Style and social class: undressing the c-word

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ALICIA POWELL WITH PERMISSION FOR VARSITY

It is to Vicky Pollard that we will first turn our attention.

A hot pink Kappa shell jumpsuit closed with a zipper on a sturdy frame. Blonde hair pulled tightly into a scrunchie, a “council house facelift.” Large hoop earrings and numerous gold chains: Vicky was born.

Matt Lucas and David Walliams used the clothes worn by the poor as a punchline and, in doing so, underpinned a shifting discourse on class. Where previous class perceptions had focused on a working class inability consume, contemporary class discourses are now centered on excessive consumption in ways deemed vulgar and therefore undistinguished by the upper classes. Kappa, Ellesse, Burberry. All expensive, but all decidedly wrong. All the signifiers of the unenlightened and the simplistic. The British media have trained their young audiences to spot the new folk devil they’ve learned to stalk in the playground: the ‘chav’.

“I don’t regret my change of style, but I regret that it was born of a feeling of inferiority”

Lucas’ characterization of Vicky set a generation of working-class people apart from those in their own social group, providing a sense of hierarchy even among those at the bottom of the class system. The word “chav” is thrown around in deprived areas as much as it is anywhere else, and it’s a simple way to divide who is Vicky and who isn’t. I had imagined for some time, quite naively, that class disparity was as simple as a difference in economic position. That the rich disliked the poor because they were poor, and vice versa; that it all came down to money alone. So I predicted that it would be easy to keep up appearances among my new middle-class college friends: scholarships and student loans would keep up my usual chain of cheap and easy consumption of popular fashion. My image has never been threatened. I was, after all, not a Vicky.

I was wrong. It turned out that the legacy of Vicky – this grotesque figure of the British working class – would place fashion at the center of my class insecurities. Through an accumulation of comments that all nodded to ideas of gross overconsumption, my freshman year away from home slowly revealed that we’re all Vickis in the eyes of our “best.” With this realization came a complete shake-up of my wardrobe.

The punchline of Lucas’ characterization was often that Vicky seemed to ignore her own unattractiveness and vulgarity, describing herself at times (and, to the point, ignorantly) as “fit.” The class difference I experienced at Cambridge, in the spirit of this portrayal, was not about money at all. It was about knowing. Insight. The display of one’s social position through clothing has become more subtle, but ignorance relating to image and style remains a primary sign of the poor and rude. It is the communication ability of fashion that often matters most to people. The clothes tell a story, but can you speak the language?


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The classism of sustainable fashion

It’s obvious then that Vicky’s characterization worked, not as strict instructions for identifying the ‘chav’, but as a guide. A loose set of signifiers that would shift over time, with the stigma of excessive consumption at the center of them. From this constant stigma, the new form of Vicky Pollard reared her ugly head at me: fast fashion was the new Kappa tracksuit. I witnessed, for the first time, a disdain for those who participate in fast fashion cycles. “Is it from Shein?” was more of an accusation than a question, and while that disapproval was reasonably wrapped in arguments for sustainability, my consumption of these brands turned out to be a loud display of my class.

It’s not a defense of fast fashion, but a defense of those scrutinized to wear it. The production of fast fashion clothing takes advantage of trend reproduction and poor quality materials to provide inexpensive styles to the consumer. It’s often the most affordable fad, and moral principles don’t pay the bills. There is no doubt in my mind that the mockery of these consumers only reinforces the same culture of class discrimination that we witnessed on our televisions two decades ago. It equates specific modes of clothing and consumption with a lack of value for society. We are not the fabrics we wear, yet these tropes reduce us to such trivialities.

“Clothes tell a story, but do you speak the language? »

Your wardrobe becomes a complicated thing when it’s planted somewhere you feel like you don’t belong. As I find myself tiptoeing between adapting to the middle-class fallacy of being a student here and clinging to the working-class culture that raised me, I realize how many of my anxieties class are related to my appearance. To own a wardrobe fully endorsed by my middle-class peers is to be seen as enlightened, knowledgeable, intelligent: the ultimate cure for impostor syndrome. I don’t regret my style change, but I do regret that it was born out of a sense of inferiority, and I mourn the version of me that was less malleable to that change.

I wonder what her wardrobe would look like.


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