OutKast Was at the Helm of Black Expression in Fashion

Nandi Howard
·8-min read
Photo credit: John Bazemore/AP/Shutterstock
Photo credit: John Bazemore/AP/Shutterstock

From Harper's BAZAAR

To understand the multifaceted, nonconforming fashion futurist group OutKast, one must take into consideration the duality of Black culture in the South—particularly in Atlanta, Georgia. Atlanta is Black Hollywood, the epicenter of Black music, film, and fashion. It’s also where Andre “3000” Benjamin and Antwan “Big Boi” Patton, the hip-hop duo behind OutKast, grew up.

This year marks the 20th anniversary of Stankonia, the group’s breakout fourth studio album that cemented OutKast’s legendary mark on the music industry. In their three previous albums, the duo were unapologetically redefining the Black male consciousness, with meditations on loss, imagination, love, the Atlanta child murders, and a longing for recognition. But before the group would go on to win six Grammys, score three number one hits on the Billboard Hot 100, and become one of the most critically acclaimed rap groups, the two would meet in 1992 at an intermediate connector in Atlanta, an abstract wonder in the South: the Lenox Square Mall.

Located in Buckhead, Atlanta, suburbs that are home to some of the city’s wealthiest, Lenox Square is where Black customers experience a euphoric atmosphere of luxury shopping—in stark contrast to how luxury stores treat Black patrons in predominantly white areas. The mall hosts brands like David Yurman, Cartier, Burberry, and Fendi, all fashion houses that have seemingly ignored the Black shopper. Yet, when entering Lenox, there is a feeling of community. There are very few spaces where being Black and spending an excessive amount of money can be expected; however, Lenox allows that comfortability. Among creatives who heavily consume social media, Lenox serves also as a hub for the “cool” kids. Today, hundreds of vloggers film inside the mall, and stars like Lil Baby and Drake casually walk its halls. And the allure hasn’t changed for decades. Twenty-eight years prior, the spot even served as one of the birth places of OutKast, speaking to one of their core artistic obsessions: what it feels like to be young, Black, brilliant, and from the South.

It’s difficult to fathom today, but OutKast’s bold, imaginative style wasn’t always championed by mainstream hip-hop. In 1995, the group was booed when they won Best New Rap Group at the Source Awards, an act that unleashed Andre 3000’s famous rejoinder, “The South got something to say.” It was a mission statement, a call for action, and a cultural reset—a callout that reverberates in hip-hop culture to this day.

Photo credit: Courtesy
Photo credit: Courtesy

Five years after making that iconic statement, OutKast released Stankonia, an authoritative body of work, crafted to introduce their idiosyncratic style to the larger mainstream. The album catapulted to quadruple-platinum status with its smash singles, “Hey Ya!” and “Ms. Jackson.” Their music was unlike anything heard in hip-hop before, but as with their first three albums, OutKast’s visual presentation challenged ideas of what a hip-hop performer might, or should, look like.

White fashion press was slow to cover OutKast. Until recently, the band's style wouldn’t be widely dissected, and the eclectic pair would cover only Black-centric magazines and Rolling Stone in their prime. Outsiders didn’t know what to make of the group, considering they were two contradictory characters. In the 1980s and early ’90s, rap groups like Run-D.M.C. and Public Enemy mostly wore correlating looks, but OutKast knew early on that they were the misfits of the industry. Big Boi, exuding a cooler-than-life persona by rocking braid-outs or sleek perms, would pair his flamboyant hairstyles with what we would consider now a vintage sports jersey. Andre 3000 from the outset was more experimental with his style. In the video for their first single, “Player’s Ball,” his ’90s rapper uniform consists of an oversized baseball jersey, jeans, and a gray fur Kangol. Pointedly, both men’s fashion statements and personae refused to conform to fit into narrow boxes. In 2017, Andre 3000 sat with GQ and described the misconception most have of him, saying, “What’s funny is this idea that people have of me as being straight-edge. My homie Cee-Lo, from Goodie Mob, he has this joke. He’s like, ‘Man, I don’t know why these women think we’re sitting cross-legged with incense like some Buddhists, praying with our hands.’” In the simplest of terms, Andre 3000 was just doing what he wanted to do.

Big Boi and Andre 3000’s contrasting styles confused rap critics, particularly the white male journalists who dominated 2000s music writing and who did not always understand the complexities and nuances of what it means to Black. Jonathan Dee from The New York Times called Andre and Big Boi the “Odd Couple”; Anthony Bozza, reviewing Stankonia for Rolling Stone, characterized their sound as “Freak Funk.” The narrative of OutKast’s “freakiness” is misleading, however; even their most outlandish looks were distinct callouts to the duality of Black Southern vernacular. From the Black church and the trap house to the nightclub and the suburbs, OutKast—and by extension Atlanta—contains multitudes.

Photo credit: Hiroyuki Ito - Getty Images
Photo credit: Hiroyuki Ito - Getty Images

When OutKast was introduced to the world with “Players Ball,” their style consisted of Atlanta Braves merch, baggy T-shirts, single gold chains, and country gentleman hats. This look was deeply Southern in contrast to that of East Coast rappers, who mostly wore oversized layering, and West Coast artists, who popularized bandanas and knee-high socks. Instead, the early days of OutKast saw low-key style—the unassuming look of the kid who would ditch class and go to the mall (though Big Boi famously graduated with honors).

By their second album, ATLiens, the group had begun to carve out a distinctive look. Throughout this era, and multiple videos, Andre 3000 sported turbans and dashikis, while Big Boi’s style called back to theatrical Southern twang with gold jewelry; grills, a popular selection down south; and top hats. Come their third album, Aquemini, they were staking their claim in the grand tradition of Southern flamboyance. In “Da Art of Storytellin’,” Big Boi emerged with permed hair, somehow making a style 20 years old feel fresh. In “Skew It on the Bar-B,” Andre 3000 sported a blond wig, furry pants with matching cuff links, and snow boots. What OutKast brought to these videos was a wry sense of humor and self-awareness, as well as a deft playfulness toward the concept of legacy—touches that felt missing from the national hip-hop scene. Contrast the joy of OutKast’s looks with the glowering, self-conscious attempts at masculinity found on those of their compatriots, like Big Pun’s Capital Punishment; Jay-Z’s Vol. 2, Hard Knock Life, with its mafia cosplay obsession; or DMX’s Flesh of My Flesh, Blood of My Blood, with its rigid commitment to the performance of hardness.

Photo credit: John Rogers - Getty Images
Photo credit: John Rogers - Getty Images

So it is no wonder that Stankonia exuded full confidence—self-assuredness within the musicians themselves, with their nonconforming style outtakes, and with transformative music. The group entered this phase knowing that separately their characters couldn't be mimicked, and together their music was a balm for the Black outcast. On the cover of this album, both group members wore their hair down to their shoulders and posed in front of a black-and-white flag—Big Boi sporting an oversized white tee, a rap staple in the ’00s, and Andre 3000 paying homage to Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five in a pair of flamboyant high-waist leather pants, a head scarf, and flipped hair ends to complete his ode to the past.

That flamboyance may read as stylish today, but in 2000, it was inscrutable to most hip-hop critics. In the lead-up to Stankonia, Andre 3000’s sexuality was at the height of discussion. Although he and Erykah Badu had a child, fans did not understand the complexity of his fashion presentation, nor his comfort with the ability to flourish. In a story published just before Stankonia was released to the public, Isaac Guzman from the Los Angeles Times profiled the group and asked about their style. “Dre could put up some Levi’s and some Jordans in a minute. You never know. It just depends on how he’s feeling. When you’re on stage, you want to look like the music feels,” Big Boi explained in support of his group member when questioned about his gender presentation.

Thanks to performers like OuKast, there’s more acceptance when it comes to the expression of Black artists in hip-hop. There is a still a widely antiquated stereotype about rappers, but now, there are Black artists normalizing what it means to be free from constraint. When asked why he wears women’s clothing, rapper Lil Uzi Vert responded to a reporter, “I just bought everything in the men's section. … There was nothing left to buy.” Atlanta rapper Young Thug wore a dress on his 2016 mixtape cover, No, My Name Is Jeffery, which was later displayed in an exhibition at the Boston Museum focused on nonbinary fashion. Both are monumental artists who question even today’s perception of what a rapper should be.

Photo credit: Frank Micelotta - Getty Images
Photo credit: Frank Micelotta - Getty Images

In the true ethos of OutKast, there isn’t a major stylist like Misa Hylton or fashion curator like Dapper Dan directly linked to their sartorial choices. Perhaps, occasionally, the group would have wardrobe direction on set, but their unique self-curation is what really sets them apart in the annals of hip-hop fashion. Their Southern upbringing being the common denominator of both their styles, the pair were not “freaky” or “odd” in regard to how they presented themselves; the world just never understood how two performers from Atlanta could be comfortable with destroying stereotypes and expanding the spectrum of Black creativity.

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