The Guardian’s Gareth McLeod on one shopping centre’s efforts to establish a dress code.

Really, it’s only a sweatshirt with an extra bit. And sometimes a zip. And possibly pockets. It is not made of chainmail, of Batman’s offcuts, or of the very fabric of evil itself. Indeed, nowadays, you’re lucky to get one that’s 100% cotton. And yet, the hooded top can strike fear into the heart of even the most courageous among us. A lone figure behind us on the walk home – hood up, head down – and we quicken our steps. Someone solitary and hooded at the back of the bus, and we opt for a seat near the front. A group of hooded teenagers on the street, and we’re tensing our shoulders, clenching our fists (round handbag strap or housekeys-cum- weapon), training our ears for verbal abuse in order to emphatically ignore it. Just as leather trenchcoats are associated with goths, Matrix fans and ageing lotharios, so the hoodie has become a signifier of disgruntled, malevolent youth, scowling and indolent. The hoodie is the uniform of the troublemaker: its wearer may as well be emblazoned with a scarlet letter.

For this reason, the managers of Bluewater shopping centre in Kent have drawn up a code of conduct for the centre – a dress code, if you will. Wearing clothing that obscures the face – hooded tops, baseball caps – will not be allowed. Those persevering with such anti-social, CCTV-foiling fashion choices will be asked to leave the mall. While there’s a bigger argument to be had about the privatisation of public spaces and Bluewater’s ability to enforce a dress code on its customers, it would not seem to be one John Prescott fancies engaging in. He told the BBC he welcomed Bluewater’s decision, following an incident in a motorway cafe when he was surrounded by 10 youths wearing hooded tops. The hoods were almost like a “uniform”, he said. “I found that very alarming. I think the fact that you go around with these hats and these covers … is intimidating.”

Rachel Harrington, vice-chair of the British Youth Council, says Bluewater’s decision demonstrates a growing demonisation of young people. “It’s yet another example of a trend – tarring all young people with the same brush and overreacting to any behaviour by young people. You can understand shopping centres’ desire to please their customers, but it doesn’t seem to me to be the best response. It’s very easy to create the stereotype of the young thug as emblematic of society’s problems, rather than seek out the root of the problems.”

Angela McRobbie, professor of communications at Goldsmiths College, says it’s the hoodie’s promise of anonymity and mystery that both explains its appeal and provokes anxiety. “The point of origin is obviously black American hip-hop culture, now thoroughly mainstream and a key part of the global economy of music through Eminem and others. Leisure- and sportswear adopted for everyday wear suggests a distance from the world of office [suit] or school [uniform]. Rap culture celebrates defiance, as it narrates the experience of social exclusion. Musically and stylistically, it projects menace and danger as well as anger and rage. [The hooded top] is one in a long line of garments chosen by young people, usually boys, and inscribed with meanings suggesting that they are ‘up to no good’. In the past, such appropriation was usually restricted to membership of specific youth cultures – leather jackets, bondage trousers – but nowadays it is the norm among young people to flag up their music and cultural preferences in this way, hence the adoption of the hoodie by boys across the boundaries of age, ethnicity and class.

(young ruffains like the one shown above are no longer free to terrorize Bluewater patrons)