There’s an old VHS-C tape sitting in an old box in an old storage unit somewhere in Tulare, Cali. — a city that sits right in-between Bakersfield and Fresno. The city’s claim to fame is that it hosts the world’s agricultural show every year and once landed on Forbes’ list of worst cities to raise a family. Suffice to say; there’s not much to do in Tulare, which is why, on that VHS-C tape, sitting in a box in a storage unit in Tulare, there is a grainy recording of Davion Bruce, Dhevin Williams, Fernando Gonzales and myself playing basketball on eight-foot rims at Frank Kahn Elementary school.
We all lived within three blocks of each other, and when the summer days didn’t peak over 110 degrees, we’d make the trek to Kahn, set up our Sony camcorder on a turned-over trash can and play the kind of basketball we learned from NBA Jam. We shot a lot of threes and tried to dunk on each other whenever possible. We’d go home, dirty as hell, and watch those tapes.
If you happen to find yourself opening a dusty box in some dusty storage space in the dusty city of Tulare, pop in that VHS-C tape and rewind it all the way to the beginning. There were always intros before the games started, and no matter how hot it was, the intros included us in warm-ups so that we could rip off our adidas tear-away pants as someone from the other team made a terrible joke as he introduced you.
“Standing at 5-foot-9 and 27 pounds,” Davion would begin as I started to get off the bench. “The captain of the chess team — Phillip Barnett.”
As everyone laughed, I’d rip off my sweats and wave to the crowd that only existed in our minds. Ripping those pants off fit the general tone of our group — it was fun and whimsical and almost cool, but close enough to fit into the sub-culture it represented. We weren’t necessarily outcasts, but there were elements to the way we approached high school that were outcast-y.
We were ostensibly Tulare’s tear away pants, and every once in awhile our coaches and teachers and parents wanted to tear us out of their lives, but as frustrating as it is, they kept buttoning us back up.
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The ’90s feel like they happened forever ago. The decade is what nostalgia is supposed to be, and its influence is found oozing out of contemporary hip-hop and hoops culture.
The movies and television and music of the era give us a snapshot of how things looked and felt and moved for 10 weird years. Different national regions had different interpretations of what we should look like or how music should sound or what technologies we should adapt to, but there were some trends that transcended geography with a different kind of ubiquity than what exists now in the Internet era. Every once in a while, the country would discover something so quirky it became bigger than its intended function.
In the ’90s, America discovered adidas breakaway – or tearaway depending on what part of the country you were from – pants.
They’re track pants, but with buttons. They’re athletic wear, but not for playing.
“The breakaway pants had this kitsch factor,” said Jian DeLeon, the senior male wears editor at WGSN. “I mean, when you look at the ’90s, you had Heelys and rollerblades and Soaps Shoes. It was just an era characterized by this gimmicky corniness that resonated with the American people. You know, it was pre-internet time. If you shove something in the people’s faces, whether it’s a Tamagotchi, Furby, or that Tickle Me Elmo, people are going to vouch for it because it was different enough from the established norm.”
Moving away from the status quo is essentially how adidas built its brand — and the track suit is one of the innovations that still permeate pop-fashion today. It all began in 1967 when adidas collaborated with German soccer star Franz Beckenbauer. It was the first time adidas moved into the apparel game. In an ad from that late-’60s campaign, you see Beckenbauer sitting in a crisp red and white tracksuit with the iconic three stripes racing down his limbs. He’s seated on the pitch tying the laces of what looks like an early version of what would become adidas shell toed classics.
It’s an aspirational look — athletic wear with a nice wrist watch. Albeit unintentional, Beckenbauer would set the tone for future generations of fashion-forward athletes in a single image.
While the tracksuit would take on many iterations from myriad brands over the next two decades, it wouldn’t see a huge crossover into pop culture until Run-DMC raised the popularity of both adidas and the tracksuit. The duo’s song “My Adidas” was an unsolicited anthem toting the inherent value of a brand to those who came from, at the very least, the streets of New York. While Run-DMC and adidas would form a partnership after the song was recorded for the Raising Hell album, the rap group helped embed track suits into black culture along with their shell toed shoes with no laces and gold chains.
Run-DMC legitimized the tracksuit for a part of America that was largely dismissed during the ’80s, which helped usher in some of the wild trends of the ’90s.
“We was going through Detroit, through Boston, through Chicago, through LA, through Virginia; every city we went to on the Raising Hell Tour, we would look out the back of the tour bus and everybody had the Adidas [track] suits from head to toe,” said Darryl McDaniels to MTV in 2011. Run-DMC gave the tracksuit an inherent coolness that permitted throughout the rest of the decade, so how did we get to the quirky tearaway pants of the ’90s?
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The NBA and hip-hop have always shared a special bond. There’s this ‘rappers want to be ball players, and ball players want to be rappers’ ethos that’s passed down from one generation to the next. The list of NBA players who have dabbled with rapping is endless. Damian Lillard just dropped an album a few months ago while Kevin Durant has a history of recording and making beats with rapper and once NBA hopeful Dave East. Allen Iverson and Shaquille O’Neal both dropped albums while Kobe Bryant recorded a single with Tyra Banks. On the hip-hop side, Cam’ron and Mase both played ball in New York; Master P had NBA tryouts while Common and Bow Wow made movies that featured themselves ball players.
Because they run in some of the same circles, there is a lot of crossover between street and athletic wear.
“The NBA has always been the most fashion conscious and stylish of the big four sports leagues, so it wasn’t surprising that they adopted a trendy item,” said Megan Ann Wilson, fashion blogger, and NBA stylist. “I remember seeing tearaway pants in the NBA and thinking how amazing and dramatic it looked. It felt like a great way to start the game — from warm-ups to all business.”
There was a playful element in the warmups to business game. Watching NBA All-Stars rip the pants off of each other during pre-game warmups made them feel like they were just like us. Jordan did it to Penny; Penny did it to Mutumbo a year later. It was a small fraternity of guys who hadn’t grown out of the high school pranks we were still pulling during our lunch hour. The ’90s, with all of the decade’s gaudiness, had a way of humanizing even the most out of reach aspirational figures. For a brief moment, we could do the things MJ did, have a quick laugh and go about our days.
The tearaway pants were a bit baggier than the regular tracksuit, so that helped bridge the gap between 90s hip-hop and athletic fashion. Although the sound across the country was wildly different, the one thing that united hip-hop from the east to the west, from the south to the midwest was this spirit about the culture that all but demanded baggy clothes.
“In terms of sports wear, it skewed very baggy,” says DeLeon on ’90s athletic wear. “There was definitely benefit with the hip hop influence with the rappers at the time. Athletic wear influenced streetwear because of the prominence of the NBA style and how rappers at the time still sort of dressed pretty similar.”
While there weren’t a plethora of rappers rocking the tear away sweats, there was a tight-knit aesthetic ideology between the way ball players and rappers dressed. The baggy clothes, the bright colors, the gaudiness — it was all a way to show off who you were as an individual while still belonging to a very particular subculture. Damage and disruption defined the decade, and there was little more damaging and disruptive than tearing your trousers in half in front of thousands of people.
While warmups had been a part of the NBA since the Red Auerbach, the breakaway sweats were an anti-traditional energy that stands alone as a decade-defining institution. They weren’t particularly innovative, but they captured the zeitgeist of the country’s mood.
According to DeLeon, “you can’t show them now without having that connotation of that specific era in time because of the way we perceived trends back then and the way that they were clicking through the public consciousness. It became this very indicative silhouette of a particular time.”
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While the tearaway sweats exist solely as a ’90s fashion statement, they’re still around today. NBA teams still use them for pre-game warm up gear, but high-end fashion brands have created their own iterations, and it’s not surprising to Wilson.
“Fashion is cyclical – look at the ’80s – bodysuits and leggings and the whole jazzercize aesthetic,” Wilson said. “That became adopted heavily in women’s fashion. While the mix of minimal silhouettes and luxe fabrics like velvet were decidedly 90’s trends that are now back again in style. It’s a combination of the ever ongoing trend cycle of fashion along with this Instagram generation of wanting to be fit, cozy and casual.”
For some of us, it harkens us back to a more simple time. A time where the clothes you wore represented something about who you were or who you could become. We wore break away sweats to break away from the status quo, to do our own thing in a town where there was nothing to do.
Tearaway pants will only exist in your life as much or as little as you want them to, even if it means on a dusty VHS-C tape, in a dusty box, in a dusty storage unit, in the dusty middle of nowhere.