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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 Pom-Pom Hit: When Texas Was Struck By a Cheerleader Mom's Murder Plot
Photo Illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. All images, iStock
Photo Illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. All images, iStock

On a January morning in 1991, Wanda Holloway was faced with a decision: Realizing that she couldn't afford two murders, the 36-year-old married mother of two had to decide whether to order the killing of her rival, Verna Heath, or Verna’s 13-year-old daughter, Amber.

It was a toss-up as to who presented the bigger problem to Holloway. Amber was an eighth-grader who had the talent and poise to consistently knock out Holloway’s daughter, Shanna, from a spot on their school’s cheerleading squad in Channelview, Texas; yet Verna was the one who pushed Amber, getting her into gymnastics and even being so bold as to let Amber try out for the junior high cheerleading squad before she had even formally enrolled in school.

Killing Amber would guarantee Shanna a berth to cheerleading stardom. But there was a problem: Holloway's ex-brother-in-law, Terry Harper—whom she enlisted to help her carry out her plan—said the man he knew who would accept the assignment wanted $5000 to kill a minor. Bumping off Verna would be a comparatively reasonable $2500.

In a perfect world, $7500 would get rid of them both, but Holloway simply didn’t have the money. So she decided it would be Verna. In addition to being cheaper, she figured Amber would be so devastated by her mother’s death that she couldn’t possibly get through cheerleader tryouts that March.

On January 28th, after dropping Shanna off at church, Wanda met with Harper to give him her diamond earrings as a down payment. Within a matter of days, she would make national headlines as the mother who would do anything for her daughter. Even if it meant life in prison.

 
 

A suburb of Houston, Holloway's hometown of Channelview, Texas sits in a state where football fields are considered holy ground and small town players are revered for their athletic prowess. Boys were expected to suit up if they wanted social status; girls could obtain a measure of popularity along the sidelines as cheerleaders. In both cases, the fitness and discipline required could help provide a foundation for a transition out of adolescence.

As a young woman, Wanda Holloway wanted to join that clique. Her father, a conservative Baptist, vetoed the idea. The costumes were too revealing, he said, too sexualized. Reporters would later seize on this detail and use it to craft a kind of super-villain origin story for Holloway—a woman who was determined to see her own daughter succeed where she hadn’t.

Holloway remained in Channelview and, in 1972, married railroad warehouse employee Tony Harper. They had two children: Shane in 1973 and Shanna in 1977. She divorced Harper in 1980, remarrying twice and retaining custody of the kids.

As Shanna grew older and grade school activities increased, Holloway was determined that her daughter would enjoy some of the opportunities her own father had denied her. She urged Shanna to try out for the seventh-grade cheerleading squad; though Shanna didn’t feel as passionately about the team as her mother did, she tried her best but didn’t make the cut as three girls were vying for two open slots. It was apparently vexing to Holloway that one of the girls who made the team didn’t even attend Alice Johnson Junior High during tryouts: She was still transitioning from a private school. That student was Amber Heath.

Amber and Shanna had purportedly been friends, even having sleepovers at each other’s homes. But Holloway perceived both Amber and her ambitious mother, Verna, as obstacles to Shanna’s progress in cheerleading. Verna had printed flyers and handed out candy during that seventh-grade coup. The next year, Holloway decided to make an offensive move and passed out rulers and pencils that urged Shanna’s classmates to vote her into the squad: “Vote for Shanna Harper for Cheerleader.”

The vice principal intervened, saying such campaigning was against school rules. (Verna's flyers had somehow skirted any penalty.) When Holloway ignored him, parents of other cheerleader candidates—Verna included—held a meeting and voted to disqualify Shanna from being in the running. Shanna was now 0-2, and Verna had made it personal.

As tryouts loomed for ninth grade in 1991, Holloway decided she couldn’t take any more chances with the Heaths. She approached Terry Harper, her first husband’s brother, the one man she knew with some slightly delinquent criminal tendencies. Harper had been arrested a few times on misdemeanor charges. To the best of anyone’s knowledge, he didn’t travel in the kinds of circles where he might know any hitmen. But Holloway seemed convinced that Harper had the connections to make Verna and Amber go away.

Harper would later tell police that he brushed off Holloway’s solicitations but she was persistent. Realizing she was serious, he went to the sheriff’s department, where officers expressed the same initial skepticism. Murder-for-hires didn’t happen in Channelview. When Harper insisted, they wired him with a microphone so he could continue his dialogue with Holloway.

In six separate recorded conversations, Harper found Holloway hard to pin down when it came to an explicit admission of her desire to have Verna murdered.

“You want her dead?” Harper asked.

“I don’t care what you do with her,” Holloway replied. “You can keep her in Cuba for 15 years. I want her gone.”

Semantics aside, Holloway’s intent was clear. Days after she handed over her down payment to Harper for the (fictional) assassin, police arrested Holloway for solicitation of capital murder. Investigators would later remark that Holloway seemed unfazed by the charge.

Out on bail, she told Shanna what she was facing: a potential verdict of life in prison. Although Shanna knew her mother wanted desperately to see her on the team—much more than Shanna herself cared to—she had no idea the rivalry with Verna had escalated to potential homicide. And despite the wishes of her biological father, Shanna remained at Alice Johnson High, avoiding eye contact with Amber Heath practically every day.

 
 

Holloway was arraigned in February 1991, and pled not guilty. Her defense was that the plot had been cooked up by her ex-husband, Tony Harper, and his brother in order for Tony to secure custody of their kids. Her desire to see Verna “gone,” she argued, was simply a joke.

The jury wasn’t laughing. In September 1991, it took them just two and a half hours to find Holloway guilty and sentence her to 15 years in prison—“poetic justice,” as one juror later put it, for wishing Verna would be exiled to Cuba for the same length of time.

Poetic or not, Holloway didn’t do 15 years—or even 15 months. She was granted a new trial in November of that year and the verdict was overturned on appeal in 1996 after it was discovered one of the jurors had been on probation for a drug possession charge and shouldn’t have been serving. Rather than fund another trial, Harris County prosecutors allowed Holloway a plea bargain where she received 10 years but ultimately served only six months in a work camp pulling weeds before being released on probation.

The last time a journalist caught up with Shanna was in 2012, when the then-34-year-old teacher discussed raising her own two children and having an infamous mother with a reporter from People. Living in Humble, Texas, she said she still saw Wanda on a regular basis, although the two rarely discussed the murder plot. Shanna asked about it back in 2010. Holloway called the entire incident a “mistake” and said that she was “sorry.”

When Wanda's future as a free woman was still up in the air, Alice Johnson High went ahead with cheerleader tryouts on March 22, 1991. Amber appeared and made the cut. Shanna did not. She was too distraught to show up.

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When 'November Rain' Excited, Confused Rock Fans
GunsNRosesVEVO via YouTube
GunsNRosesVEVO via YouTube

Slash had no idea what it was about. Axl Rose insisted it be based on a short story. At roughly nine minutes, it stretched the patience of MTV’s viewers. For these reasons—or maybe in spite of them—the music video for the Guns N’ Roses hit “November Rain” remains one of the most infamous, impenetrable rock operas of all time.

“November Rain” was a single from the group’s Use Your Illusion I album. Released in 1991, it broke into the Billboard top 10 and immediately entered music trivia lore as the longest song to make that list. Rose had started writing it in 1983, with an original running time of more than 20 minutes.

For the video, which was released in February of 1992, the group hired director Andy Morahan, who had supervised two previous G N' R efforts: Don’t Cry and You Could Be Mine. Rose also enlisted friend and writer Del James to allow them to loosely adapt one of his short stories, “Without You,” about a singer haunted by the death of his girlfriend. Model Stephanie Seymour, Rose’s girlfriend at the time, played the bride.

The crew respected the band’s wishes for an increasingly epic approach to their videos by going on location to shoot a wedding ceremony between Rose and Seymour at a makeshift church in a New Mexico desert—fabricating it cost $150,000—and arranging for a concert shoot with 1500 extras; Slash’s guitar solo was covered with swooping helicopter shots.

Speaking with authors Rob Tannenbaum and Craig Marks, Morahan described the indulgent nature of the era: “You’ve got five cameras, cranes, helicopter, this big crew.” He recalled one observer asking him, “Is this the whole video? ‘No, it’s about 27 seconds of it.’” (The video cost a then-record $1.5 million.)

Though Seymour’s character appears to be elated at the reception, the video implies she commits suicide shortly after.  


The couple in happier times.

GunsNRoses VEVO via YouTube

Or not. No one really seems to know what happened. “To tell you the truth, I have no idea," Slash told The Huffington Post in 2014. It was a concept. The song itself is pretty self-explanatory, but the video is so complex ... I knew there was a wedding in there somewhere and I was not into the concept of the wedding." Morahan said he has "no idea" why Seymour was shot in a casket with half her face obscured by a mirror.

While the spot wasn’t heaped with MTV Video Music Awards praise (though it did win one, for Best Cinematography, and earn a nomination for Best Art Direction), it has aged well. By the end of 1992, viewers had voted it their favorite video of the year. Morahan, James, and Rose were even asked to collaborate on an episode of HBO’s Tales From the Crypt.

That didn’t come to pass. But even today, November Rain stands as one of the most-played music videos of the 20th century on YouTube, with more than 940 million views. Watch it enough, and maybe it’ll begin to make sense.

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