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Whys and Why Nots: Reading the Stakes and Meanings of Russell Westbrook’s NBA Style Revolution

Whys and Why Nots: Reading the Stakes and Meanings of Russell Westbrook’s NBA Style Revolution

On an otherwise uneventful day in the spring of 2015, most of which I likely spent writing and avoiding writing my dissertation, I almost bought a pair of glasses from Westbrook Frames, the signature eyewear brand of Russell Westbrook, the NBA’s reigning MVP and self-described “Fashion King,” who claims to have built his whole life around a motto that is also a challenge—“Why Not?” Which, admittedly, isn’t a very good story. There’s a better story, though, in the why not.

Partly, I didn’t buy Westbrook Frames’ Inglewood Leaf—an aviator done in gold wire and camo green plastic with a thick, straight bridge extending into the even-thicker stems—because, unlike when I was a sixteen-year-old aspiring WNBA shooting guard swaggering around the not-quite-regulation-size court of my rural Ontario high school wearing a pair of Reebok Answer IIIs, I had mixed feelings about my motives as a Very White Girl aspiring to coolness via a piece of identifiably black fashion. Yet my mixed feelings were also specific to Westbrook. These days, I’m a four-games-a-week, every-playoff-game kind of girl. But back in 2015, I’d lapsed into being a casual NBA fan, who’d probably heard and read people talking about Westbrook almost as often as I’d actually seen him play. As a result, I’d inherited a lot of competing opinions. I’d been told to be suspicious about the reliability of Westbrook’s outside shot, about his efficiency as a playmaker, and especially about the nature and meaning of his fashion-forward off-court style.

Debating and dissecting Westbrook’s style has become a tradition and an ongoing concern for a wide swath of sportswriters, broadcasters, journalists, and fans. The nature and durability of these debates exemplifies the increasing interconnectedness of the worlds of sports and fashion, while also exposing continued rifts within and between these worlds. In general, whereas the sports media has often seen Westbrook’s brand-minded and occasionally gender-bending style choices as a sign of inauthenticity, the fashion industry has almost unanimously embraced these same choices as sign of authenticity. This article will not attempt to resolve this impasse—it will not, in other words, attempt to judge or police Westbrook’s in/authenticity. It will, however, examine typical deployments and interpretations of Westbrook’s style by the sports media and fashion industry, and interrogate what’s at stake in these images and discussions. For both the study of fashion and the study of sports culture, such examinations have never been more important; looking at where Westbrook’s style has been criticized and embraced, how, why and (of course) why not, can tell us a great deal about the evolving role and persisting distrust of fashion within the still-hypermasculine yet ever-more-image-focused arena of professional American sports.


Origins of the Revolution

If you haven’t noticed the NBA’s style revolution, you probably haven’t been paying attention. You also probably haven’t heard of Russell Westbrook. In a November 2016 article for the online sports magazine The Ringer, Jason Conception argues that Westbrook almost single-handedly started the revolution back in 2012, during his first and only appearance in the NBA Finals. According to Conception: “When Westbrook slouched to the microphone after Game 1 of the 2012 Finals against the Heat, clad in a cartoon-character-print Prada shirt and bright red eyeglass frames (sans lenses), he single-handedly turned the mundanities of athlete work life into opportunities for wild sartorial expression.” According to Conception, Westbrook’s influence has been thorough and wide-ranging. “Westbrook,” writes Conception, “is the reason that NBA players peacock through shabby cinderblock gangways before big games; he is the reason the NBA has a fashion show during All-Star Weekend, just as surely as he’s the inspiration for Cam Newton dressing like a dystopian Mr. Peanut.”

Conception’s claims are a tad exaggerated. Kobe Bryant’s much-discussed (and much-lampooned) “white hot” L.A. Times Magazine photoshoot from 2010, [1] in which the 18-time All-Star wore an assortment of all-white clothes that included a pair of Rick Owens drop crotch shorts, a wide-brimmed Worth & Worth “Treviso” hat, an Adam Kimmel button-down and bow-tie, and a Kris Van Assche sleeveless one-button jacket, is just one example of how the NBA and the world of high fashion had been intermingling well before Westbrook truly arrived on the scene. Westbrook has, however, become arguably the most visible face of the revolution, and certainly one of the most successful at translating his passion for fashion into lucrative, profile-boosting fashion industry endorsements and creative partnerships. As of this writing, Westbrook’s personal logo appears not only on Westbrook Frames, but also on apparel for Jordan Brand, which makes his signature court and lifestyle shoes as well clothes adorned with his “why not” motto. In addition, Westbrook is a model for Kings & Jaxs underwear, which sells “why not” boxer briefs; he is a brand ambassador for Zenith watches; he is a spokesperson for Tumi suitcases; he has partnered on multiple capsule collections for Barneys, featuring clothing, shoes, and accessories by Naked and Famous, Del Toro, Public School, Globe-Trotter, and Want Les Essentiels (among others), some of which he is credited with designing; he has his own fragrance with Byredo; he has a jewelry line with Jennifer Fisher; and he is the Marketing Creative Director for True Religion.

If you haven’t noticed the NBA’s style revolution, you probably haven’t been paying attention.

As the mixed reception of Bryant’s L.A. Times photoshoot ably demonstrates, the style revolution has had its proponents and its dissenters. Khanh T.L. Tran summarizes fans’ polarized reactions in a June 2015 profile of Westbrook for the Women’s Wear Daily website: “The comments from [Westbrook’s] Instagram followers, once they spotted his recent selfie in a green Koto poncho, sun-bleached distressed skinny jeans from Zara and pointy ankle boots by Asos at Milan Fashion Week, swung from admirable (‘pure class and swag’) to aghast (‘WTF BASKETBALL PLAYERS BE ON THESE DAYS’).” This polarization among fans has doubtless contributed to the sports media’s uncertainty about how to report on the revolution. Since Westbrook’s coming-out party at the 2012 Finals, there have been several pieces along the lines of Jared Zwerling’s glamorizing chronicle of Westbrook’s 2015 All-Star Weekend in New York City, wherein Russ’s MVP-winning performance at the ASG is bracketed by at least eight different fashion industry events promoting his affiliated brands. Just as common, though, are click-bait-y pieces along the lines of Lance Cartelli’s December 2014 slideshow for, entitled “15 Nuttiest Outfits Russell Westbrook Wore Off the Court.” The text that accompanies this slideshow either/both pokes gentle fun at Westbrook or snidely mocks him [2] for wearing such supposedly outrageous things as a denim vest, a floral-patterned bomber jacket, the aforementioned cartoon-print Prada shirt from the 2012 NBA Finals (which apparently “belongs in your grandpa’s closet”), a polka dot shirt, a plaid blazer, “Pink Cargo Pants?!”, aquamarine slacks, and a cropped leather jacket worn over an extended tee.

Of course, for those of us accustomed to reading fashion and lifestyle magazines, watching runway shows, and even just observing people walking down the street in major cities around the world, many of the nutty outfits highlighted in Cartelli’s slideshow may not seem all that nutty. This, combined with the fact that is not exactly known for its fashion journalism, suggests that the supposed nuttiness of Westbrook’s style is largely contextual. In other words, Westbrook’s style is nutty primarily because of who’s wearing it—namely, a young, black, male professional athlete.


Contexts of the Revolution

In his book Young, Black, Rich & Famous, Todd Boyd argues that the black-dominated and increasingly hip hop-influenced NBA has long fostered anxieties among the league’s majority white managers and fans, and that these anxieties have often manifested in attempts to police the behavior and style of black players both on and off the court. These anxieties reached a fever pitch in the late 1990s and early 2000s, coinciding with the growing popularity of gangsta rap and the rise of Allen Iverson, whose individualistic, sometimes-combative personality, saggy pants, cornrows, tattoos, and gold chains, were thought to exemplify the gangsta style. [3] The backlash against the Iverson generation finally culminated in the highly controversial NBA dress code of 2005, which precisely stated what players could and couldn’t wear when entering and leaving game arenas, attending games while injured or as a spectator, and when participating in media events such as press conferences. That the dress code was a direct response to the supposed “gangsta-fication” of the NBA is evident in the specific accessories and items of clothing it banned. As Jefferey Lane describes in Under the Boards: The Cultural Revolution in Basketball, the 2005 dress code outlawed almost all of what were, at the time, the most popular signifiers of hip hop fashion, including “jerseys, all headgear (i.e. baseball caps, do-rags, bandanas, and headbands), sunglasses indoors, sneakers, construction or casual boots, and chains and pendants.” In place of these items, players were required to wear “business casual” attire consisting of “a collared dress shirt, turtleneck, or sweater, accompanied by khakis, slacks, or dress jeans” as well as “dress shoes, dress boots, or ‘other presentable’ shoes.” [4]

As Stacy L. Lorenz and Rod Murray observe, “the response from league officials maintained that [the terms of the dress code] were in no way racially motivated. According to the NBA, the dress code was not about battling Blackness, it was simply about bringing ‘professionalism’... back into basketball.” [5] Yet because “the new clothing guidelines involved the monitoring of racialized forms of expression,” [6] and “inherently and intentionally penalize[d] a majority of... Black players,” [7] it is more than reasonable to argue, as David J. Leonard does, that “at its core,” the dress code represented “an agenda of controlling Black male bodies while maintaining profits from that same Black male body.” [8]

Since Westbrook’s style has, for now, only been mocked rather than directly censured, it can be considered less controversial than the gangsta styles that informed the 2005 dress code. This does not mean, however, that the recent and ongoing scrutiny of Westbrook’s style is immune to the racial anxieties that informed the code. In addition, because Westbrook entered the league in the wake of the dress code, his style must be read in conversation with it, whether as a product of its restrictions or as a rebellion against them.

In a sense, whereas Iverson, in his confrontational, gangsta-inspired blackness, was viewed by the NBA’s white-majority fans and management as dangerously masculine, Westbrook’s style could be viewed by both white and black audiences as not masculine enough. [9] While there are elements of gender-bending to Iverson’s style, [10] Westbrook’s gender-bending is more direct and intentional. Westbrook’s penchant for skinny jeans, pants, and leggings paired with elongated tees, drape-y tops, and ponchos creates a series of dress-like, androgynous silhouettes. Confirming and expanding this gender ambiguity, Westbrook’s second and third capsule collections for Barneys explicitly courted a unisex audience, as Westbrook himself explains in an October 2016 interview with Emily Zemler for Esquire: “We definitely had a conversation after the first collection to be able to make something that’s unisex and be able to style it for both men and women. I think that's a good thing.” [11] The collection’s advertising, as tweeted out by Westbrook in September 2015, confirms this intent, with Russ specifically highlighting a set of camo green Public School tanks and tees made of jersey and see-through mesh modelled by headless, gender ambiguous bodies. [12] As documented by Erica Euse of, Westbrook wore the same mesh tee at that year’s New York Fashion Week. [13]

In interviews, Westbrook additionally prides himself on the experimentalism and diversity of his style; reportedly, he never wears the same outfit twice, and spends at least $300,000 a year on clothes. [14] GQ magazine’s online gallery of every outfit Westbrook wore during the 2016 playoffs [15] is a testament to this experimentalism, showing Westbrook wearing such ensembles as: pinstriped denim overalls over a star-patterned Givenchy polo shirt topped with an Armani fedora; an Honorable Mention poncho paired with cropped and tapered black sweatpants and sockless white rubber-soled oxfords; a black silk tunic and distressed jeans by Ovadia & Sons finished with zebra-striped ankle boots; and a vivid orange Vetements oversized T-shirt with LongJourney khakis and all-white Ferragamo sneakers. This gallery of images also emphasizes the theatricality of Westbrook’s outfits, which often advertise moods or messages (as in the case of the all-black-everything he wore to each elimination game) or defy explanation (as in the case of the Mighty Ducks jersey he sported for Game 4 of the Western Conference Semifinals, tagged with the never-explained nickname “The Brodie” that Russ apparently shares with both his brother and his Maltese [16]).

Significantly, excluding magazine photoshoots in which he doesn’t style himself, the one thing Westbrook almost never wears is a suit. [17]. As Anne Hollander discusses throughout her seminal book Sex and Suits, through its squaring and streamlining of the body and in its relative consistency, the modern men’s suit presents a vision of masculinity that is timeless and profitably invisible. In contrast, modern women’s fashion, which remains male-dominated on the design side and highly susceptible to trends and momentary fantasies, helps situate women as objects of display and perpetuates very old stereotypes about women being addicts or dupes of consumer culture. Consequently, especially when compared with the suit-heavy, African American Gentleman’s Movement-inspired styles favored by much of the NBA in the immediate wake of the 2005 dress code, Westbrook’s experimental, theatrical style and near-total rejection of suits represents another way in which his style can be viewed as connotatively feminine.

Importantly, though, Westbrook’s style resists the usual consequences of femininity, most notably objectification, and its attendant loss of agency. Although Westbrook certainly opens himself up to objectification, he consistently asserts a sense of personal control over his style, and subsequently, his image. He does this explicitly by tagging his outfits on social media as #nostylistneeded, and implicitly through the aforementioned diversity of his references, as well as his eclectic combination of high and low-cost items and his practice of cutting up his own shirts and jeans. In a June 2015 interview for Women’s Wear Daily, Westbrook suggests that his high-low combinations are a deliberate effort to encourage his fans to embrace fashion as a form of personal empowerment. Says Westbrook: “I shop at Zara, I shop at Topshop, I shop at H&M. I shop everywhere. Barneys. That’s the nature. The good thing about me is I just don’t shop high-end. I mix and match, from top to bottom. I find ways to make things affordable. If the kids want the looks, they can be able to go afford it.” [18] Westbrook’s sports-honed body also, of course, advertises connotatively masculine forms of power and agency; that see-through Public School tee looks considerably more gender ambiguous hanging from the lean body of the model in the Barneys catalogue than it does stretched around Westbrook’s broad shoulders and slab-like pecs.


Consequences of the Revolution

Westbrook’s style is additionally empowering in the ways it interacts with the dress code. Many of Westbrook’s early looks, including the bold-colored and graphic-patterned items he wore during the 2012 Finals, challenged but didn’t quite reject the code; while the code stipulates players must wear “dress jeans” and “collared dress shirts,” it doesn’t specify whether those jeans and shirts can be bright red or feature polka dots or cheetah spots. Westbrook’s first collaboration with Jordan Brand similarly challenged the code. Whereas the first shoe of every other Jordan Brand athlete was a court shoe, Westbrook’s first shoe, the Westbrook 0, released in the summer of 2015, was a lifestyle shoe—a high top, flat-soled sneaker that has since been released in multiple colors and textures, from blue suede to white snakeskin. Even as it cleverly reflected and exploited Westbrook’s by then well-known interest in fashion, the Westbrook 0 tested the limits of the code by being a “dress shoe” that resembled a “court shoe,” and specifically, a famous court shoe: the Air Jordan XI that Michael Jordan wore in the 1996 film Space Jam. [19] Westbrook’s more recent outfits, such as the self-torn teal Patagonia tank top, also-self-torn, knee-less black skinny jeans, red sockless Keds, and red bandana headband that he wore to Game 3 of the Western Conference Semifinals in 2016, reject the dress code altogether, and dare the NBA to respond (which, so far, it hasn’t done). [20] In a related vein, numerous press conferences demonstrate Westbrook’s ability to use his knowledge of fashion to disrupt the sports media’s preferred narratives. At the 2017 All-Star Game, for instance, Westbrook deflected every inquiry about his supposed feud with ex-teammate Kevin Durant with laconic observations about the new spring collections and questions about the reporters’ outfits and style preferences.

Claims that Westbrook privileges individual glory (or image) above teamwork (or victory) do sound suspiciously similar to what is perhaps the most common criticism of both the practice and the study of fashion—namely, that it privileges style above substance.

Some of the unease about the NBA style revolution has lessened as it had gotten more widespread, and as it has become more accepted by sports media stalwarts such as Sports Illustrated and ESPN, both of which currently release annual style magazines showcasing and ranking the world’s most fashionable athletes. [21] The NBA itself has even taken significant, if somewhat tentative, steps to embrace the revolution. Although, a league-sanctioned website dedicated to celebrating the style of both players and fans, was discontinued in 2016, and the fashion show during the 2015 All-Star Weekend was a one-off event, the newly minted NBA Awards did feature a red carpet as well as a fan-voted award for Best Style (which Westbrook won handily).

But even as it’s become increasingly unfashionable to openly scoff at professional athletes’ interest in fashion, lingering unease with Westbrook’s style has arguably gone underground, and become woven into critiques of his playing style. Westbrook has long been dogged by charges of selfishness, backed up by “advanced metrics” that seem to prove his inefficiency. During the 2015/16 season, in which Westbrook achieved the once-seemingly-impossible feat of averaging a triple-double for the first time since Oscar Robertson’s 1961/62 campaign while also breaking Robertson’s record for most triple-doubles in a season, a new charge emerged: that Russ was guilty of padding his stats, and even depriving his teammates to help himself. As Royce Young summarizes in a January 2017 blog post for the ESPN affiliate, “It’s been a conversation for a lot of this season with Russell Westbrook, about how he’s getting his triple-double average and if his numbers are inflated or lack authenticity, somehow.” Rob Arthur’s article “Is Russell Westbrook a Rebound Thief?” published by Slate in January 2017, exemplifies this trend. Arthur’s article questions whether Westbrook’s triple-double average is as impressive as it seems, because he may get help from his teammates, and because “there is no ironclad statistical evidence that Westbrook grabbing the defensive board helps the Thunder offense in any way.” Admittedly, it’s impossible to definitively prove that Westbrook’s off-court style has influenced this line of criticism. Yet claims that Westbrook privileges individual glory (or image) above teamwork (or victory) do sound suspiciously similar to what is perhaps the most common criticism of both the practice and the study of fashion—namely, that it privileges style above substance.


Additional Contexts: The Fashion Industry

The fashion industry has demonstrated considerably less hesitation embracing Westbrook’s style, seeing in his combination of creative self-expression and hard-bodied masculinity a golden opportunity to situate—and ultimately sell—men’s fashion as a marker and purveyor of individuality, power, and authenticity. That GQ—which often features NBA players on its covers and has an NBA style portal on its website—has been at the forefront of this embrace is unsurprising. According to David Coad, “GQ pioneered giving coverage to sports celebrities as part of a conscious editorial decision to try to attract young heterosexual consumers.” [22] “Athletes,” argues Coad, have long interested the New York fashion world “because of their perceived heteronormativity. The very fact that they were sportsmen seemed to imply hypermasculinity and unquestionable heterosexuality.” [23] In other words, the fashion industry, and GQ in particular, has a history of exploiting professional athletes as symbols of “authentic” masculinity, who are immune to, or at least shielded from, popular perceptions of fashion as a feminine or feminizing pursuit. Daniel Riley’s GQ profile of Westbrook from October 2016 clearly participates in this trend. Though Riley’s profile is interspersed with photographs of Westbrook posing in colorful items by Balmain, Saint Laurent, Tom Ford, and Valentino, fashion is only discussed for a small fraction of the piece, and not until more than halfway through it. The entire first half of Riley’s article instead focuses on Westbrook’s on-court style, using adjectives and phrases that unsubtly emphasize Westbrook’s strength, intensity, and endurance, and thus, his authentic masculinity. Here is a sampling of Riley’s prose: “Today, Westbrook is regarded by many to be the most athletic player in the NBA. He defends tirelessly—with speed, but especially with strength’; “On offense, Westbrook probes and penetrates with the classic speed of a point guard, but he rebounds with the elevation and body force of a power forward. He’s a running back that tackles like a linebacker”; “his arms are so heavily scarred by short, sharp cuts they look as though they’ve been subject to cross-hatching.”

Westbrook’s inaugural True Religion ad campaign similarly emphasizes and exploits his ready-made combination of creative self-expression and authentic masculinity. This 30-second spot advertising the brand’s Spring 2015 collection shows Westbrook wearing a shifting assortment of denim-heavy True Religion styles while strutting through an also-shifting series of Oklahoman landscapes, from railway tracks wending through an empty plain, down a skyscraper-filled downtown street, along a neon-lit sports area hallway, and finally onto a basketball court, where Russ stares stone-faced into a throng of flashing cameras wearing dark sunglasses and a black long-sleeved T-shirt emblazoned with a glowingly white number 0. These is a lot going on in this deceptively simple ad. First, the decision to feature Oklahoman landscapes mobilizes the ultimate masculine American symbol—that of the cowboy on the frontier. This setting also highlights Westbrook’s loyalty and authentic connection with the first and only NBA team he’s ever played for, [24] a narrative that gained additional traction among fans and many influential sports media personalities [25] following Durant’s defection to rival powerhouse the Golden State Warriors (a team that’s located in the San Francisco Bay Area, whose association with the arts and technology offers a convenient ideological contrast to Oklahoma’s more traditionally masculine frontier). Perhaps this ad’s most striking symbol of authenticity, however, is Westbrook’s sports-honed, emphatically masculine body, which is generously revealed midway through the ad when Russ smoothly and carelessly strips off his white undershirt without so much as a break in his cooly determined stride. 

The fact that this emphatically masculine and obviously erotic body also happens to be a black body cannot be ignored.

The fact that this emphatically masculine and obviously erotic body also happens to be a black body cannot be ignored. As Coad observes, “Because black bodies have historically tended to be read as representing deviance, exposing the black body to a predominantly white gaze and eroticizing the black body can evoke or encourage a ‘dick thing’ sexual fantasy,” in which the supposedly inherent hypermasculinity and hypersexuality of black men is desirable, but also dangerous, and implicitly animalistic. [26] Certainly, the True Religion ad’s presentation of Westbrook’s body as symbolizing both authenticity and risqué sexuality (as connoted by the dangerously low waistband of Russ’ jeans and the careless and public nature of his partial nudity), suggests this possibility. Arguably, though, the ad’s emphasis on Westbrook’s multiplicity and mobility distinguishes it from some of the fashion industry’s other notable exploitations of the bodies of black male athletes, including Vanity Fair’s King-Kong themed cover from April 2008 starring LeBron James. Whereas the “modern primitive” imagery of Vanity Fair’s LeBron cover was seen by many cultural critics as “perpetuating offensive and derogatory stereotyping of African American males,” [27] Westbrook’s True Religion ad emphasizes a combination of natural (or authentic) cool, as represented by Westbrook’s confident and unchanging strut across the plain and into the city and the limelight, and modern (or postmodern) adaptability, as represented by Westbrook’s ability to shift as quickly as the landscape and experiment with unconventional combinations, including the pairing of rock-hard muscles and torn jeans with large, thick-framed glasses.

It's also important to note that Westbrook’s True Religion ad isn’t just mortgaging his status as a premier athlete. Because the outfits Westbrook wears in the ad mimic those he was known to wear before it, the ad is also mortgaging Westbrook’s status as a stylish athlete—that is, someone who’s known not just for his body or athletic skill, but also his creative vision. Westbrook’s official title with True Religion further evinces the brand’s ambition to tap into his authenticity as a style icon as well as an athlete. Westbrook is not a spokesperson, or even a Brand Ambassador for True Religion; instead, he is a Marketing Creative Director. Although this title doesn’t erase or excuse the potentially problematic objectification of Westbrook’s body, it might represent a new way of combating it; alternatively (or concurrently), it might represent a new way of justifying it.


Final Thoughts

In the end, the best proof of Westbrook’s ability to control his own image may be his ability to actively break the NBA dress code without so much as a finger wag from league officials. The inevitable question is: why not? Why haven’t league officials cracked down on Westbrook’s ever-more-flagrant dress code violations, and instead looked on smilingly as Russ, wearing a relatively demure ensemble that nonetheless included polka dot pants, sockless suede loafers and round, green-tinted glasses, hoisted both the Best Style Award and the Maurice Podoloff Trophy at the recent NBA Awards? One factor may be mainstream American society’s gradual but increasing acceptance of black culture, [28] which has coincided with the NBA’s growing willingness to address, and allow its players to address, racial and other social justice issues. [29] It’s also possible, however, that Westbrook’s style is allowed for the simple reason that it doesn’t frighten white audiences the same way Iverson’s did. As Glyn Hughes observes, “the NBA is marketed and managed with a specific, in often tacit, goal of making Black men safe for (White) consumers in the interest of profit.” [30] Even though Westbrook’s style is certainly indebted to hip hop traditions involving remixing, improvisation, and the triumphal individualism of “not giving a fuck,” [31] his decision to shun the black-owned and identified labels favored by the Iverson generation, as well as his many partnerships with white-run companies aimed primarily at middle and upper-class white customers, sends a message that he is willing to situate himself within white institutions, and make himself intelligible and consumable for white audiences.

This is the ultimate conundrum of Westbrook’s style: on the one hand, Westbrook’s style seems to represent a step back from the politicized, separatist blackness of the Iverson generation. In many respects, even though his style annoys some and confuses others, Westbrook seems to have more in common with what Boyd calls the “establishment figure” of 1990s-era Michael Jordan, who “became an acceptable black media icon who transcended cultural barriers around the globe” by offering “an image that was potentially appealing to multiple parties simultaneously.” [32] On the other hand, however, in a more sophisticated and focused way than 90s-era Jordan did or was compelled to do, Westbrook is crafting a style that subverts on as many levels as it capitulates; in effect, Westbrook is selling diverse audiences a version of creative self-expression that’s simultaneously gender-bending and authentically masculine, and which is grounded both in and against white attempts to police black self-expression.

I don’t know whether it’s possible to keep track of all these competing meanings without eventually getting lost, or at least a bit dizzy. But having witnessed Westbrook sink a contested 30-foot buzzer-beating game winner the same night he broke The Big O’s once-unbreakable triple-double record and convince me, however briefly, that I might enjoy wearing glasses, I know he’s more than capable of the impossible. I’m also very sure he doesn’t care what I think.



[1] An L.A. Times’ Lakers Now blog post featuring an interview with the “white hot” photoshoot’s stylist provides a useful summary of the sports media’s adverse reactions. See “Stylist “Discusses Kobe Bryant’s L.A. Times Magazine’s Photo Shoot,” Lakers Now Blog, May 3, 2010, accessed June 28, 2017,

[2] This piece’s uncertain level of sarcasm could be read as a manifestation of uncertainty surrounding how the sports media should report on the fashion-forward style of Westbrook and others without alienating the fans who seem to be divided about it; this piece’s variable tone allows it to include both those readers who hate Westbrook’s style and those who may like it.

[3] Todd Boyd, Young, Black, Rich & Famous (New York: Doubleday, 2003), 149-160.

[4] Quoted in Phillip Lamarr Cunningham, “‘Please Don’t Fine Me Again!!!!!’: Black Athletic Defiance in the NBA and NFL,” Journal of Sport & Social Issues 33.1 (2009), 44.

[5] Stacy L. Lorenz and Rod Murray, “‘Goodbye to the Gangstas’: The NBA Dress Code, Ray Emery, and the Policing of Blackness in Basketball and Hockey,” Journal of Sport & Social Issues 38.1 (2014), 24.

[6] Lorenz and Murray, “‘Goodbye to the Gangstas,’” 24.

[7] Cunningham, “‘Please Don’t Fine Me Again!!!!!” 40.

[8] David J. Leonard, “The Real Color of Money: Controlling Black Bodies in the NBA,” Journal of Sport & Social Issues. 30.2 (2006), 176.

[9] Historically, white culture and black culture have both invested in the idea of black hypermasculinity, but have done so in different ways, and for different reasons. As Cassandra Jackson describes, white culture has often portrayed black men as “virile, over-sexed, and menacing” to justify fears surrounding black sexuality and to substantiate racist claims that blacks are somehow “closer to nature.” See Cassandra Jackson, Violence, Visual Culture, and the Black Male Body (New York, Routledge, 2011), 4. Conversely, what bell hooks describes as moments of “[r]adical militant resistance” within black culture, typified by the black power movements of the 1960s and 70s that clearly inspired the gangsta rap generation, have often “called out of the shadow of repression the black male body, claiming it as a site of hypermasculine power, agency, and sexual potency.” See bell hooks, “Feminism Inside: Toward a Black Male Body Politic,” in Black Male: Representations of Masculinity in Contemporary Art, ed. Thelma Golden (New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1994), 128.

[10] Discussing a 1998 profile of Iverson that appeared in Sports Illustrated, David Coad observes that Iverson’s descriptions of a teenagerhood spent fantasizing with his mother about buying diamond jewelry “could almost be lifted from a Liberace biography.” See David Coad, The Metrosexual: Gender, Sexuality, and Sport (New York: SUNY Press, 2008), 128.

[11] A potential limit point to Westbrook’s gender-bending emerges in this interview when Westbrook is asked whether he ever wears women’s clothes, and he replies with a definitive, “I do not.” This denial does not, however, mean that Westbrook shuns unisex clothes; on the contrary, Westbrook’s denial could be read as a refutation of the concept of explicitly gendered fashion. 

[12] Adam Kaufman, “The Russell Westbrook x Public School x Barneys Collection,” Hoop Blog, September 16, 2015, accessed June 28, 2017,

[13] Erica Euse, “Russell Westbrook Unveils a Piece from the Westbrook XO Barneys New York X Public School Collaboration,”, September 14, 2015, accessed June 28, 2017,

[14] Royce Young, “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Russell Westbrook But Were Afraid to Ask,”, May 24, 2016, accessed June 28, 2017,

[15] Jake Woolf, “Every Outfit Russell Westbrook Has Worn During the 2016 NBA Playoffs,” GQ, accessed June 28, 2017,

[16] Young, “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Russell Westbrook But Were Afraid to Ask.”

[17] Though Westbrook did wear a suit to the 2017 NBA Awards at which he received his MVP trophy, he was never seen wearing the complete ensemble; Westbrook arrived on the red carpet with his suit jacket off, and kept it off for the duration of the ceremony and post-ceremony press conference.

[18] Khanh T.L. Tran, “Russell Westbrook on Style Advice,” Women’s Wear Daily. June 24, 2015, accessed June 28, 2017,

[19] Zack Schlemmer, “Yes, Russell Westbrook’s New Shoe is Inspired in Part by the Air Jordan 11,”, July 13, 2015, accessed June 28, 2017,

[20] The current status of the NBA dress code is apparently a closely guarded secret. When Slam magazine contacted league officials about the status of the code in May 2016 in response to one of Westbrook’s outfits that seemed to break virtually all of its rules, they were told the code was still in effect, though without any explanation as to why Westbrook’s violations were not penalized. See Ben Osborne, “The NBA Dress Code is Nonsense,”, May 10, 2016, accessed June 28, 2017,

[21] ESPN launched an annual style issue in 2011. In 2016, Sports Illustrated debuted a similar franchise, “The Fashionable 50,” an annual, collectible magazine ranking the 50 most fashionable athletes. In the inaugural “Fashionable 50,” Westbrook was ranked #2.

[22] Coad, The Metrosexual, 40.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Though Westbrook was technically drafted by the Seattle SuperSonics, the Sonics were re-located to Oklahoma City and renamed the Thunder six days later.

[25] For instance, on SportsCentre, The Ringer-founder Stephen A. Smith’s described Durant’s decision to join Golden State as “the weakest move I’ve ever seen from a superstar.” See “Stephen A. Smith Reacts to Kevin Durant Signing with the Warriors,”, July 4, 2016, accessed June 28, 2017,

[26] Coad, The Metrosexual, 141.

[27] Ibid., 137.

[28] Of course, this acceptance should not be confused with major institutional change, and continues to be met with intense resistance, as ongoing scandals surrounding police shootings of black men and the resurgence of White Supremacist groups ably demonstrates.

[29] Some examples of this new willingness to address social justice issues include: the NBA’s 2014 decision to remove and ban Clippers owner Donald T. Sterling following the revelation of a tape in which Sterling could be heard uttering a racial slur; the participation of LeBron James, Chris Paul, Carmelo Anthony, and Dwyane Wade in a speech at the 2016 ESPY Awards referencing the fatal police shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile and calling for an end to racialized violence; and the NBA’s decision to move the 2017 All-Star Game out of Charlotte, North Carolina in response to the state’s House Bill 2 limiting anti-discrimination protections for LGBT individuals.

[30] Quoted in Lorenz and Murray, “‘Goodbye to the Gangstas,’” 27.

[31] Boyd, Young, Black, Rich & Famous, 156.

[32] Ibid., 152.

Safe Spaces of Desire: Advertisements in the Nineteenth-Century Fashion Press of Berlin, Paris, and New York

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Appropriation and Legacy: A Recent History of Vetements

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