at hip-hop as a whole. The first half is the strongest, as Jenkins leads us on a brief history of the culture and how it ties into clothing. Skipping around with a quick pace, Jenkins starts all the way back to the slave era, showing how citizens dressed in their finest to attend church on Sundays. We then fast-forward to New York City in the near present, mostly involving the black and Latino demographics. For many of the people that grew up poor and couldn’t afford brand names like Gucci or Louis Vuitton, a lot of what was worn had to be hand made out of whatever they could find. From street gangs, to break dancers, to rappers and athletes, Jenkins keeps the narrative moving as we learn how clothing became an extension of a person. It was more than just looking good (although that definitely played a part of it). The stylistic choices also represented one’s heritage, even the place they reside. One sequence describes how people could tell what part of New York a person was from based on what type of hat or sweater they wore.
The first half is the strongest because it expanded beyond just clothing to encompass hip-hop as a way of living. These were creative minds working the best with what they had, and the style came from that imagination. There are many photographs and archival footage showing how diverse the culture was and is. As Jenkins transitions into the second half is where the narrative begins to weaken. Inevitably, the fashion grabbed the attention of big corporations, and in an effort to gain a wider range of consumers we see hip-hop become a commodity, packaged and sold in retail stores. Jenkins downshifts to a slower (and less interesting) area as we learn about the numerous name brands that sprung out. FUBU, SeanJohn, Kani, Ecko, and Cross Colours are just a few of the many that are featured.
I almost tuned out during this section. Jenkins simply goes through a laundry list of brand names, checking each one off as it gets covered. What was once considered a symbol of the underdog has now become part of the rich upper class. I suppose that is the logical way to go – for a movement as vivid as hip-hop, it would eventually find the main stream. But the bigger it got, the less identifiable it became. Do I really see myself spending $50+ on a shirt just for the name on it? This is where the downside of capitalism shows its ugly face. It’s great to see people from low beginnings make it on the bigger stage, but many do so while increasing prices and taking more away from the very people that helped them get there. People are robbed, even killed out of such high demand. Jenkins briefly touches on this, opting not to go deep into the subject matter. It’s a missed opportunity. By the time we see a young Channing Tatum strutting down a walkway wearing a fur coat with his chiseled abs exposed, I began to wonder if there was some disconnect that happened along the way.
For the most part, Fresh Dressed is a well-made documentary. Yes, it’s about consumerism (this could be considered a 90 minute advertisement), but Jenkins throws in just enough to keep our attention the entire way through. If anything, the first half works as a nice lesson on where things came from, and the second as a cautionary tale on how it can quickly spin out of control.