(Critic's Notebook contains reviews of fashion-related art such as museum exhibitions, runway shows, books, movies, and laundry lines.)
As anyone with a four-year-old knows, coming up with an accurate definition for ordinary objects is rarely as straightforward as one thinks. Take hoods, for example. Fortunately, my own four-year-old has never asked me to define them; she’s worn enough hoods of her own--including varieties designed to make her look like a baby bear or a toddling tiger--that the definition is obvious to her.
But then I opened Alison Kinney’s fascinating new book Hood, one of the latest installments in the Bloomsbury series Object Lessons, in which writers riff on the “hidden lives of ordinary things.” (Other titles include Remote Control, Driver’s License, and the chilling Refrigerator.) As I read on, I realized that my own understanding of the hood wasn’t so clear. On a practical level, I found I’d never fully established for myself what makes a hood a hood, which is difficult to admit for an adult of forty-one. And I’d never reflected anywhere near as deeply as Kinney does on all the ways a simple hood can magnify both power and powerlessness.
Obviously a hood is a head covering – but not just any head covering. Headscarves, hijabs, hats, and masks of all kinds do not qualify. Here, based both on Kinney’s analysis and other reference materials, is my best single-sentence attempt to define what a hood is. Ahem. The term “hood” refers to two related but distinct kinds of headgear: most commonly, a sort of head pocket, usually attached to a longer garment such as a jacket or a cape, which covers everything but the face when raised (as worn by Little Red Riding Hood); or simply a bag over the head, usually attached to nothing at all (as worn by Guantanamo “detainees”).
But while the parameters of what makes a hood are limited, its uses are not. Hoods are used for so very many things! They serve three primary practical purposes: for the pocket variety, to keep the wearer cozy and warm; for the bag variety, to disorient, blind, immobilize, and perhaps humiliate the wearer; for both varieties, to mask the wearer’s identity. Monks and surly teenagers alike use hoods in order to isolate themselves. Sixteenth-century French and English ladies wore highly structured hoods that housed fancy hairdos like garages. I’ve owned hooded clothes whose hood I never raised at all; I just liked the way it hung there, like a decorative drape.
But Kinney mostly isn’t concerned with hoods as style objects. She devotes few pages to the evolution of hood styles or the details of their manufacture. She’s much more interested in what hoods represent politically – or, you could say, what’s going on under the hood. Kinney presents no grand theory of the hood. Its uses and meanings are too multifarious for any such thing: cute or sinister, pragmatic or symbolic, a stylish flourish or a monkish uniform element. Instead she teases out the darker associations of the hood—with a sharp eye for contradiction and misinformation.
In the popular imagination, hoods are associated with young black men - and also with the Ku Klux Klan. They’re worn by executioners - and also by the executed. Hoods, as Kinney puts it, can express “authority, orthodoxy, and violence” just as easily as they suggest “suffering, persecution, and death.” Particularly fascinating is how she reveals that these associations often have slender basis in history or fact; the book is a trove for anyone who delights in the debunking of common knowledge.
Take for example two groups most notoriously associated with hoods: medieval executioners and the Ku Klux Klan. In fact, Kinney shows, history has no record of medieval executioners ever wearing hoods on the job. It’s an image that first appeared centuries later, born from the imaginative, anachronistic fancy of artists such as George Cruikshank and Jean-Paul Laurens. Likewise, in its first incarnation, immediately after the Civil War, the KKK had no standard uniform whatsoever. The costume that’s become indelibly associated with the Klan – a pointed, full-faced white hood with eyeholes – seems to have its genesis in the costume design of D. W. Griffith’s 1915 blockbuster The Birth of a Nation – which the real-life Klan promptly copied after the film helped inspire its resurgence. (Griffith’s film also gave the Klan the idea for burning crosses.) What is it that makes us want to retroactively ascribe hoods to villains who never wore them?
Along similar lines, Kinney points out that the words “hood,” “neighborhood” (“hood” for short), and “hoodlum” (also “hood” for short) don’t appear to have any etymological relationship. “Hood” came to us from German and is related to “hat.” The “hood” in “neighborhood” is the same kind that appears in “childhood” and “priesthood.” “Hoodlum” was first used in San Francisco circa 1870, perhaps as a variation on the Bavarian Huddellump, which means ragamuffin. But as Kinney notes, “etymologies don’t have to be true to have real consequences.” These three homonymic “hood”s have a way of sticking to each other: a hood from the hood in a hood. It’s the kind of linguistic link that for some people makes the ordinary act of getting dressed even more charged than the complicated semiotics of race- and class-based dress codes have already made it.
A couple of weeks ago, an essay by Troy Patterson appeared in the New York Times Magazine that touched on similar themes as does Kinney’s book, with the difference that his piece was more narrowly focused on the politics of race and hoodies. Despite my better judgment, I scanned the reader comments on Patterson’s piece, and while they were predictably dismaying, the way the debate split was illuminating. Many readers took umbrage at Patterson’s analysis, and the dissenting voices fell into two contradictory camps. One camp objected to the very idea of an essay on hoods, insisting that hoods are such obviously innocent garments that only a fool notices them at all. The other camp asserted that hoods are in fact a threat, at least when worn by young black men, and that it’s only reasonable and self-protective to think of them such: that only a fool looks at a hood without trepidation. Together, the camps perfectly articulated the two major strains of American racism: the willfully oblivious and the supposedly pragmatic.
As Kinney makes so clear in page after page of her short but deeply probing book, the truth about the things we wear is that they rarely mean any one thing all the time. A hood that is tremendously suggestive in one context is utterly anodyne or even silly in another. It’s no wonder that magic is one of the milieus that hoods are most strongly associated with. They are sometimes amulets, sometimes curses, and sometimes the spell is broken entirely, transforming them back into an empty fabric flap.
(Rollo Romig is is a journalist and critic whose reporting from India appears regularly in the New York Times Magazine.)