I can’t say with full honesty that I know enough about fashion to truly weigh in on a documentary on the subject, but I have enjoyed a few films like Iris & Paris is Burning that touch on the genre. Fresh Dressed was a little more of an easy entry point for me than those examples (although not nearly as spellbinding as the beyond-reproach Paris is Burning) because it approaches fashion from a pop music perspective. Chronicling the evolution of where fashion fits in as an integral element of hip hop culture, Fresh Dressed is simultaneously a fun nostalgia trip through bygone eras of oldschool rap (not unlike Ed Piskor’s brilliant Hip Hop Family Tree comic book series) and a necessary history lesson in the evolution of modern black identity as expressed artistically through clothing. The documentary has the distinct feeling of giving credit where it’s due, finally exalting a subject that would’ve casually been brushed off as frivolity in the past & spotlighting some of the underserved artists who have been long forgotten as cultural pioneers.
Fresh Dressed establishes a solid foundational layer by beginning its story long before hip hop was even a concept. Mapping out how the pristinely immaculate church clothes of even the poorest of America’s black communities would later be reflected in the flashy garb of jazz & blues singers, Fresh Dressed logically explains the history of fashion as a prime component of modern black identity. Hip hop is explained as a starting point where black fashion took on a D.I.Y. punk context, openly rebelling against the cops & whites that conspired against black people, especially the youth, through institutionalized oppression. Biker fashion, gang insignia, black pride militarization, and external displays of pride in personal wealth all complicated & varied the boundaries of what hip hop fashion could mean as well as what it could look like. At a certain point in time you could tell what neighborhood a person was from (in NYC, obv) based on what they were wearing, but things got much more disparate & more interesting from there and watching a culture develop through the hallmarks of its clothing is a lot of what makes Fresh Dressed a delight.
Documentaries like this often live or die by the strength of their talking head interviewees and Fresh Dressed indeed has a stacked deck of willing participants: Kanye West, Big Daddy Kane, Nas, Pharell, etc. There’s also a wealth of great photographs, video clips and (duh) music to back up its fashion retrospective narrative, making the film a fun ride while still an informative one. Fresh Dressed doesn’t have the same temporal advantage of films like the similarly-minded graffiti doc Style Wars, as it’s documenting a movement & a subset of oral history interview subjects long after their heyday, requiring it to rely on archival footage & word of mouth to construct its narrative. As the story develops, the film also loses a little steam as hip hop fashion loses its credibility as a D.I.Y. punk aesthetic and becomes a marketable big business commodity. It’s worth noting, too, that its narrow focus on heterosexual male fashion in the hip hop community often treats female & queer perspectives as an afterthought, which is a shame given those groups’ contributions to fashion innovation over the decades. All that considered, Fresh Dressed is still a wonderful history lesson in a topic that’s rarely treated with the level of respect it deserves. At the very least the film is a museum in motion, with nearly every document of hip hop fashion’s past just aching to be screengrabbed & converted into Tumblr posts. There are certainly less worthy modes of fashion documentation than that.