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TheStarburstChannel via YouTube
TheStarburstChannel via YouTube

A Brief History of M.C. Hammer's Pants

TheStarburstChannel via YouTube
TheStarburstChannel via YouTube

Don’t call them parachute pants. "I detest the term," Stanley Kirk Burrell, better known by his stage name of M.C. Hammer, told Racked in 2016. "They’re called Hammer pants."

As a colloquial term, Hammer is correct. Since breaking on to the hip-hop scene in 1990 with the chart-topping tune "U Can’t Touch This," the performer has been synonymous with the flashy pants—billowy trousers that droop in the crotch and taper to the lower leg—and has inspired many fashion designers and fellow recording artists.

While Hammer has done more to entrench the pants in the public's consciousness than virtually anyone, he was not exactly their originator. Harem pants, parachute pants, or his preferred term of "Hammer pants" all have origins that can be traced back to the mid-19th century, with a radical feminist movement and the fashion sense found within Swiss sanitariums.

Although baggy, voluminous trousers initially appeared in Persia, India, and Turkey thousands of years ago, the most direct lineage of today's Hammer pants may have started with women who began insisting on more practical garments in the 1800s.

In the Victorian era, women’s fashions were rather restrictive, with tight belts, bodices, and corsets squeezing their bodies. When a New York socialite/women's rights activist named Elizabeth Smith Miller traveled to Switzerland in the mid-1800s, she noticed that patients in sanitariums favored baggy pants worn under shortened dresses that made exercising and moving around easier. When Miller returned, she spread the word; so did fashion magazines and other forms of media that further popularized the idea of loose-fitting trousers.

Amelia Bloomer—editor of The Lily, America's first newspaper created for and by women—was an early advocate for this unconventional method of dress. Writing of the "freedom dress" in her own magazine, Bloomer (who inspired the term "bloomers") encouraged women to wear pants that didn’t bind the legs and to comment on the gender disparity between men's and women's fashions.

For the latter reason, these "Turkish Trousers" never fully caught on: Some women simply didn't feel comfortable emulating a man's attire. It wasn’t until 1911, when fashion icon Paul Poiret introduced a version of the pants dubbed "harem" trousers, that women were once again intrigued by the freedom of movement they allowed.

The pants enjoyed sporadic revivals over the next several decades, but their next major fashion wave wouldn’t occur until Burrell decided he needed to stand out on stage.

Born in Oakland, California in 1962, the future M.C. Hammer had designs on playing major league baseball before being seduced by the performing arts. Going to discos in the late 1970s, he discovered that it was easy to capture attention with his fluid dance moves—which he accentuated by buying triple-pleated zoot suit bottoms that were so large they drew an audience all their own.

"The looser the pants, the more accentuated your dancing becomes," Hammer told The New York Times in 2008.

Eventually, the discos gave way to club dates—then to a record contract. In 1990, Hammer was being dubbed one of Entertainment Weekly's "Entertainers of the Year" and managed to move more than 8 million copies of his album, Please Hammer, Don't Hurt ‘'m.

Hammer's popularity gave him the financial means to have his own outlandish harem pants custom-made, and they became touchstones of his music videos, live performances, and contribution to fashion. Vanilla Ice, who was garnering his own fame at roughly the same time as Hammer, once boasted that his record label paid him $1 million to wear Hammer pants during a show.

"You can make a fashion statement," Hammer told ABC News in 2009 of his penchant for loose-fitting pants. "You can move in 'em. You can dance in 'em ... and it gives you freedom of movement. It's a slight delay. You move, and then the pants move, so it brings a nice little flair."

Eventually, Hammer's flair pants went the way of Steve Urkel, slap bracelets, and other '90s fads—though they've made periodic reappearances, both in parodies (like Hammer’s recent Starburst commercials) and in prominent fashion collections from the likes of Dior and Burberry. They were also seen in a video from 1992 that made the rounds last year featuring the otherwise fashion-conscious Ryan Gosling appearing on what he recalled was “some kind of Canadian Star Search.”

"I don't think we gave that [style of] pant enough of a shot," Gosling said during an appearance on The Graham Norton Show. "We gave up with M.C. Hammer, but we should have kept them going."

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The Unkindest Cut: A Short History of the Mullet
Peter Parks, AFP/Getty Images
Peter Parks, AFP/Getty Images

Jerry Seinfeld wore it on primetime television for nine years. Brad Pitt thinks his career got off the ground because he wore one to his Thelma & Louise audition. Peter Dinklage’s high school photo went viral as a direct result of the bold choice.

For all of these men and millions of others, the mullet has had profound and lasting effects on their lives. Famously described as being “business in the front, party in the back” and sometimes referred to as a “squirrel pelt” or the “ape drape,” the short-front, long-backed hairstyle might be the most controversial cut in the history of grooming. What started it? And can anything kill it?

A man shows off his mullet
Peter Parks, AFP/Getty Images

Although it doesn’t have quite the same archaeological provenance as hieroglyphs or dinosaur bones, mullet historians believe there’s ample evidence to suggest that the hairstyle has been with mankind for centuries. Neanderthals may have favored it to keep hair out of their eyes and protect their necks from wind and rain. Greek statues dating back to the 6th century BCE sport the cut. Ancient civilizations in Mesopotamia and Syria rocked it.

Most of these populations embraced the cut for practical purposes: protection from the elements and visibility. But the direct lineage of the mullet to the modern day might be traceable from Native Americans, who often wore their hair short in front and kept it long in the back as a sign of their spiritual strength. The style was eventually appropriated by Western culture and made its way to settlements; colonial wigs, particularly George Washington’s, look a little mullet-esque.

The mullet remained dormant for much of the 20th century. Conformity led to sharp, practical cuts for men and traditional styles for women. That began to change in the 1960s, when counterculture movements expressed their anti-establishment leanings in their mode of dress. Long hair on guys became commonplace. In the 1970s, entertainers looking to appear even more audacious pushed their stage presence to extremes. For David Bowie, that meant a distinctive hairstyle that was cropped over the eyes and ears and left hanging in the back.

 David Bowie performs his final concert as Ziggy Stardust at the Hammersmith Odeon, London on July 3, 1973
Express/Express/Getty Images

Bowie’s popularity drew fresh attention to the mullet, although it didn’t yet have a name. The arrival of MTV led to even more exposure, which soon migrated to other mediums. Richard Marx’s blow-dried variant led to George Clooney’s The Facts of Life sculpt. Patrick Swayze’s ‘do in 1989’s Road House deserved equal screen billing. Mel Gibson raced through three Lethal Weapon movies with a well-insulated neck. John Stamos consoled his widowed brother-in-law on Full House with an epic mullet. Richard Dean Anderson diffused bombs on MacGyver for years with the “Arkansas waterfall.” Some fads last months. The mullet seemed to be hanging on for the long term.

But public derision was brewing. The style began to be appropriated by a demographic fond of trucker hats and sandals. The death blow came when the Beastie Boys mocked the cut on their 1994 track “Mullet Head,” a song the Oxford English Dictionary credits with naming the fad. (A “mullet head” had long been an insult used to label someone lacking in common sense: Mark Twain used it in 1884’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.) Suddenly, mullet-wearers were objects of ridicule and scorn, their locks outdated. For 1998’s Lethal Weapon 4, Gibson lost his trademark cut. It was the end of an era.

A man shows off his mullet
Peter Parks, AFP/Getty Images

Like most things in fashion, that would not be the end of the mullet. The cut has made periodic resurgences over the years, with people adopting ironic takeoffs or making legitimate attempts to return the coonskin cap-like look to its former glory. In Moscow, young men suddenly began sporting the look in 2005, which became ground zero for a follicular virus. Some less flexible countries even became proactively anti-mullet: Iran banned it, among other Western styles, in 2010.

Hairstylists generally avoid the waves of attention the mullet can sometimes provoke. “It's for people who are slightly confused, who believe they like long hair but don't want the image that they associate with long hair," celebrity hairstylist Jose Eber told the Los Angeles Times in 2001. He declared it “nonsense.”

For others, the appeal is enduring. Kurri Kurri, a small mining town in Australia, just hosted its first “mullet festival,” a celebration of all things badly shorn. “We have so many mullets in town,” said co-organizer Sarah Bedford. “My father-in-law had one for 60 years.”

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One Small Leap: The Enduring Appeal of Mexican Jumping Beans
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In the fall of 1923, street vendors in Santa Barbara, California received an unexpected bit of attention regarding one of their more popular wares: The San Francisco Chronicle wrote about the sellers' “freakish little brown seeds” that “cavorted about to the edification and delight of children and grownups."

Those “freakish” seeds were (and still are) known as Mexican jumping beans. Part novelty item and part entomology lesson, they’ve been a staple of street vendors, carnival workers, and comic book ads for nearly a century, thanks to their somewhat inexplicable agility. Some early theories posited that the beans moved because of electrostatic charging, or because of tiny gas explosions inside—but in reality, it was a larva living in the bean. In Santa Barbara, the local Humane Society was concerned that the tiny caterpillar was somehow suffering in the heat; a police sergeant confiscated several of the seeds and took them home to investigate.

THE BEAN MYTH

In truth, the bean is not really a bean at all but a seed pod. In the spring, adult moths deposit their eggs into the flower of the yerba de flecha (Sebastiana pavoniana) shrub, which is native to the mountains of northwestern Mexico. The hatched larvae nestle into the plant's seed pods, which fall off the tree, taking the larvae inside with them.

Each larva is quite content to remain in its little biosphere until it enters its pupal stage and eventually bores a hole to continue life as a moth. (But only when it’s good and ready: If the pod develops a hole before then, the caterpillar will repair it using natural webbing it makes.) The pod is porous and the larvae can eat the interior for nourishment. Metabolic water creates moisture for the larva, but it never needs to pee. Essentially, it's the ultimate in downsized efficiency living.

A Mexican jumping bean store display
Mike Mozart, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

When it's in the pod, the larva isn’t exactly dormant: It twists and contorts itself to create encapsulated movement, almost like the snap of a rubber band. When it moves, so does the pod. No one is exactly sure why they do this, though some believe it's to keep the pod from settling on a hot surface (as high temperatures can be deadly to the insect).

The larva will keep up this activity for six to eight weeks. If a pod appears lifeless and rattles when shaken, it’s probably dead. If it lives, it will go dormant in winter before creating an escape hatch in the spring and flying off to begin life as a moth.

CHEAP THRILLS

It’s hard to know who exactly first decided to begin hawking the “beans” for amusement purposes, though some credit an enterprising man named Joaquin Hernandez with popularizing them in novelty shops in the 1940s. Later, in the 1960s, Joy Clement of Chaparral Novelties noticed the beans after her husband, a candy wholesaler, brought them home from a business trip. Though she was initially confounded by their appeal, Clement agreed to distribute the pods and watched them grow into a significant success: Between 1962 and 1994, Chaparral shipped 3 to 5 million of them each year, and saw the bean transition from sidewalk dealers to major chains like KB Toys.

“There's not much you can buy at a retail store that can give you this kind of satisfaction for under a buck," one bean dealer told the Los Angeles Times in 1994. "It's one of the last of the low-end entertainments available in the world.”

Interest in the beans seems to come in waves, though that can sometimes depend on the weather in Mexico. The jumping bean's unusual insect-crop hybrid stature means that farmers in Álamos, Sonora—where the pod is harvested and remains the area's major export—rely heavily on ideal conditions. Lowered rainfall can result in lower yields. Álamos typically handles more than 20,000 liters of the pods annually. In 2005, thanks to unfavorable weather, it was just a few hundred.

BEAN PANIC

There have been other issues with marketing hermetic caterpillars for novelty purposes. A UPS driver once grew nervous that he was transporting a rattlesnake thanks to a shipment of particularly active pods. Bomb squads have been called in on at least two occasions because the noise prompted airport workers to believe a ticking explosive device was in their midst. And then there was the Humane Society, which remained dubious the beans were an ethical plaything. (Since the caterpillars repair breaches to the pod, the reasoning is that it seems like they want to be in there, though no one can say whether the insects enjoy being handled or stuffed into pockets.)

You can still find the beans today, including via online retailers. They’re harmless and buying them as "toys" is probably not harmful to the caterpillar inside, though the standard disclaimer warning owners not to eat the beans remains. The police sergeant in Santa Barbara found that out the hard way: After taking his nightly prescription pill, he felt an odd sensation and went to the hospital. After physicians pumped his stomach, they noted that he had accidentally consumed a jumping bean. In his digestive tract, it was leaping to get out.

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