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

A bright pink Kappa shell-suit zipped tightly over a stout frame. Blonde hair drawn tightly into a scrunchie, a ‘council house facelift’. Large, hooped earrings and numerous gold chains: Vicky was born.

Matt Lucas and David Walliams used the clothes worn by poor people as a punchline, and in the process underpinned a shifting discourse on class. Where previous class perceptions had focused on a working-class inability to consume, contemporary class discourses now centred on excessive consumption in ways deemed vulgar and hence lacking in distinction by higher classes. Kappa, Ellesse, Burberry. All expensive, but all decidedly wrong. All signifiers of the unenlightened and the unsophisticated. British media trained their young audiences how to spot the new folk devil they were taught to hunt down in the playground: the ‘chav.’

“I don’t regret my shift in style, but I regret that it was born from feelings of inferiority”

Lucas’ characterisation of Vicky enabled a generation of working-class people to distinguish themselves from those within their own social group, providing a sense of hierarchy even among those at the bottom of the class system. The word ‘chav’ gets thrown around deprived areas as much as it does anywhere, and it’s a simple way of dividing up who’s Vicky and who’s not. I had imagined for some time—quite naively so—that class disparity was as simple as a difference in economic position. That rich people disliked poor people because they were poor, and vice versa; that it all boiled down to money alone. I therefore predicted that keeping up appearances amid my new middle-class university friends would be easy: bursaries and student loans would maintain my usual chain of easy, cheap consumption of popular fashion. My image was never under threat. I was, after all, not a Vicky.

I was wrong. It transpired that Vicky’s legacy—this grotesque figure of working-class Britain—would place fashion at the centre of my class insecurities. Through an accumulation of comments which all nodded to ideas of gross over-consumption, my first year away from home slowly revealed that we’re all Vicky in the eyes of our ‘betters’. With that realisation came a complete upheaval of my wardrobe.

The punchline of Lucas’ characterisation was often that Vicky seemed unaware of her own unattractiveness and vulgarity, occasionally (and, to the point, ignorantly) describing herself as ‘fit’. The class difference I experienced at Cambridge, in the spirit of this portrayal, wasn’t about money at all. It was about knowledge. Insight. The display of one’s social standing through dress has become more subtle, yet ignorance relating to image and style remains a chief sign of the poor and unrefined. It is the communicative ability of fashion which often matters most to people. Clothes tell a story, but can you speak the language?


Mountain View

The classism of sustainable fashion

It is apparent then that Vicky’s characterisation worked, not as strict instructions for identifying the ‘chav’, but as a guidebook. A loose set of signifiers that would shift over time, with the stigma of excessive consumption at the centre of them. From this never-shifting stigma, Vicky Pollard’s new form 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 that from Shein?’ was more of an accusation than a question and, while this disapproval came reasonably packaged in arguments for sustainability, my consumption of these brands was revealed to be a loud demonstration of my class.

This is not a defence of fast fashion, but a defence of those who are scrutinised for wearing it. Fast fashion garment production leverages trend replication and low-quality materials to provide inexpensive styles to the consumer. It’s often the most affordable mode of fashion, and moral principles don’t pay the bills. There is little doubt in my mind that mockery of these consumers simply reinforces the same culture of class-based discrimination that we witnessed on our televisions two decades ago. It equates specific ways of dress and consumption with a lack of value to society. We do not amount to the fabrics we wear, yet these tropes reduce us to such trivialities.

“Clothes tell a story, but can you speak the language?”

Your wardrobe becomes a complicated thing when it’s planted somewhere you feel you don’t belong. As I find myself tiptoeing carefully between fitting in with the middle-class fallacy of being a student here and holding onto the working-class culture that raised me, I realise how many of my class-based anxieties are tied to my appearance. To own a wardrobe entirely approved by my middle-class peers is to be deemed enlightened, informed, intelligent: the ultimate cure to imposter syndrome. I don’t regret my shift in style, but I regret that it was born from feelings of inferiority, and I mourn the version of me that was less malleable to that shift.

I wonder what her wardrobe would look like.