To conclude our three-part introduction to the UK grime scene, we've taken a magnifying glass to its aesthetics. Exploring the fashions of grime, here's a brief history topped with 5 essential grime pieces. Get to know.
Anyone seeking a look that's 100% grime need check Dizzee Rascal on the cover of his breakout debut, Boy In Da Corner. There he is, just sitting there – all-black tracksuit, black Nikes, black gloves, hood up. The complete package. And it’s not just his clothes, either; his pose, his expression and his gaze all read total grime. This much-celebrated album would go on to collect the Mercury Music Prize in 2003 – a prize not just for Dizzee, but the whole grime scene he’d helped nurture and grow – and there he is, hunched against a wall, in nothing but a shop-bought Nike two-piece. He’s not showing off a Rolex, a Maserati, a trophy woman, or his six-pack. It's just him; that's what makes this total grime.
Whereas US hip-hop spent the early part of the Twenty-First Century dedicated to the vulgar excess of sports cars, video girls, bejewelled pimp cups, and perpetual one-upmanship, grime was about eschewing luxury for a visual aesthetic that, like grime itself, was about the authentic day-to-day experience of inner-city London. That’s why Dizzee isn’t announcing himself as some huge star born and ready to make his money. He’s just sitting there, waiting.
And, when you pop his CD in the deck, you won’t hear him name check the designer labels he's shopping or the chains he's wearing. The opening track sets it down, with the line, “benefit claims and checks in false names/no sign of positive change.” Early grime was never about urban excess, but about being honest about the daily struggle. As such, its sense of style was born from a feeling of disenfranchisement from the cultures that came before.
Youth culture can often be best understood as a reaction to its direct precedents. Grime is, in many ways, a direct rejection of UK garage, whose own emphasis on sex and ecstatic indulgence were an antidote to the dearth of fashion that came via the big rave and drum and bass scenes. The sharp dress sense in UK garage clubs was a 180-degree departure from the spirit of pluralism and comfort espoused by the rave movement, whose uniform was effortless and unmistakably sloppy.
With rave, the sense of empathy afforded by massive crowds dancing all night on ecstasy made looking better than the person next to you seem ostentatious and a million miles away from the free-loving energy the movement was founded on. And, since everyone was just there to dance, punters simply showed up in comfortable trainers and baggy trousers that were suitable for the marathon dancefloor session. If said dancefloor happened to be in the middle of a muddy rural field, you certainly weren't about to wear your best shirt and shoes.
In response, UK garage turned around the baggy look that dominated both the "Second Summer of Love" in ’88-’89 and, arguably, most of the early jungle and drum & bass years. Clubbers didn’t listen to garage among thousands of ravers in fields off the motorway, or in dingy warehouses on the outskirts of the city. Though nightclubs had always been a part of UK nightlife, by the time garage was number one, massive pop-up raves were a thing of the past and going out was done exclusively in clubs where the punter was encouraged to dress up for the occasion.
Much like US hip-hop, going out to a garage night was a celebration of excess. It was commonplace to see a man dancing on the floor with a magnum of champagne in hand, his thumb sealed over the mouth of the bottle. A key facet of garage culture was blowing all your money in one night – whether on girls, cocaine or champagne – and clothes were a big part of this consumerist rush. People went out to look their best, to impress and, since garage re-introduced both sexiness and an off-kilter swing to London’s dancefloors following the macho rush of drum & bass, nights out were about impressing those of the opposite sex by any and every means possible.
This high-rolling look was also enforced at the nightclub door. Many UK garage clubs in the late ’90s banned items of streetwear like trainers, jeans, and baseball caps. These forbidden items would go on to become the chief pieces of grime fashion. Grime was born out of a frustration with garage’s ritzy elitism, but its style wasn’t just a rebellion against what came before in order to make room for something new. It was an aesthetic adopted because it more truly reflected its wearers' identities. As Skepta spat on grime anthem That's Not Me, “I used to wear Gucci, put it all in the bin cause that’s not me.” And so it was: Versace out, Nike in. Silk shirts out, tracksuits in.
“The street culture to London, grime’s the soundtrack to that,” once said seminal grime DJ Logan Sama. “It runs in parallel: the dress code, the music, they’re all reflection of that.” So, grime fashion is the look of the everyman on the street, but has to be kept fresh and clean. Though it’s about sometimes wearing trackies and trainers, your tracksuit better be crisp and your trainers (sneakers) better not be scuffed. And though grime isn’t about labels worthy of Vanity Fair, grime MCs still engage in a fair bit of brand worship of their own.
The hottest grime threads came from Avirex, Akademiks or, of course, Nike. The Nike Air Max holds one of the true monopolies on the grime wardrobe. Though you could wear any number of different tracksuits, there was really only one brand for sneakers. Watch one of the early editions of Lord of the Mics – a straight-to-DVD release of grime MCs battling and freestyling against each other – and they’re all wearing Air Max. You could just about get away with wearing the Air Force 1, too, but the Air Max was practically a requirement for any MC. The shoes were often called the "110," in reference to their £110 price tag.
The Avirex leather jacket – an expensive holdover from the garage days – meanwhile, was a dangerous piece. Men got jumped on the street just for their Avirex jackets, so wearing one became a symbol of pride and audacity. "Jump me," it dared, "just try it." In summer, the jacket would come off, but the cap would stay on, and the only cap to wear was the New Era fitted 59Fifty, pulled down to your brows so people could see you still had the gold sticker on i.e. it was brand new.
As such, though dressing grime was about eschewing luxury for realness, you still had to look like you just came fresh from the shop. It's here that grime fashion begins to walk a fine line between expense and authenticity. On the one one had, you have to rep a pristine collection of the relatively expensive Air Max – but we’re still just talking Nike here, not crocodile Gucci loafers. Ultimately, dressing grime is about keeping real to yourself, while still looking good. You could say dressing grime is about looking like the best version of yourself, even if that does mean laying out a couple dozen more for your shoes.
These days, grime is the everyman look for everyone. Designers like Nasir Mazhar have even been bringing grime to the runway (Skepta walked in his Spring/Summer ‘15 grime-influenced menswear collection) and, though many other designers have made twenty-first century athletic wear into high fashion, this certainly wasn’t always the case. At one time, the world thought that dressing grime meant you were trouble and it kept you out of the clubs. These days, the doors are wide open.
Written by Taylor Hodges for Highsnobiety.com