Millennials and Gen-Zers have become accustomed to their grandparents looking at their ripped jeans and scoffing at them. “Why pay extra to have jeans already have holes in them?” they ask. “You look like your parents won’t buy you new clothes.” By now, you also have a well-packaged retort, exasperatedly explaining that its fashionable and that they are fashionably, aesthetically ripped not just regular ripped.
The fashion trend of mimicking a poor man’s clothing extends past ripped jeans. Nordstrom charges $425 for a pair of muddy jeans: a pair of jeans designed to look like they were worn by someone with a dirty job, made for someone who doesn’t. In fact, the brand PRPS has a whole line of dirty clothes, ranging from paint covered jeans to a muddy jacket. PRPS founder Donwan Harrell states that the goal of PRPS was to compete on the premium denim market by providing “authentic” jeans: jeans that are designed as work-wear.
While seemingly harmless, this stated goal of businesses to sell “authentic” clothes is dishonest, as they are designed for people who will not see the “hardworking action” referenced in the descriptions of some of these articles of clothing. After all, no one is likely to go to a construction site in $425 jeans. Further, someone experiencing poverty does not have the choice of wearing clothes that have been authentically ripped, muddied, or dirtied. The people from whom fashion companies draw their inspiration dress in a certain way as a matter of necessity and not of choice. In this way, the fashion industry is creating a costume for the wealthy to appear as if they are part of the working class in America. This appropriates the struggle of the working class, fostering an illusion of glorifying blue-collar jobs and hardcore labor, all while our political sphere constantly condemns those who actually have to do such work. Fashion companies are thus sending the message that the wealthy should be able to achieve the same look without actually going through the experience or struggles of being in the working class.
While the needs of blue-collar workers were once prioritized and seen as critical for the backbone of the United States, the current Congress has shown a lack of sympathy for the struggles of a blue-collar worker today. With this perspective of blue-collar workers in mind, it begs the question of why the fashion industry is booming with clothes that allow the wealthy to bask in the glory of being hardworking as an aesthetic, all while paying a significantly higher price tag for it. Moreover, it questions the integrity of a country that seeks to wear a costume of a class that it constantly belittles, yearning to move away from higher taxes to fund welfare, Medicaid, and more.
Australian curator and editor Kate Louise Rhodes dives into the history of dressing down and the rise of “ugliness” in the fashion industry. The trend of dressing poor rose in the 1980s as a method of ridding the wealthy of the stigma that rich meant spoiled and irregular. Over time, wearers became smitten with a glorified idea of poverty for three reasons. First, they perpetuate the narrative that those who wear such articles of clothing are self-made individuals who, while having worked their way to the top, still wear the clothes of their origins. Second, they romanticize the working man and his wardrobe—instead of focusing on flashy clothing, wealthy individuals who wear the clothes of the working class have chosen to focus on things more substantial than mere clothes. Third, dressing down suggests a sense of modestness and lack of vanity. People understand that dressing well takes effort, and that effort is inspired by vanity—a concept looked down upon by our society. Thus, wearing ripped jeans or other clothing that is low-effort allows one to look good without putting in effort. Of course, while at face-value there is nothing wrong with dressing down, there is something said about the wealthy being applauded for being humble and “thrifty” when they dress this way, while the poor—who are forced to dress this way—are looked down upon.
Flash forward to 2019 and the glorification of poverty has continued. From Kylie Jenner wearing a Von Dutch trucker hat, worn by the rural poor in the late 2000s, to Kim Kardashian posting pictures of her family in a run-down house, to billionaire Donald Trump winning the presidency under the narrative that he is a “self-made man,” members of the upper-class are desperately trying to convey that they too are commoners, just like every other American. In this way, the upper class is attempting to distance itself from being viewed as privileged or spoiled. Whether it be the guilt of privilege or a weak attempt to be “relatable,” it has clearly paid off to pretend to be poor. The Olsen twins were applauded for dressing “homeless-chic” and labeled as “stylish” by the press while Urban Outfitters has netted over $2.8 billion in annual sales from selling “upscale homelessness” clothes.
However, this trend of aesthetic poverty is lamentable for two reasons. Firstly, it allows the wealthy to appropriate aspects of the lower classes without actually experiencing hardships. While some might applaud it as a way of appreciating and flattering the working class through emulation, the trend is far from that: it romanticizes poverty and allows the wealthy to cherry-pick the parts of being lower class without experiencing the struggle that comes with it. Seeing the struggles of lower-class individuals as “inspiration” and “stylish” only emphasizes a disconnect with the lower classes: while one group is able to see it as an artistic expression through a privileged lens, it is an inescapable reality for others. Being lower class is a condition outside of one’s control: it is the result of racism, cyclical poverty, social stigma, and much more. Figures profiting from this glorification of the working class (either through increased social capital or even political power), like Jenner and Trump, cannot empathize with the feeling of having to wear jeans with paint splattered all over them from a day on the construction site or life in a minimalist house. Being poor is not an accessory one can choose to have because it is trendy: it’s a lifestyle millions of people around the world are born into, with no way out.
Secondly, those who are actually in poverty are looked down upon—making it ironic that their clothes are being appropriated. More than a quarter of Americans living in poverty receive no help from food stamps, subsidized housing, or other benefits. Over 13 million people with incomes below $25,100 a year for a family of four are disconnected from welfare programs. Almost a third of the poorest Americans receive no benefits from the federal safety net. Despite this, 61 percent of Americans think the poor are too reliant on government aid. The mentality of the American government and much of the American public toward the poor is apparent. While dressing like the working class is chic, actually being a part of the working class is not: over 700,000 Americans were faced with losing their food stamps after the Trump administration heightened the working restrictions. For a country that constantly demands the poor to prove that they are “poor enough” while also “actually working hard” in order to receive assistance to reach the poverty line, mimicking the lower class as a fashion statement is cruel.
As long as the United States remains a country that institutionally belittles its poor—implying that they are “lazy” or “not driven enough”—wearing lower-class clothing will remain no more than a mockery of this class. Indeed, the appropriation of poverty glorifies classism in America: aesthetic poverty is just a reminder of the wide inequality in this country, and the readiness of the upper class to appropriate lower classes’ struggle while simultaneously exhibiting disdain for them.The photo featured in this article is licensed under the Creative Commons CC0 and is in the public domain. The original can be found here.
Sophia Lam is a third year chemistry and political science major from New York City. On campus, she’s a member of Phi Alpha Delta and a debate teacher at Debate It Forward. She’s previously worked as an intern at Boies Schiller and Flexner and at Pfizer Inc.