‘Empire’ makes a fashion statement about the evolution of hip-hop
From the moment it premiered, self-consciously populated with lounging pajamas, hooker furs, and animal-printed everything, Fox’s hip-hop drama ‘‘Empire’’ has used fashion as entertainment, plot point, back story, and weapon.
No dress is too tight or fur too fabulously garish for Cookie Lyon to wear into the offices of Empire Entertainment. She has thrown her heels in anger; her hat has been toppled and proudly righted in an raucous elevator altercation. Meanwhile, no silk scarf gets past the show’s patriarch, Lucious Lyon — played by Terrence Howard. He was even wearing a paisley scarf and a dapper newsboy cap when he shot his longtime friend, Bunkie, in the face. A thug in gentleman’s attire.
The show is a fashion delight. But it is also an assessment of the public face of hip-hop, clothing as class and style as identity.
‘‘Empire’’ details the story of Lyon, a hip-hop mogul with the problems of King Lear: Which of his three sons will take over his business now that he has been diagnosed with ALS? The show is populated with a warring cast of characters who represent the full spectrum of hip-hop — from the street-tough world of shady entrepreneurs to corporate behemoths powered by MBAs prepping for an IPO. The clothes reflect that breadth, as well as the tension that exists between the past, present, and whatever wealth the future may bring.
It’s hard not to compare the fictional characters with the real-life men and women whose lives have traversed similar terrain. Through numerous flashbacks, the audience learns that Lucious spent the greater part of the 1990s as a struggling rapper working the illegal drug trade with his hair tied up under a do-rag. Now, he has a smooth pompadour, a bank account overflowing with money, and a Gustav Klimt painting in his estate’s foyer.
Taraji P. Henson in "The Devil Quotes Scripture" episode.In the board room, he manages to tamp down his instincts for the flamboyant flourish in the same way that he has learned to contain or outsource — although not always — his gangster impulses. Audiences see him wheeling and dealing in dark suits — but with a floral tie or a rainbow-hued pocket square. Just enough dazzle to set him apart from the lawyers and bean counters and to remind them all that he is not one of them. Close, but not exactly. The business world is full of circling sharks, but Lucious takes going for the kill, literally.
His style is not effortlessly cool. It is studied and particular. Lucious is a man who notices the details. He did not arrive at this apex without watching his back, his reputation, and the just-so lay of his hair.
Cookie, played with a smooth roar by Taraji P. Henson, just finished 17 years in prison for drug dealing. She struts onto the screen wearing a tight leopard-print dress, a white fur coat, monster hoop earrings, and a slick ponytail that sits high on her head and swishes down her back — as if her cell block had a beautician on call. Cookie looks a bit like Mary J. Blige circa mid-’90s, when ghetto fabulousness was making waves in the fashion industry and everyone from Gucci to Chanel took a bite out of the trend.
Her middle son, Jamal — the creative, gay one whose sexuality serves the plot — asks the question that begs to be asked: What gives with the clothes? It allows Cookie to explain not just the current ensemble, but her entire sense of aesthetics — and maybe a bit about her state of mind: She was wearing what she wore into prison. But even when she walks into the light, and eventually into a department store, she never gives up her allegiance to a look that firmly connects her to her past and to herself.
She does not evoke Hollywood glamour, Upper East Side wealth, or an indeterminate international savoir faire. Her style evokes the brash, attention-grabbing honesty that has its roots among the striving class. Her clothes say money; she wears limo heels; and she has a smart mouth to equal a quick brain. She is still ghetto fabulous — the 2015 version.
One could almost watch ‘‘Empire’’ on mute and just by looking at the characters’ attire understand where they fit on the continuum and the demons with which they are struggling.
‘‘Empire’’ depicts the inevitable — but not necessarily admirable — shift in aesthetics as folks move up the economic ladder as well as the social one. Lucious has dumped the faded jeans and sneakers and styled himself in business suits and silk scarves. Cops stand at attention when he walks into a jailhouse; the president takes his call. But now he’s just a thug with better tailoring.
‘‘Empire’’ is not subtle in its use of fashion. Luscious’s pinstripes and Glen plaids dance onscreen. Cookie’s tight, printed dresses barely reach to mid-thigh. But in the flashy furnishings, the pearls, silk scarves, gold chains, and the designer evening gowns, audiences have a close-up view of all the insecurities, posturing, affection, and fear that swirl at the surface of an American dream.