A Question of Class

Fila, Head, Kappa, Ellesse, Sergio Tacchini, Burberry, Diadora” is the penultimate line in Jamie XX’s All Under One Roof Raving. It applies to brands popular in underground rave scenes, but it also has much deeper implications concerning working class culture. These brands are examples of trends that began in working class estates and schemes – areas previously (and still) stigmatised and mocked, until upper middle class people can adopt them as an ironic statement, making them ‘edgy’ and ‘acceptable’.

I’m not trying to claim that these trends belong to the working class exclusively, nor ostracise middle-class arts students who buy into them, but the fetishisation of the trends working class people had to create out of necessity has two problematic results. The first being that these brands have become gentrified; they’ve been picked up by high street retailers (if you’ve stepped foot in an Urban Outfitters recently you’ll recognise this) and prices have increased, meaning that working class people – who are at the origins of this trend – are no longer able to access it. The trend has been claimed by the middle classes who have taken it for themselves. In a way, it’s funny that people who grew up outside this culture and mocked it are now paying much more to fit in with it, were it not for the fact it works to continue alienating working class kids. It creates a paradox where kids interested in fashion will have to invent new trends from what is currently accessible to them. There’s no doubt that although this will initially be demeaned as a symbol of the deprivation they’re growing up amongst, it will inevitably become en vogue after other classes tap into the creativity started in council estates. These trends weren’t designed to be exclusionary and keep people out, but that’s what results from their increasing popularity. It’s essentially poverty tourism in action: people pay much more to appropriate a working class identity for aesthetic purposes only, with no regard for the actual experience of growing up in the environment which bred the trends.

The second is that it leads to an inner conflict for the working class people who have felt the need to denounce this part of their culture. A few years ago these very brands were mocked for being ‘chavvy’ and ‘neddy’ by the very people who are now adopting it, but they’re doing it ‘ironically’ (apparently) which therefore gives them more credit in the fashion industry. It’s a recurring trope that any trend started by working class people happened somewhat accidentally- that they weren’t interested in fashion, that they just take what they can out of necessity and make it work, and that it wasn’t until someone from out with that culture could recognise its genius and potential that it became a legitimate fashion statement. Similarly, the demonization of a working class engagement in fashion was notable during the early noughties: it was claimed that chavs were ‘tarnishing’ the brand of Burberry, which is another reason why that brand’s place in the Jamie XX song is so important. To argue that working class interests have no place in fashion is simply not true. The middle class it previously alienated now want in because it’s recognised as an authentic expression, and that resonates with not only the people who grew up with it, but for onlookers too. It’s not simply an aesthetic, it’s representative of working class life.

However, until this was recognised by members of other classes, some working class people feel the need to distance themselves from these signifiers of class, internalising the elitism perpetuated by slurs such as ‘chav’ in order to separate themselves with a stigma associated with the fashion they grew up with, or were even bullied for wearing as a poorer student in school. Furthermore, once it’s been adopted by the legitimised ‘cool’ underground subcultures, working class people now see those that would mock the trends, and made them hate it, celebrate its ingenuity. 

The problem with all of this isn’t that the trend has taken off and is no longer confined to its roots – after all, that’s arguably the benchmark for success – but it’s the way this works to hide the ingrained loathing and disrespect facing working class people and their work. Hetty Douglas is the pertinent example of this, where an artist from a more privileged background will profit from their fetishisation of working class culture whilst harbouring a concealed disdain and underestimation of the people. Their trends are there to profited from, but they will never credited or validated; at times they’re dehumanised and publicly shamed.

So long as these attitudes towards working class people and the trends they create continue, there will be no escaping the paradox that continues to alienate the working class from fashion, and other arts, too. What should be an outlet for expression is currently a double standard in practice. The demonized connotations associated with certain trends originating in schemes has to go – only then will the ongoing exploitation of working class creativity end.

[Stacey Anderson – @staceyanders0n]

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