In my first instalment to this column, I suggested that class difference in style centres on knowledge; that there is, in the context of class, a right and a wrong way to dress. However, there is also an extended difficulty when you are poor and attempting to participate in a superordinate fashion context (again, one which surpasses financial limitation): negotiating space.

I offer first a generalisation. The middle-classes tend to view almost any space as public and one in which they are always visible, but, for the working class, local spaces are seen to constitute semi-private spaces wherein judgements do not matter. Wearing pyjamas in public, then, is not problematic for working-class women in the context of their everyday lives. I’ve worn slippers to the supervision room below my bedroom and pyjama bottoms in the buttery when the Michaelmas cold hits worst. Homerton, where I both live and work, functions as a semi-private, semi-social space.

“Fashion [...] works to locate us in a social hierarchy”

For our middle-class counterparts, being seen in your pyjamas is something that should be avoided, and is often viewed by the middle-class eye as indicative of working classness. Thus, being seen in your pyjamas becomes undesirable on two counts.

As an embodied practice, class is a way of living that is negotiated across space and evaluated through an individual’s everyday practices. Our interactions with the space around us operate as markers of class. Fashion is one of these interactions which works to locate us in a social hierarchy. In providing the obvious means through which individuals can make expressive visual statements about their identities, fashion brings class and space together.

The negotiation of public and private is one way to discern this matter of space, but there is an added complication of owning a wardrobe that is intended to assimilate multiple class contexts. I face this difficulty whenever I travel home. A feeling of displacement. A sense of shame. The mission of all working-class students in universities like these is to preserve the habits, mentalities, and pleasures they arrived with. My wardrobe was the first thing to go. Well, maybe it was my accent, but that slips straight into its usual chime the second I hear my mam on the other end of the phone. Wardrobes are a little less elastic. So, while my style in the context of Cambridge is the first signal that I belong (or as someone once kindly put it: “pretending to be something I’m not”), it becomes the loud signifier back home that I’ve changed something of who I was there. The issue of space extends to place.

“Low-income people are being priced out of the trends they had defined, and then been bullied for”

I’d attribute this to the class appropriation of fashion, which is difficult to locate because it needs to communicate two simultaneous messages, often in contradiction with each other: that clothing must be authentic, but the wearer of that clothing must maintain their position of greater power relative to the class they’re borrowing the clothing from. In short, the clothing should signal something aesthetically lower-class, but the wearer must not be confused or read to be poor. It is this performance of authenticity, one that assumes the appearance of the real but avoids any experience of that same reality, which constitutes much of the middle-class style I have adopted here.

I am, as someone who is working class, performing the styles of people who are middle class, who are in turn performing the styles of the working class, the same styles for which the working class have been historically bullied. Consider tracksuits, for example. This subculture was born on the terraces of football stadiums. Liverpool supporters especially embraced this style: Kappa, Ellesse, Fila, or Lacoste tracksuits, paired with strictly white Adidas and Fred Perry trainers. The soul of the tracksuit is deeply connected to the football culture and the so-called ‘casuals’ who used their style to distinguish themselves from hooligans. From there, it became a staple of low-income wardrobes and eventually a comedic signifier of class through characters like Vicky Pollard. Now, it’s been re-appropriated by the same elite who mocked it.


Mountain View

Style and social class: undressing the c-word

When I travel home and cross the class-contexts of space, it becomes apparent to me how much my wardrobe participates in a middle-class culture which appropriates the ‘poor aesthetic’. The second-hand, charity-shopped pieces in my wardrobe merely emulate my lower class: I’ve never purchased anything from a charity shop in the Valleys. The working class avoid these signifiers of their identity, taught to via the media which equates financial suffering with comedy.

So, low-income people are being priced out of the trends they had defined, and then been bullied for—why is this happening? Is it parody? I’ve been puzzled at how stuff is handpicked, repurposed and watered down. It’s heritage, experience, cultural identity—suddenly worn by people who have nothing to do with anything.