THE FETISHIZATION OF WORKING CLASS CULTURE
By Caitlin Allt
“It is difficult to determine whether (in the fashionable vices) the fine gentlemen imitate the gentlemen of the road, or the gentlemen of the road the fine gentlemen.” (John Gay, The Beggars Opera, 1728)
Clothing can be a crucial and flexible resource by which people everywhere choose to communicate their identity; when accessible, it is often a major form of self-expression. But if style can be used to bridge the gap between one’s physical appearance and inner self, what does this say about the tendency of middle class people everywhere to fetishize working class fashion?
This has been revived as a topic of contention since September of this year when the Peckham artist Hetty Douglas quite rightfully received a storm of backlash after taking a photo for her Instagram of three scaffolders in a McDonald’s in central London, captioning it “these guys look like they got 1 GCSE”. This backlash was ironically reported by The Daily Mail and The Sun: newspapers which seem to exist solely for the baseless scare-mongering and vilification of the working class and minority groups. Guardian columnist Dawn Foster soon released an opinion piece for Huck magazine arguing that Douglas’s behaviour is symptomatic of a trend in London and beyond: embracing working class cultural signifiers through fashion while struggling to conceal your visceral hatred of actual working class people.
Style in Cambridge never fails to amaze me; it is a university at which almost half of the attendees come from private schools, and yet it is one where a vast number of students dress in accordance with what some have favourably termed the British ‘street’ aesthetic: a style which the working classes were scrutinised for, and stereotyped according to, until fairly recently. It is actually much more common in my home city of Liverpool for young people to dress head-to-toe in designer brands such as Givenchy, Balenciaga and Kenzo, despite their working class status. In her Huck article, Foster puts forth her view plainly: “own up to your privilege. Don’t think that boasting about vintage and Greggs is anything less than embarrassing and offensive.” On the other hand, Tom Armstrong’s view on the matter in Hypebeast (2016) was that “we’re all just using clothes to push against our surroundings”, and “it’s natural. A way to create an identity apart from the one life’s handed us. It’s what makes style interesting”.
As someone from a working class background I would place myself somewhere between these viewpoints. Indeed, the fashion industry’s fetishization of working class style is considerably problematic given that the modern fashion industry itself is such a closely-knit, exclusively-wealthy and obviously elitist circle, and the numerous commentators who have spoken out against this trend are indisputably correct to point out that the working class are not a subculture. However, at an individual level, I can understand the appeal in this style of clothing, and to a certain extent, I can even understand why some students at Oxbridge might try to appropriate an identity to which they do not belong out of fear that they could face judgement for being part of, for example, the North London elite. It is in the same way that I am able to understand the pressure felt by young people in Liverpool to compete against one another with expensive style out of fear that they might be called a “scruff” or a “wool”- two of the most damning scouse insults there are. What I’ll never understand is gentrifiers like Hetty Douglas who, despite their attempts to give off uniqueness and flair through their edgy garments, exude nothing but ignorance.
Photo by Holly Smith