Common People: The Appropriation of Class in Fashion
"I want to live like common people, I want to do whatever common people do."
You may be familiar with this catchy line in the chorus of the hit single, Common People. The song by nineties band Pulp, was a lyrical form of criticism against one of the most overlooked issues of this generation – the fetishisation of the working class. The glamorisation of poverty has always been a reoccurring issue within British society. Unfortunately when Common People first hit the airwaves of mainstream media, most people failed to take notice of the problematic message projected, and have almost used it as a reference for class tourism and social voyeurism.
One of the most glaringly obvious instances of this phenomenon is the way the fashion industry has managed to capitalize on this fetishization of the working class. Sociologist Georg Simmel believes that fashion manages to satisfy an individual’s need for social adaptation and imitation. Clothing is even seen as one of the most visible forms of identity, allowing us to easily interpret and subvert our place in society. Fashion acts as a socially acceptable way of distinguishing yourself from others. This therefore allows us to use fashion as a form of costume for conveying a chosen identity to the rest of the world. The problem that derives from all this can be seen from the social “dress up” that the upper and middle classes have. This further encourages a class privilege that comes from the ability to appropriate a specific group without having to face the reality that comes with being those people.
Clothing has a significant attachment of cultural value assigned to it especially due to the principal way it allows us to convey aspects of identity such as occupation and social class. We are also often regulated by the social groups in which we belong to. According to Pierre Bourdieu, “when identifying something as worthy of being seen, we are often aided by our whole social group and by the whole corporation of critics mandated by said group.” This therefore produces a legitimate mode of perception we have towards different objects which includes but is not limited to our taste in fashion. This then allows different classes to develop their own style and taste preference for what they wear. Hence, creating an attachment of cultural values to various items of clothing that are associated to individual classes.
From this, came the use of goods in positional consumption. The practice of positional consumption was due to the emergence of a new social group, the leisure class. According to writer Thornstein Veblen, this class seeks to publicly demonstrate its status through the use of material goods in leisure practices. The class was then associated with a conspicuous abstention from any forms of productivity. Consequently, good taste became associated with the expression of distance from the world of work. Objects which bore associations with the working class such as clothing, were then regarded as cheap or vulgar. As a result, this created a practice in which lower groups among the social hierarchy seeked to imitate higher groups. Creating a culture of longing and envy by the working class.
In order to satisfy their envy for a life of luxury, many working class folk started to emulate the lifestyle they desired through clothing. As clothing was such a great signifier for one’s identity, the act of dressing in high end clothing was a form of mini escape for the working class. Proles attempted to reinvent their identity and attempted to hide whatever insecurities they possessed in regards to their social class. Unfortunately, they were unable to do so without gaining ridicule and prejudice outlooks from their more affluent counterparts. This strong resentment against the proletariat population brought about the derogatory term “Chav” which stood for council housed and violent. This then spread as a national hatred against the working class and painted them in a terrible light. Ugly stereotypes and caricatures of the working class in their uniform of tracksuits, excessive gold jewellery, and gaudy branded statement pieces were introduced to the media. High end labels associated with the hideous chav image began to drop in value due to the disdain the rich had towards these brands’ negative affiliations. Comedians such as Matt Lucas and Harry Enfield who come from strong middle class backgrounds even contributed to the chav bashing by introducing these chav stereotypes in their comedic material.
However, this is the complete opposite when those in the positions of social and economic power attempt to embrace fashion from lower classes. According to Bourdieu’s study on the entitlement effect, there is an objective demand from members of the bourgeoisie who believe that their qualifications grant them access to another culture’s rights and duties. Bourdieu also recognises the upper class’s beliefs on “pure taste” and “barbarous taste”. This is the wealthy’s belief that some possess a “pure gaze” which helps set an aesthete apart from the common herd. The possession of a “pure gaze” implies the notion that some acquire an organ of understanding which others have been denied of. Thus creating an alienation against lower classes and an uneven form of power dynamics. This power dynamic at play allows the privileged to appropriate the likeness and style of those less privileged than them without having to face any of the discrimination. It also highlights the hypocrisy of the middle and upper class whereby it is deemed acceptable for them to embrace the aesthetics of a lesser group while showing contempt for the people. Meanwhile, working class people continue to face negative stereotypes even when attempting to appear more affluent. Thereby, reinforcing the authority that comes with class privilege when the rich commodify working class culture.
Due to the ramifications of this class war and one sided power dynamic, certain aspects of fashion have gained the capability to act as objects that reinstate privilege and a sense of class superiority. We can see this in the way Burberry managed to shift its image as a working class brand to one of the U.K.’s most desirable brands.
In the early 2000s up till 2004, Burberry was a staple part of British fashion as a part of the noughties. It was deemed extremely common to see someone decked out in Burberry. Unfortunately, due to the brand’s infiltration of the masses, this brought about a hijacking of a different sub culture in the company’s typical customer base. Thousands of tabloid jokes were spawned from Burberry’s new associations with Chav culture, as a flood of counterfeit Burberry goods began to appear at market stalls across Britain – springing up like mushrooms after rain. The famous and distinctive Burberry beige check, once associated with A-listers, had become the uniform of the Chav.
The brand’s tarnished image by the working class caused the company to take drastic measures in order to regain its loss of sales. In 2004, the company responded to the issue by removing the checked baseball caps from sale which were so closely associated with label conscious football hooligans and skanks. The design decision to scale back the distinctive check pattern on the outside of Burberry’s apparel was also taken into action. However, the brand still allowed the iconic print to mark the lining for most of its clothing. Fast Forward to today, we can see that Burberry has been able to successfully make a comeback. The brand’s revival has even allowed them to bring back the infamous baseball cap (with the hefty price tag of £250) and given them the ability to replaster a significant amount of their products once again with the distinctive check and tartan print.
But how did Burberry manage to dig themselves out of this grave?
Most of Burberry’s success is owed to Christopher Bailey who joined Burberry in 2001 and was appointed CEO of the company in 2014. Prior to 2014, Bailey had the role of Creative Director. During this time, he helped to completely change the image for Burberry. Aside from his decisions to modify the products into more suitable elegant versions, Bailey helped the company take a complete turnaround through branding and marketing. This was evident through the inclusion of quintessentially British celebrities from middle class backgrounds in Burberry’s promotional campaigns. This allowed Burberry to embody and represent the lifestyle and class associated with the celebrities who endorse the brand. The first instance of this was in 2009 when a nationally loved Emma Watson participated in a campaign shoot for their Autumn Winter collection. The success of that campaign even brought Watson back for the 2010 Spring Summer collection. This is around the time where we start to see Burberry’s market worth rise and reach the highest it has ever been.
Since then, we have seen the likes of other well loved celebrities who fit the quintessentially British mould such as Eddie Redmayne, Matt Smith, Cara Delevingne, and as of today, Adwoa Aboah. What Bailey has done so well to revive the once working class brand was to fulfill the ideals of the middle and upper class. By tapping into their nationalistic values and reimagining what Burberry represents through its celebrity endorsements, this allowed Burberry to fall out of the working class and into high street fashion.
Aside from Burberry, different brands have also managed to perpetuate the trend of commodifying working class culture due to the recent rise in popularity for streetwear clothing and the emergence of media platforms that glorify this trend such as HYPEBEAST. This all started in June of 2016 when designer Gosha Rubchinskiy sent models down the runway show of fashion brand Pitti Uomo. While Rubchinskiy paid homage to sportswear classics of the 80s and 90s, the Muscovite designer also took the opportunity to introduce the audience to a host of collaborations with native sportswear brands that had long seen their heyday come and go.
Among these brands stood the infamous Kappa and Fila which at the time, often conjured the image of Chav teenagers shopping at Sports Direct. One can almost imagine the likeness of fictional Chav characters such as Little Britain’s Vicky Pollard whenever they see a tape-branded Kappa tracksuit. However, in the following weeks, several other high fashion bands began to jump on the bandwagon for the retro sportswear trend. Demna Gvasalia’s manipulation of Reebok’s iconic vector logo as part of his Parisian Vetements showing and Off White’s work with UK-born football Stalwart Umbro were among the trend followers.
This was a first for the European fashion scene to welcome traditional and lo-fi sportswear. Soon, there was an upsurge in popularity for vintage streetwear. Logomania for nineties nostalgia became all the range. One could not go on social media platforms like Instagram without seeing a flood of images with teenage girls and online influencers alike donning bucket hats and popper pants. Many were surprised at this impact lowbrow clothing had on high-end fashion. Journalist Dan Sandison even stated in an article for Dazed, “Tracksuits on the catwalk are nothing new, but lurid popper pants at Pitti seem to suggest that there are boundaries being pushed that haven’t been before”. He also stated how the phenomenon is like an injection of life to the fashion scene that has been long overdue.
We can see how the explosion of streetwear to the mainstream media has garnered a lot of positive attention with sales expected to nearly double by 2020. However, this circumstance just like Burberry poses as an appropriation of working class culture. Modified versions of traditionally blue collared sportswear were being redefined as “Euro-cool streetwear”. Wearing Kappa and Fila then became a fashion statement for the upper classes to go against their own privileged status. This fitted well with the rich’s desire to appear more down to earth for the fear of being judged for their privilege. In spite of this, the working class do not share this same liberty as the Kappa tracksuits and chunky Fila sneakers are “fashionable if you’re white and upper middle class, but thuggish and chavvy if you’re anything else.” Therefore, proving this imitation of style from lower socioeconomic groups just comes off as condescending and merely encourages further discrimination against those of lower classes.
In conclusion, we can see how taste is a social phenomenon that develops as a result of struggles between different class groups. Fashion also proves to be an object that compels participation and is constantly changing as it is transformed in real-time use. Fashion is constantly redefining its place in society especially through the gentrification of various forms of clothing. Through the chase of more upscale, fashion oriented customers in brands today, it creates the impression that workwear has reached an acceptable level of gentrification.
In spite of all the negative results that arise as a result of working class fetishisation, there is the counterargument that this form of appropriation has actually been able to save failing workwear brands. For decades, there has been a continuous fall in sales as employment patterns shifted from blue collar to white collar jobs. The rising demand for traditional blue collar oriented attire from brands such as Carhartt and Dickies has helped keep the businesses afloat. However, both companies had to sacrifice their original customer base for a more upmarket customer base who are more willing to reach deeper into their pockets. This then raises the discourse for whether or not it is ethically right to increase the prices for once working class pieces in order to make them more inaccessible to original and less affluent client bases.
Furthermore, it is evident how appropriation from the working class is centred around a sense of inherent privilege at the extent of those struggling in society. We can see this from the way students across the U.K. who come from bourgeoisie backgrounds and wind up in art institutions are usually the main culprits of class appropriation, social voyeurism, and class tourism. They come decked head to toe in vintage streetwear and fake working class backgrounds as a progressive form of dressing up. However, they tend to return to the shelter of their middle class backgrounds whenever it is convenient for them. This of course includes students such as Hettie Douglas who mock the working class but are able to afford the extortionate privilege of dressing as though she does intense manual labour but is instead praised for having a chic and exotic look. Students like Douglas are the faces of the new petit bourgeois whose relative insecurity of their social positioning causes them to lash out at the lower classes in order to maintain privilege in society.
In spite of all this, we should not let this isolate each other to our own separate lifestyles and niches. As long as we, as consumers, are aware of the potentially negative ramifications to working class fashion, we are still able to celebrate the remarkable exchange between cultures without propagating a sense of class division and the projection of condescending tones.
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