Why the dominance of the middle classes affects who’s seen as inspiration in fashion and who gets ignored.
We’re sure you’ve heard by now, but there’s an ongoing thing about the working class influencing fashion. We’ve seen silly articles about it — anything with the phrase ‘nu’ in it is bound to be bad — and we’ve seen good ones. But when a huge majority of the deciders, gatekeepers and media are achingly middle class, the overriding question is, who’s allowed to be a muse in the first place?
To understand the relationship between the working class and fashion, you have to understand that (a) most people writing about the working class are middle class and (b) the practices of elevation and erasure. According to the Journalists at Work 2012 survey, just 3% of of journalists come from a background that isn’t deemed as middle class, so this issue is a deeply entrenched one. Without turning this into a sociology essay, elevation is basically creating the same item but using nicer materials and finishes, therefore making it “more than just [insert original item here].” It’s not new: For example, in the Marc Jacobs & Louis Vuitton documentary from 2007, Marc Jacobs is shown getting his inspiration from a vintage garment he bought and making it into a rather beautiful item. Margiela’s take on the German Army Trainer is also a good example.
Elevation is everywhere, but London menswear has been rife with it lately, with Cottweiler and Nazir Mazhar creating items that could be inspired by your local JD Sports, (albeit with added detailing and better fabrics). This isn’t a knock against these designers; we’re merely pointing that it’s clear who they’ve been inspired by. While we have nothing against creating something we like in a nicer fabric (shouts to cashmere tracksuits), the offensive side of elevation is the underlying notion that said item needs to be elevated from a certain kind of person. We know people aren’t actively saying this, but in a world where you don’t have to do anything negative to benefit from a privilege, whether or not you’re actively saying it doesn’t matter.
Erasure is, like privilege, another act where you don’t have to intend to do it for it to take place. For this, two recent examples are Pieter and Swen. Pieter and Swen are two rather different young labels, but where they are similar is their use of silhouettes that look like the traditional Muslim thobe. While both labels have had references to a Middle Eastern influence in their clothing, it’s never specified any further than that. In London, it’s common for young guys to wear their thobe with trainers — usually an Air Max 90 or another type of runner. Swen’s styling seems to directly imitate this style of wear, yet the article on Style.com makes no reference to this. While we’re sure the writer didn’t intend harm, the end result is a soft erasure, where the people who created the look get no credit for the said look.
And while some people get no credit for looks they created, others can actually make entire careers from it. This is the world of the muse. Muses are far more prevalent in womenswear than menswear, but it’s a phenomenon worth looking at nonetheless. Take the case of Lou Lou De La Falaise, who was known as Yves Saint Laurent’s main muse and right hand woman. De La Falaise is what you’d expect from a muse: wealthy, private school-educated, a former model. A “Guardian” obituary noted that “Saint Laurent loved her style, boldness and wit.” She was so important to Saint Laurent that some collections were nicknamed “Yves Saint Loulou” by YSL employees. In 1994, Hilton Als chronicled André Leon Talley for a “New Yorker” article. In it, Als describes Leon Talley’s meeting with Falaise. During the meeting, Leon Talley tries to talk to De La Falaise about a stone she gave him and she ignored him, turned to her friend and said — well within earshot — that “I will stand there only if André tries not to look like such a nigger dandy.” This side of De La Falaise didn’t merit a mention in a Natasha Fraser-Cavassoni-penned biography that Suzy Menkes recapped on “Vogue.”
Another, albeit much less extreme, example was in Olympia Le-Tan’s interview with “Purple” Magazine for their Spring/Summer 2012 issue. The conversation was this:
“Olivier Zahm: What qualities do you like in a man?
Olympia Le-Tan: A sense of humor. A man has to be funny. I like cynical people. People who are funny and dry and aren’t afraid to tell racist jokes. Weird people. People who aren’t politically correct. I also like handsome people. It’s difficult to find all those things in one person.”
Our main issue with these statements is twofold: the statements themselves and the sheer lack of response to them. In the Leon Talley article, the writer noted that everyone in the room laughed at Falaise’s “nigger dandy” statement. In Olympia Le-Tan’s interview, Zahm didn’t even question why she found telling racist jokes such a desirable quality. These two examples work as a microcosm of what’s seen as important and what’s seen as excusable in certain circles. When 95% of the people you work and play with are middle class and white, racism, be it casual or the harder Lou Lou type, is merely seen as a quirk that can be ignored rather than something that affects lives.
While we chose race-based examples, we could’ve easily found some offensive comments about “chavs,” poor people or something along those lines. The “Guardian” is a great newspaper, but one of its faults is that it tends to be great at talking at or patronizing working class people, and being less dynamic when it comes to speaking to them as equals. If the writer of the Nu Lad article had spoken to one working class person, they might find that, hey, no one prefers a warm can of beer over a cold one. And why else would you be shocked that people are now shopping at Sports Direct, unless you’re accustomed to ignoring them?
The dominance of the middle class in media and fashion is important because it affects, well, everything. If everyone is from one place, does the same things, likes the same things and values the same things, then anything outside of that narrow field is likely to either be ignored or treated with a peculiar blend of sneering, amusement and surprise. And this leads to coverage that’s incomplete at best and creating a false view of the world at worst.
So the difference between who’s allowed to be a muse and who remains a nameless, faceless influence usually boils down to your relation with whoever’s a gatekeeper. And, while the gatekeepers remain overwhelmingly one class, you’ll be seeing a lot more tone-deaf articles about the working class for some time to come.