How David Stern's NBA Dress Code Changed Men's Fashion

Called "racist" by players a decade ago, basketball's fashion restrictions have helped evolve players' style

Dwyane Wade outside Dior Homme during the Paris Fashion Week Menswear Spring/Summer 2017 in Paris. Credit: Christian Vierig/Getty

Thick, red-rimmed spectacles. Tiny backpacks. Torn and frayed stone washed overalls. A pink blazer, a turquoise cardigan and an orange shirt – at the same time. If you're a fan of the NBA, you're familiar with these looks, which have been sported by superstars like LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Russell Westbrook and James Harden over the last few years.

"The NBA is the most stylish league around, and NBA superstars are the most stylish group of athletes of all time," according to GQ Style Guy Mark Anthony Green. "These guys are into very high fashion. A lot of Givenchy, a lot of Balmain. And they look good. They don't look like a bunch of 20-year-olds dressing like 50-year-olds. The designers are paying attention to them. It's great to have that."

But that wasn't always the case. 

It's the evening of September 4th, 2012. Millions of people around America are tuned into the Late Show with David Letterman. David Letterman introduces Dwyane Wade, the 2011-2012 NBA champion and the author of a new memoir, A Father First: How My Life Became Bigger Than Basketball, to his studio audience. Wade walks onto the stage wearing a bumble bee yellow blazer, a gray shirt, a silver tie, dark jeans and gray suede loafers.

Audiences around America are bewildered. Is this the same player who walked onto the very same stage in July of 2006 wearing Jordans, baggy basketball pants, an oversized T-shirt and a Chicago White Sox hat over a du-rag? Indeed, this is the same guy. Little do they realize he's not only a world champion, but he's a fashion pioneer. 

The league was struggling around the time Wade started his career in 2003. NBA viewership had decreased every year since Michael Jordan's (second) retirement after the 1998-1999 season. Then, on a November night, the infamous brawl between the Detroit Pistons and the Indiana Pacers in November of 2004; nicknamed the "Malice at the Palace," players from both teams engaged in a fight that involved players assaulting fans and vice versa for over ten minutes on national television. Ron Artest received a full-season suspensions for punching fans, and he along with four other teammates were charged with assault and battery. Five fans who berated players with racial slurs, were also charged with assault and battery. The league had serious issues, and needed to take some kind of corrective action. NBA commissioner David Stern decided the league's image needed to change. Literally. 

At the outset of the 2005-2006 NBA season, Stern instituted what he referred to as a "liberal and easygoing" dress code that mandated players wear "business casual attire" when participating in team or league activities. The code also prohibited "headgear of any kind" as well as "chains, pendants, or medallions worn over the player's clothes."

Allen Iverson, known for his tattoos, wearing flat brimmed hats, du-rags, chains, baggy clothes and sneakers when not on the court, was seen as the primary target of the dress code, and, in turn, was one of the most outspoken critics of it. "They're targeting my generation – the hip-hop generation," Iverson claimed in a televised interview. Golden State Warriors shooting guard Jason Richardson called the dress code "kind of racist" and said that it "targeted blacks" in an interview with the Associated Press. Marcus Camby, Paul Pierce, Stephen Jackson and others were also publicly critical.

But, over the years, NBA players accepted, then embraced and eventually began to have fun with the new dress code, changing men's fashion on the process. 

"Dwyane Wade was one of the first to jump into high fashion," claims GQ's Green. "Lebron James also did it on a main stage early in his career." James controversially left his native Cleveland to join the Miami Heat prior to the 2010 season. There, he and Wade won back-to-back NBA championships over the 2011-2012 and 2012-2013 seasons while leading the league off the court with their eye-catching fashion sense.

Wade went as far as to credit David Stern's dress code for his fashion sense. "It was like, 'OK, now we got to really dress up and we can't just throw on a sweat suit,'" he said in a 2014 interview. "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."

Green agrees with Wade's assessment. "When the dress code came, players had to wear suits, and there wasn't any way around that. But guys in the NBA are competitive. So one guy buys a Valentino suit, and the next one does. Now if you're a top NBA player, you have to look the part off the court. And if you're not a top player, you still want to look like one. A rookie at some random team wants to dress like LeBron James so that they look the part."

These looks don't work all the time, however, says Pratt Institute Fashion professor Adrienne Jones. "NBA superstars have lots of discretionary cash to spend. Many use fashion to exemplify the superstar lifestyle. Their looks range from a medley of high-style swag, to a rock & roll influence and, sometimes, just a hot mess of expensive trash."

Despite the at-times disastrous results of their fashion choices, Jones believes that the dress code was a good thing overall, but for fiscal reasons. "Everyone – manufacturers, retailers, the brands, and the players representing them – is making money. The fashion and the music industries have always been partners. The sports industry is now a part of that mix. Today NBA players have their own fashion lines and brand associations. The everyday consumer has more access to their superstar. Even if the consumer cannot afford the high-end clothing, they can afford the accessories. It's a win-win for everyone."

Ten years ago, players were outraged that the NBA would not longer allow them to wear hats, du-rags and chains. Thanks to trailblazing players like Dwayne Wade and Lebron James, NBA superstars now have endorsement deals from top fashion brands like Hublot and Barneys New York. TNT aired a live NBA fashion show produced by James' Springhill Productions in February of 2015, which featured  Harden, Klay Thompson, Chandler Parsons, DeMarcus Cousins, Zach LaVine and other NBA stars, along with supermodels and style experts, among others. The walk from the parking lot to the locker room has become the runway. Press conferences have become photo shoots.

"David Stern's dress code made the NBA's turn to high fashion come sooner, but it would have happened anyway," Jones believes. "If you look at hip-hop and the fashion statements in the early-2000s, styles were very different than they are now. The same can be said for the NBA."

So what's next for NBA fashion?

"It only gets crazier before it gets more tame," Green believes. "Dwyane Wade is painting his nails. Russell Westbrook is wearing a shirt with huge holes in it. Things will only get more outlandish."

Jones concurs with Green's assessment. "The experimentation will keep going," she claimed. "Rachel Johnson has consulted for LeBron James. Khalilah Beavers designs for Carmelo Anthony. If anyone signs up for wearing dresses, it would probably be Russell Westbrook."