In 2005, NBA commissioner David Stern courted controversy by implementing a new dress code for the league's players. They would no longer be able to wear baggy jeans, chains, and ill-fitting white tees in any official capacity. Instead, the league's on-court employees were told to follow business-casual guidelines that wouldn't be out of place among a group of office interns or children attending church. The move invited its fair share of criticism, including opinions that Stern was attempting to divorce the NBA's image from that of hip-hop culture, a world also occupied by the league's most committed fans. There was a sense that Stern wanted to make the NBA more attractive to more affluent white Americans, a PR effort not unrelated to the comments that forced out Atlanta Hawks owner Bruce Levenson earlier this month.
The dress code has worked, in a sense, although it has had the unintended side effect of turning the league's superstars (and whatever Nick Young is) into some of the world's most notable fashionistas. Players like LeBron James, Russell Westbrook, and Kevin Durant often turn heads at press conferences and awards shows for their bold sartorial choices, and GQ regularly highlights these players as paragons of contemporary cool. NBA stars dress more formally than they ever did before, but they do so in a way that highlights their individuality, or at least as much of it as can come out through the choices of their stylists.
It's generally agreed upon that the strictures of Stern's rules compelled players to get creative. Yet it's rare for them to make that influence explicit, so Dwyane Wade's recent comments to Rob Merrill of the Associated Press deserve notice:
The Miami Heat star says while he always was a fan of fine dressing, it wasn't until the former commissioner of the league instituted a dress code that he started taking more interest in what he would wear off the court.
''It was like, 'OK, now we got to really dress up and we can't just throw on a sweat suit,''' he said. ''Then it became a competition amongst guys and now you really got into it more and you started to really understand the clothes you put on your body, the materials you're starting to wear, so then you become even more of a fan of it.'' [...]
''Obviously sometimes we push the envelope, and I think it's because we're athletes,'' he said in an interview Tuesday. ''We're not looked at as guys who should wear certain things. Being flamboyant is being OK.''
Wade unveiled his latest over-the-top fashion statement this week - his new branded watch from Hublot. The Classic Fusion Dwyane Wade is black polished ceramic with 18-karat gold screws on the bezel and sapphires in the dial; it retails for $18,400.
It's the second watch Wade has created with Hublot since becoming a brand ambassador for the Swiss watchmaker in 2011: ''I always admired what I thought it stood for, the elegance of it.''
Fans can disagree on the quality of Wade's looks — this one is a parody of eccentricity, for instance — but it's very true that he wouldn't be a style icon and Hublot endorser if not for the changes brought about by the dress code. The restrictions handed Wade and others an opportunity, and they seized it by getting creative and embracing the more extreme habits of the fashion community.
However, the fact that these athletes were able to put a positive spin on the rules does not mean that we shouldn't forget the questionable motivation for the dress code. It's even likely that those beginnings are what make players giving credit to Stern such a rare occasion. Clothing serves many purposes — personality or lifestyle signaling, legitimate protection from the elements, etc. — but style does not serve as the final verdict on a person or group. Stern may have simply wanted to increase the NBA's fan base, but turning prejudice into sound business sense presents ethical dilemmas that have become all too obvious during the Hawks' current scandals. An unintended outcome does not excuse the initial reasoning.
The dress code forced players to expose themselves to new worlds of style, but they are the ones who deserve credit for making that happen. Stern didn't mean to get NBA stars interested in this world — he might have been fine with everyone dressing like Tim Duncan. He merely put them in a position where their best means of expressing themselves involved seeking out previously foreign matters of fashion and style.
- - - - - - -