A Sublime Self-Isolation

The best hoodies in America: American Giant

For most of last week, I spent my days and nights feeling miserable, creating a lasting butt impression on my living room couch, and snuggling down into my favorite hooded sweatshirt.

It is faded and has a torn pocket, and when I bought it ten years ago it celebrated a season of coming changes to the theatrical program at the Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London—changes that, I assume, have long since come and gone.

The hoodie is quintessential working-class American style. The hoodie originated with the working men of upstate New York, where even the sweatiest, nastiest job must continue to be performed in the coldest, darkest depths of a winter that lasts from September to June.

I love hoodies. I am never more comfortable than when in jeans and a hoodie, and my love of these artifacts of underdog fashion only intensified when I became active in a martial arts community that loves its custom sweatshirts. It doesn’t matter that forty years have passed—every martial artist I’ve ever met is still trying to be Rocky Balboa.

The hoodie has acquired a bad reputation and this trend has accelerated in recent years, particularly overseas. In England, wearing a hoodie is like wearing a prison jumpsuit. The perception has become so common that shops have banned hoodies and track pants, because that’s what the criminals are always wearing. I don’t think I need to spend a lot of time on why this is pretty dumb.

Without the hood itself, the hoodie would be nothing. And while, yes, a hood can be used to provide a thin layer of anonymity for crime, the positive uses of the hood are more numerous and effective. From protecting your face from sleet and wind to diving into a needed refuge of sublime self-isolation, the hood has been used by travelers and penitents and workers for hundreds of years.

The next time you use public transport, do a quick headcount of your fellow travelers who have chosen to fill their ears with their private soundtracks, personalized radio programs, or audiobooks. Are they any less isolated just because their faces are visible? When we have no privacy, we erect walls within our minds. This is the way of modern humans just as it was the way of monks in crowded abbeys centuries ago. By shrouding your face, you retreat into a privacy of your own making.

That privacy could be for healing or for meditation or for relaxation. Either way, it is a wall put up by choice to keep the outside world at bay. It is the cowl of modern times, the proverbial “little house” in which we choose to be ourselves.

Fancy talk aside, I’m as stylish as a math teacher at a middle school Sadie Hawkins dance. I thought I’d better check in with my friend, sartorial expert and world-class human, Jeff Dill. He weighed in thusly:

The truth is that the hoodie is the uniform of practicality and honest labor, the modest Medieval Franciscan robes of 21st century America, the new blue-collar habit. It’s suited to a wide variety of conditions and contexts; it’s simple, comfortable, and unpretentious.

There you have it. I’m practically a monk.

The fantastic Marian Wright Edelman