When you pick what to wear to work or school, you may have to lay out an outfit the night before, or you may put something together in the morning. You may even grab your go-to items off the top of your designated chair for piling on clothes. (I’m not the only one guilty of this, right?) No matter your relationship to your wardrobe, your clothing communicates your identity to the world around you. The French philosopher Roland Barthes pioneered the study of semantics, semiotics, and how these linguistic disciplines are replicated in fashion. In his 1967 book The Fashion System, he posited that what we wear reflects our identity less than it reflects how we want people to perceive our identity. Contemporary fashion theorist Malcolm Barnard built on this idea, saying that clothing does not reflect personal identity as much as it constitutes it.
We create and project our identity with clothing. For as long as humanity has formed and existed within the confines of societies, experimentation with fashion has always been about projecting an image of the self. Elizabethan sumptuary laws dictated what types of clothing people could wear, reinforcing social hierarchy by limiting materials like velvet and fur to the nobility, and fining those who did not follow these laws. Fashion has changed drastically since the 1500s: today, casual dress is much more common among people of all backgrounds, and the upper class is much less likely to display their wealth via what they wear. Take, for example, Steve Jobs’ trademark turtleneck, jeans, and New Balance shoes, or Mark Zuckerberg’s staple gray t-shirt and hoodie.
People no longer dress to feign wealth. Everyday fashion has broken from tradition, thereby shedding many of its socioeconomic implications. Without getting too much into the history, this trend began in the 1920s, when women first wore short skirts or donned pants and “men’s” haircuts. Today, what’s socially acceptable to wear in the workplace or to class is much less strict than it was even thirty years ago. Though certain communities still enforce a dress code (most notably churches and other religious sites), people often opt for a more casual look. By wearing skinny jeans, hoodies, and sneakers, we perform an identity as a middle class American, whether that identity is true or not.
This desire to dress modestly is not inherently problematic--in fact, the rise of casual dress allows Americans to dress freely and individually, bringing an unprecedented liberation to people’s fashion choices. It becomes an issue when dressing casually crosses the line into dressing poor--and paying a high price to look it. Not too long ago, Nordstrom released faux-muddied jeans for $425, describing the denim as “Americana workwear that has seen some hard-working action with a crackled, caked-on muddy coating that shows you’re not afraid to get down and dirty.” The jeans quickly sold out online. Fashion like this begs the question: when did the working class become a costume in which people could play dress-up? It’s beyond deliberate holes, stains, and tears in trendy clothing: the marketing of clothing as “industrial” actually seems to move product. Dressing “poor” or working-class is no longer about dressing freely or individually: this growing marketplace niche betrays a widespread desire to “try on” another person’s socioeconomic status. But this trend of reducing the working class to a fashion statement carries greater implications. What does it mean that people will pay a hefty price tag to look blue collar?
Nordstrom is not the only clothing store guilty of fetishizing the working class. In the past year Urban Outfitters has added a Dickies clothing line to their collection, selling workwear-style clothes for as much as $100--an odd price tag for workwear clothes, especially coming from a hip label that targets the young and upper-middle class. Dickies pants are stiff, thick jeans meant to repel stains and protect the skin from chemicals the working class would be exposed to in factories. Today, a search about “how to soften Dickies” yields many web pages showing various tutorials and people expressing frustration with these pants--a clear indicator that they do not understand their choices as consumers.
So it is that people co-opt the aesthetics of the working class without understanding their hardship. This faux-poverty is a trend that markets itself as beautifully tragic and hip, whereas true poverty is considered mundane or stifling. Dressing “poor” is offensive not just because people imitate another socioeconomic class, but because they do so without any sympathy for that reality. They forget that some people have no choice but to dress their class, and that it’s historically been embarrassing and dehumanizing for those people.
Thanks to the movements of the early 20th century, Americans today have a greater degree of freedom than ever before to choose what they will wear. Given this freedom of choice, perhaps it’s time to more deeply consider how our fashion choices fit into a greater cultural phenomenon and what cultures we may be “trying on” with our fashion statements.
As Roland Barthes understood, and The Devil Wears Prada popularized, there’s no such thing as an unaffected fashion choice.