Poverty: The Longest Lasting Style of All


On January 19th, the Paul Bert Serpette flea market in Paris seemed to be operating as usual. Downtrodden, disheveled individuals wandered up and down the mini Marche aux Puces’ corridors draped in ill-fitting and unstylish clothes, ostensibly akin to the patrons one would find in any second-hand bazaar. Something about this day was different though. Instead of a bustling market full of vendors attempting to hock their wares, hundreds of stockists and designers lined each side of the market hoping to catch a glimpse at Vetements’ A/W 18 collection. The baggy suits and tacky scarves once reserved only for TJ MAXX and Salvation Army were sold for $2,450 and $380, respectively. GQ described the aforementioned show as having a “Palpable, playful, more joyful mood” while Vogue raved “Typically ingenious… made from recycled garments in keeping with the flea market theme”. Waves were made and dozens of think-pieces were penned regarding the designs and impact of the show, but one thing remained missing in the public discussion: outrage.

In a now-infamous debacle, Marc Jacobs sent a mostly white set of models down the runway in brightly-colored dreadlocks for his S/S 17 show. The ensuing backlash from his initial response coupled with the perceived offensiveness of the show led to Jacobs publically apologizing for being insensitive in the whole fiasco. Controversies such as these are not isolated events.  Several times a year, a designer is called out by influential figures over cultural appropriation, the concept of a dominant culture taking bits and pieces from minority cultures and repackaging for their consumption, with F/W 18 Gucci’s silk headscarves being the most recent example. This think-piece is not about the validity of cultural appropriation or its consequences. Instead, the question asked is why doesn’t the fashion industry face backlash when designers “upcycle”/appropriate from the lower class? The modern fashion industry is continuously disparaged for cultural appropriation across racial and ethnic boundaries, but never for class appropriation. Hundreds of theories can be argued, but through following Occam’s Razor, one solution exists: stealing from the poor can’t damage their sales because taking from the poor doesn’t impact their profit margin. It seems almost bizarre that an industry mired continuously in outrage over kimonos and bindis would somehow not face noticeable pushback for using the working-class as an inspirational buffet for designers to pick apart. What led to this change in what was proscribed and what wasn't? In 1985, Harold Koda coined a concept called the "aesthetics of poverty", a broad classification of the fetishization of poverty and a notion that carries considerable weight behind it. With one of the most effective ways to teach is through using examples, one of many historical parallels can shine some light onto what this notion means.  

In the 1920’s, a peculiar trend hit America. After Howard Carter’s discovery of King Tutankhamen’s tomb, the ‘Egyptomania’ frenzy begun. Flapper girls carried cigarette cases with images of the Book of the Dead, Jean Patou's elegant evening “Mummy wraps” gowns were plastered in newspaper ads, and even Egyptian-themed transatlantic ocean liners were christened to transport the well-off to Europe and back. Hollywood caught Nile Fever as well with movies such as “The Sheik” and “The Love of Pharaohs” becoming box office hits. Nearly all industries sought to capitalize on the peculiar cultural phenomenon, with everything from soap to broaches marketed with stereotypical Egyptian iconography. Running parallel to ‘Egyptomania,’ a French fashion designer by the name of Gabriele “Coco” Chanel took the American upper-class by storm when she designed her iconic “little black dress.” Rather than mimicking the intricately embroidered dresses that defined the status quo of lux womenswear, Chanel chose instead to take inspiration from the dresses of working-class women who had to wear shorter, simpler dresses for mobility. The sophisticated stylings and stark black shade resulted in the nickname “Chanel’s Ford”, as a tongue-in-cheek reference to the Model T. This nickname wasn’t only due to the similar shades of sable. The Model T was one of the only cheap options available for an automobile but was still enjoyed and consumed by plutocrats as well as commoners. Likewise, the little black dress was one of the first mainstream high fashion garments that were favored by socialites who could afford the best but instead deliberately chose to purchase styles, colors, and materials below their social class. 

Just shy of one century later, it’s easy to see the differences in attitudes, at least when it comes to Egypt. Celebrities such as Adele, Rihanna, and Beyoncé have all caught heat over Egyptian influenced clothing worn in public appearances and PR photos. Had they attempted to wear any of the much more egregious ‘trendy’ garments of the 1920’s, their careers would have been utterly crucified in an avalanche of Buzzfeed editorials and hit-pieces. The reason for this change is fairly straightforward. The economic and social power of modern Egyptians is entirely different than what had previously existed during the roaring 20’s. Influential Egyptian public figures coupled with hundreds of millions of dollars in Egyptian lobbying funds have shifted the public perception of their country from a source for exotic props to an economic powerhouse with a beautiful and profound culture. The number of Egyptians rich enough to consume designer clothing has also exponentially increased in that timeframe, causing the industry to be more sensitive towards their culture so as not to lose any potential customers. 

In the same hundred years that followed the “little black dress”, labels chose to throw the proverbial jet fuel on the fire of ‘upcycling’ garments from the working class. From a simple dress made of cheap material, the past century has seen items such as Golden Goose sneakers, paint-splattered overalls, and intentionally pre-distressed garments reign supreme in the modern fashion landscape. The most flagrant example of this predatory cycle is the adoption and subsequent adoration of designer jeans in all niches of fashion. From eurotrash to jerry-boys, not a single brand hasn’t experimented and modified the once working-class garment into an ultra-lux offering. What began as a garment worn by factory workers and miners out of necessity became the defacto status item for scores of consumers. Harold Koda's theory of the "aesthetics of poverty" helps to explain this phenomenon, but that idea by itself is by no means sufficient to fully divulge the secrets behind this unending trend. What else contributed to making this happen? In stark contrast to the advances Egypt made, the working class in America (and in most other countries) slowly had their economic mobility and social leverage dismantled. Through intimidation campaigns and subsequent lobbyist-sponsored government regulations such as the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act, the rich became richer and the poor became poorer. As working-class members saw their futures chipped apart piece by piece, their attention shifted towards priorities larger than designer clothing.

PRPS Jeans, Margiela Shoes, Topshop Hoodie. Photograph: The Guardian, Originally PR Company Handouts

PRPS Jeans, Margiela Shoes, Topshop Hoodie. Photograph: The Guardian, Originally PR Company Handouts

Both statistics and common sense make it abundantly clear that people of low SES status work longer hours, are less educated, and have greater difficulty purchasing utilities such as internet access. It’s substantially harder to take the time and energy to critically dissect cultural trends via social media when you’re clocking 70 hours per week and living paycheck to paycheck. This inability to vocalize concerns are further compounded by the lack of public figure support on social media for poverty advocacy; it’s universally a much less glamorous form of advocacy than whatever the social group du jour is. This absence of public figure support is mirrored in poverty lobbying groups as well. The scarcity of money and political skills that enable civic engagement are key factors as to why only 4% of interest groups in America are mobilized around working-class issues, which in turn leads to these groups being easily outspent by corporate interest groups. Essentially, all of the elements described above coalesce into a breakdown in support for any issues without life-ending consequences for the working class and thus allows the fashion industry to prey upon their lifestyles for massive profits easily. 

At the end of the day, as long as fashion consumers choose to be either of uncaring or uninformed (or both), the zeitgeist will not shift. As gaps in economic inequality grow larger every day, those who are exploited by the fashion industry’s idée fixe for poverty chic will almost never see its end. Instead, most will only further lose motivation to prioritize this issue over spending time protesting and campaigning for issues such as healthcare and education rights. At least two good things might come out of this: we might finally get to see a designer Casio wrist calculator and Vetements will inevitably drop a fire collaboration with Wranglers.