Fresh Dressed and Style Wars: A comparison of ages

freshly dressed

‘Hip hop culture’s not just about the music, it’s about a lifestyle.’

Since the 70s, the influence of hip hop on culture, in particular on youth culture, has grown to extend beyond America’s music scene and catapulted itself towards a more globalised movement, the embodiment of youth culture and as a possible sign of rebellion and expressive freedom.

The restoration of Tony Silver’s 1983 documentary Style Wars and the recent release of Sacha Jenkin’s 2015 documentary Fresh Dressed which draws from elements of the prior film left me wondering whether the representation of hip hop culture had changed throughout the years.

Style Wars begins with a voice over outlining how 70s New York became known for its graffiti, rapping and breaking, defined as ‘prime expressions of a new young people subculture called Hip Hop.’ The documentary not only presents us with a documentation of the expressive rise of the hip hop subculture, it also presents to us the ongoing conflict between graffiti artists and authority figures of which has continued through to more recent films such as Fresh Dressed.

The overall consensus in Style Wars is that graffiti is, ‘destroying our lifestyle’ with the film documenting youth speaking about performing petty crime such as stealing cans of paint and using them to graffiti trains. The destruction of public property is highlighted in the film as nuisance with an array of authority figures including police, transport authority and government officials echoing the sentiment that ‘Graffiti is not Art’ in a series of interviews. Graffiti is portrayed as vandalism and discouraged through the use of celebrities to endorse an anti-graffiti campaign with the tagline, ‘Make your mark in society. Not on society.’

Perhaps through the grace of time graffiti has evolved to become accepted by society as a creative art form. The painting of murals, the trend of painting graffiti style tags on denim jeans and jackets, and much of hop hop fashion have said to have been influenced by graffiti paint colours which suggest a gradual acceptance of hip hop subculture on the mainstream. These days graffiti is slowly shifting away from being seen as dangerous or against the law to a way for outsiders to creatively express themselves.

Assembled using a combination of interviews with hip hop icons, archival footage, Flash animations, and photographs, Fresh Dressed is a celebration of hip hop culture and a nostalgic look back on what makes the subculture so special, rather than an apprehensive examination of its faults as seen in Style Wars.

As Fresh Dressed suggests, in the hip hop culture, the act of wearing on trend clothes is not just a visual cloak of which helps distinguish youth from their older more traditional or conformist suit wearing counterparts, it also helps with youth in creating a sense of individualism and social identity. As as a fashion movement, hip hop also seems to help those of a lower social class embody a sort of confidence or persona that helps boost their self esteem. This is translated furthermore with thanks to the rise in popularity of the subculture being embraced by many differing cultures throughout the world as both a music style and a fashion trend which has developed beyond the American locale to a more globalised and ongoing trend which continues to rise.

There is no doubt the influence celebrity has on cultural trends. Both documentaries feature celebrities as ways of influencing the youth of the time.

Dressed in white and appearing as if the incarnation of an angel, Kayne West appears in Fresh Dressed speaking about ‘being fresh’ as if he’s the spokesman of a toothpaste commercial. Following shortly after is an array of iconic hip hop legends who help shift the perspective of how hip hop is portrayed in our society. Instead of using celebrities to discourage acts of graffiti as seen in Silver’s Style Wars, Jenkin’s documentary Fresh Dressed asks us to rethink how we see the art form. It’s a refreshing look examining the changing nature of social acceptance regarding once controversial movements.

What’s concerning however, is the portrayal of crime or the possible elevation of crime from the Style Wars to Fresh Dressed time periods in which people went from stealing cans of spray paint to being robbed (even murdered) on the street for wearing brand name clothing items. It echoes the fearful weariness of the anti-graffiti campaign portrayed in the Style Wars documentary.

It seems as if the representation of hip hop culture as belonging to outsiders has stayed the same throughout the decades. In some strange way, when viewed from this perspective, the stereotyping of gang culture or mob mentality, rebelliousness, and youthfulness will always be affiliated with hip hop music, culture and fashion through incidents like this. Whether this cultural movement is good or bad is left up to individual interpretation.

The concept of the loner, the outcast, or the rebel using vibrant graffiti paint colours as a visual protest to the bland conformity of which society enforces upon its youth is a motif which runs throughout. Possibly, as portrayed in documentaries such as Style Wars and Fresh Dressed, it could be said that the hip hop movement presents us with a vibrant and exciting illustration of a youth subculture which will continue to rise.

Catch both films at the “Essential Independents: American Cinema, Now” festival, taking place in the following cities:
Tuesday 17 May to Wednesday 1 June – Sydney
Wednesday 18 May to Wednesday 1 June – Melbourne
Thursday 19 May to Wednesday 1 June – Brisbane and Canberra
Thursday 26 May to Wednesday 8 June – Adelaide

See the full programme and find out more here:



Words by Addy Fong.