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Working Class Appropriation in Fashion

I remember in my very first week at Bristol, a fellow student characterising the general aesthetic of the University to be “spending all your money to look like you have none”. This summarises the contradictory nature of Bristol style, middle class students donning expensive second hand sportswear, emulating the working class visual at a hefty price.

There is an unspoken conflict in the popularity of this fashion, where a great expense is required in order to appear less well off than you are. Working class appropriation in fashion is often criticised because it creates a fake-poverty, which is perceived as desirable and trendy, whereas the actualities of living in this way could not be more opposing.

Although this paradox is clear in Bristol student style, it is certainly not our unique situation. In recent years, typically working class trends have inspired many global fashion houses, with a multitude of designers delving into this aesthetic and glamorising it for the high-end market. Since the introduction of luxury sportswear in mainstream brands, the working class influence in fashion is now ubiquitous.

Working class culture has emerged one of the most popularised trends of the past few years, resulting in an interesting reversal of opinions. Things that were once dismissed because of their working class associations are now at the forefront of what is perceived as cool. Think of Burberry’s iconic ‘nova check’ print. Once a destructive force to the brand because of its popularity amongst lower class people is now the pinnacle of the 2000s-revival trend, with even a second hand t-shirt demanding a three figure price tag. There has been a complete turn around in how working class style is being perceived in the fashion world.

It is important to recognise the significance of this sudden embrace. After years of being perceived so negatively, an uncomfortable irony arises in the fetishizing of working class culture by the upper classes. We shouldn’t ignore the contradictions that are visible when lower class fashions are appropriated throughout a University that is often so alienating to people from a lower class background.

Although I do not think people should necessarily be discouraged from appropriating lower class fashion, I think the individual should accept the double standard they are likely to project when they love working class culture but are ignorant of social inequalities. People should not have to change how they dress, but rather their exposure to and understanding of life for people from different backgrounds.

Originally published in Epigram (2017).

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