The year is 2010. Young men and women flock to Cambridge adorned in striped rugby shirts, plaid scarfs and fluffy gilets all branded with the Jack Wills pheasant logo. Jack Wills, having sold themselves as the ‘University Outfitters’ and ‘Outfitters to the Gentry’, felt somewhat akin to colour coordinating the classes to make it that much easier for Giles to spot his crowd. However, fast forward ten years and Jack Wills’ physical and cultural spot on the high street (and Sidney Street) has now been surpassed by Urban Outfitters.

Written in the very name of the brand, Urban Outfitters seems geared towards the modern city goer. No mention of class appears to be needed anymore. Given Cambridge’s record intake of state school students this seems to be fitting, but also like those numbers, perhaps not to be trusted.

“So, dear reader, I ask you to consider again who exactly Urban Outfitters is meant to be for?”

For years, Cambridge has tried hard to move away from the elitism it was built upon. It has packed up the exclusive private school societies, compartmentalized the hierarchies and retired the ‘old boys’. In comes a new age, with a more accurate representation of the real world and the percentage of state school kids in it. Cambridge has opened its gates with rapturous words of welcome through countless access projects and summer schools. But upon arrival, you can still taste the ash of old traditions turning slightly sour in your mouth.

INSTAGRAM/CAMBRIDGEUNIVERSITY

The Cambridge Student body is now predominantly made up of students from state schools. However, the state school student is not a one-size-fits-all label. We have grammar school students, students from academies, those who went to state sixth form only, those on free school meals (I’m even tempted to count state school students from north London as their own subcategory). The various breeds of state school students help to inform what was previously a black and white picture which, when coloured in, we can see paints a very middle class portrait. So, dear reader, I ask you to consider again who exactly Urban Outfitters is meant to be for?

Urban Outfitters is a company founded in 1970 with young people in mind. However, slightly less known is the brand’s frequent plagiarism of emerging, relatively unknown designers, selling streetwear with ‘inspiration’ taken (as is commonplace) from the working class and distributed at depressingly high prices to the middle class. Putting aside the plagiarism issues and sustainability qualms that plague fast fashion, what bothers me most about the Urban Outfitters lifestyle is that the fashions are sold to the consumer within their own vacuum. Clothes are cherry-picked as part of a lifestyle supposedly open to all young people, irrespective of socioeconomic background. However, the reek of exclusivity underlies this facade of openness. Customers are no longer explicitly sidelined because of classist slogans, but are now more subtly excluded due to steep prices. So, dear reader, Urban Outfitters — for all its talk of being branded for the young — is not for the young after all. Like its predecessor, it is still catered towards the middle classes, except it erases the context of its products in a shoddy attempt to conceal its elitism. Allow me to explain further.

“[Urban Outiftters] is still catered towards the middle classes, except it erases the context of it’s products in a shoddy attempt to conceal its elitism”

INSTAGRAM/legendaryparishilton

At a first glance at the UO website I can see their Juicy Couture section. Juicy Couture was a famous brand in the 2000s that had a revival due to a return in popularity of the 2000s ‘Y2K’ style over the past few years. Juicy Couture was part of Paris Hilton’s iconography and symbolized ‘new money’. However, it was also associated with the 2000s chav, a classist stereotype that seems to have been forgotten in the revival. If you only go back to 2017 in the fashion section in Varsity (‘In Defence of Juicy Couture’s Velour Tracksuits’) you can see the kind of stigma such items bore. Yet when adorned on the UO models, it became socially acceptable, even celebrated as a repeated trendy cycle. Meanwhile, when going to the menswear section we see mimics of streetwear in the form of printed tees and hoodies. Where did streetwear come from? New York City in the late 70s and early 90s from the working class. Of course, I don’t think it’s wrong to wear hoodies now and Urban Outfitters is certainly not the only one to capitalize on the streetwear trend but when putting on our clothes I would like to do it with a dab of mindfulness as to what I’m subscribing to.

“Dress up becomes no more than a mockery for the wealthy”

Using fashion as a way to escape from the shackles of social structures is nothing new. I myself am also very guilty of this, being very middle-class. I’ve worn my Doc Martens (popular with factory workers in the 60s) and indulged myself in a bit of Juicy Couture. Indeed, we all desire to escape our class system from time to time. My dad hailed from a very working-class background; his dad worked as a bricklayer in the steelworks. When my dad went to university in the 80s, he would go to a hairdressers called Mahogany, seeking what he deemed was luxury for half an hour while they cut and blow dried his hair. His haircut was a form of escapism from his class.

INSTAGRAM/HYPEBEAST

Dear reader, you may now be screaming at this article saying surely this is good, we are recognizing the working class, we love the fashions which came from them, and are overcoming the class system. Except I fail to see how this could possibly be beneficial to the working class, especially when the consumers of said fashions are sold this idea in a vacuum, cherry picking what they want from the class system. Yes, we like the styles that come from them but it appears we only like to play dress up, put the costumes on, play around for a while, and when the fun is over we return to our comfortable middle class existence and let the class system do the natural dividing. Dress up becomes no more than a mockery for the wealthy, who have the luxury of picking and choosing experiences.


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Much like at Cambridge, the old institution has put on its new trendy costume welcoming a large intake of state school students, while still returning to its comfortable existence as a symbol of tradition and elitism. After all, the deeply entrenched class boundaries are still prevalent; little has been done to erase them.

So, yes, dear reader, Urban Outfitters seems to be quite fitting for the current Cambridge era. I just hope at some point, self-awareness kicks in and we see our trends as an amalgamation of a way of life, one which we choose not to cherry-pick, one which finally gets the recognition and respect it deserves.