Basketball has come a long way since its invention in 1891. It could almost be argued that the sport has done its dues and come full circle. Initially created by a white man for the YMCA’s organized sport division and adopted into black inner-city culture, basketball now ventures into a new arena: high fashion. At first glance, the two industries might appear on complete opposite ends of any spectrum, but a closer look would see that the ties between them are understandable – inevitable even.
Predominantly, the NBA scene has been synonymous with hip-hop and rap, both of which have also been embedded into mainstream culture – but its association with these musical genres can be seen as subcultural. It should come as no surprise that high fashion luxury brands are itching to form partnerships with these stars. Gone are the days where players were sponsored only by active brands like Nike or Reebok; now, Los Angeles Lakers guard Nick Young and New York Knicks’ Carmelo Anthony are seen mixing and mingling in Manhattan’s trendy meatpacking district where both attended the launch party for Italian fashion house Ermenegildo Zegna.
Anthony simply stated in, a New York Times article, that the reason high fashion is tapping into the NBA is because of the exposure the basketball scene has. In other words, NBA players have the social following and influence to set trends to a market that the fashion industry has yet to fully grasp: the average fashion-neutral (and somewhat fashion clueless) male. We can see though that basketball has slowly, but gradually, been transitioning into fashion when NBA commissioner David Stern imposed a dress code in 2005 making it mandatory for all players to wear suits before and after games. The code, aimed to shed basketball of its black culture in banning jerseys, snapbacks, do-rags, etc…, was also the first of any professional sport league to do so.
Stepping into the Barclays center, I braced myself for the multitude of fashion that would surely be on display for the Brooklyn Nets game. From nosebleed seats that cost around $20 to courtside seats that could average up to a few thousands dollars, the economic status of crowd was diverse at best. Yet, regardless of wealth, their purpose for uniting in Barclays is the same, they’re there to spend their leisure time. Anyone who can afford to spend time not working is part of what French theorist Pierre Bourdieu might categorize as the upper class. However, times have significantly changed and leisure activities are not necessarily or exclusively reserved for the elite. What does remain the same is the class distinctions that inevitably result from a difference in income. According to Bourdieu, “taste classifies, and it classifies the classifier. Social subjects, classified by their classifications, distinguish themselves by the distinctions they make…” (Bourdieu 6). What someone considers to be ‘good taste’ depends on their educational and cultural upcoming both of which again correspond to economic circumstances. As such, you could argue that there is no universal consensus on what is ‘good taste’; it’s all a matter of access.
Yet, fashion, similar to other social features of life like mannerisms, is a good indicator of cultural capital. In the microcosmic arena of the NBA, fashion now reigns closely to the sport itself. Whether it be celebrities who sit courtside wearing Christian Louboutin heels, a middle-class man in his new Comme Des Garçons hoodie or a blue-collar worker with a look-a-like Rolex from target.
In the first section of seats, which included the VIP area, the number of men in suits was particularly high. Perhaps this is an indicator that they have just gotten off work, but the fact that they are required to wear suits to work further reiterates their middle to upper class status and implies a certain level of wealth. I was seated in the second tier and after carefully peering around to the third tier, I found no man in a suit. This direct correlation can be attributed to what Veblen would call invidious distinction – it signifies to the public about one’s worth, and ultimately placing each person on a hierarchy. Bourdieu’s point emphasizes this idea of the parallels between social and economic hierarchies and the hierarchy of tastes in culture, which in this case is fashion.
On the other hand, what makes me question Bourdieu’s validity of such a hierarchy is that he bases such an assumption on the fact that the word ‘taste’ in itself is universal, that ‘good taste’ has a certain set of connotations to every person. The man seated in the VIP zone, in what appears to be a tailored suit, is no doubt confident that his clothing choice signifies to the world of his economic status and fashion sense. However, I took a photo of another man, dressed more casually in khaki pants, a puffer jacket and his headphones. The last item is key.
It represents the intersectionality between basketball and the hip-hop and rap culture, the same culture that Stern tried to suppress with his dress code. The man was sitting in the same zone as me, meaning his tickets to the game were probably around $45. What’s important is the fact that his headphones were Beats’ headphones wherein an average piece can retail up to $200. To another bystander, who could not recognize this particular brand of headphones they were simply an accessory to his overall casual look; the fact that I recognized the brand means we share at least one fashion code in common and as a result, my awareness and thus recognition of his headphone’s social and economic worth has increased his subcultural capital. Subculture, as Dick Hebdige writes, is “challenging at a symbolic level the ‘inevitability’, the ‘naturalness’ of class” (Hebdige 89).
Other fashion items that made an appearance at the Brooklyn Nets game included, but are not limited to: a pair of strikingly red high-tops that look similar to Creative Recreation shoes which retail at $170, an intricately engraved black leather jacket that can be mistaken for Kanye West’s Yeezus Supply for Adidas collection which had just made its debut in New York Fashion week and a Ralph Lauren pullover.
The actual price and authenticity of the items are not relevant, their signified meanings and implications are. Whether each man can be classified as a patrician, a parvenu or a poseur, he is automatically grouped as aiming to achieve the same goal: to appear fashionable. And whether each man’s taste are fashionable to mainstream culture, he has a significant level of subcultural capital already in his pocket. Hebdige’s point can certainly be applied here wherein the cyclical nature of fashion is related to the inevitability of subculture’s absorption into mainstream. The interchange of mainstream fashion and subcultural fashion which has been catalyzed in two directions: from the top down (trickle down effect) and from the bottom up (subcultural capital). For the former, figures of influence such as Stern or popular players like Anthony start to shape the conversation on what mainstream deems appropriate, acceptable and of ‘good taste’ whereas individual styles of men who we might deem as tastemakers, trendsetters or even hipsters, can inevitably be seen as mainstream culture’s next big thing.
Regardless of which direction the NBA and its worldwide following have transitioned from being a proletarian, inner-city crowd to a more fashion conscience market, one thing is for sure, no one wears sweatpants and a hoodie to an NBA game these days – unless of course, they’re branded.
Bourdieu, Pierre. “The Habitus and the Space of Life-Styles.” Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1984. 191-209. Print.
Hebdige, Dick. “Subculture, the Meaning of Style.” NY: Routledge, 1998. Print.
Keh, Andrew. “Posing for Fashion Houses, N.B.A. Stars Feel at Home.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 13 Feb. 2015. Web. 12 Mar. 2015.
Mitchell, Timothy. “Kanye Kicks off Fashion Week with an A-list Extravaganza.” NY POST. N.p., 12 Feb. 2015. Web. 12 Mar. 2015.
Veblen, Thorstein. “Conspicuous Leisure.” The Theory of the Leisure Class. New York: Dover Publications, 1899. 23-70. Print.