Rounding off our three-part series on fashion subcultures, we examine a scene with perhaps more influence on modern dress sense than any other: the working class.
As our pace of life shifts from one impatient gear to another, modern fashion is becoming defined by its increasingly fickle nature. Today’s catwalks and their disciples flit from fad to fad like pages in a magazine, discarding old interests like short-lived love affairs in an ever-quickening cycle of discovery, boredom and abandonment.
From the anti-fashion utilitarianism of normcore to the unfathomable, hyper-meme culture of seapunk or the now sanitized and increasingly passé health goth look, modern culture is littered with trends picked up and dropped in around the time it takes to refresh a Tumblr feed. Yet there’s one force that has out-lived them all. A recurring infatuation that fashion has never truly rid itself of, no matter how many times it has come around, and whose influence has been felt in one form or other for the best part of 30 years. That influence is working class culture, and without it fashion would not be what it is today.
In the ’60s and ’70s fashion was a largely aspirational medium. Clothing was designed to convey luxury and wealth, and the aesthetic was predominantly dictated from the top down. Such a rigid flow of ideas led, in part, to the angry and volatile UK punk scene of the mid 1970s, although this remained staunchly outside mainstream fashion and culture for several years. By the 1980s, however, the full significance of punk had made itself known, and the fashion community couldn’t resist a piece of the action.
Thanks to the work of figures like Vivienne Westwood, Malcolm McLaren and Zandra Rhodes, the well-dressed world was treated to its first taste of a look inspired by something other than affluence. For the first time in mainstream culture, edge was prized over elegance – something only made possible by tapping into the grit and disaffection of real working people. A similar phenomenon emerged in the late ’90s and early ’00s following the explosion of the Britpop scene. With a look made famous by bands like Oasis and The Stone Roses, Britpop thrust a mixture of heritage sportswear, football "terrace casual" attire and loose tailoring into the global mainstream as a proud signifier of British culture, neatly overlooking the fact that it was, at its heart, a product of the working class North.
To this day both punk and Britpop continue to exert huge influence over fashion far beyond UK borders. Everywhere from Junya Watanabe’s signature patchwork embellishments to Hedi Slimane’s glam rock tenure at Saint Laurent rely on classic punk tropes, while Diesel launched their entire brand reboot in 2014 with a collection inspired by “Cool Britannia”. Elsewhere, the skinhead look (which rose to prominence in the wake of the punk scene) has found particular favour with US fashion brands, with the likes of Fear Of God and Hood By Air both making use of its characteristic menace last year without drawing any real attention to the urban deprivation and economic hardship of the ’80s that were its primary incubator.
Still, as blatant as these influences are, they are largely to be seen as creative inspiration rather than outright trendsetting; there hasn’t, for instance, been a huge upswing in the number of punks or skinheads seen on the world’s streets in recent years, despite the looks’ conceptual popularity. In actual fact there exists a far subtler form of cultural appropriation going on right now – one that relies less on a specific subcultural movement, but benefits from all its stylistic authenticity. Luxury sportswear, the sneaker renaissance, “high-low” wardrobes, the ’90s revival – all of these are derived from working class culture, and they represent perhaps the biggest unconscious style movement of recent times.
For decades certain corners of UK society have co-oped items of luxury fashion (whether real or bootlegged) by brands like MOSCHINO, Armani and Versace into an everyday, sportswear-heavy wardrobe filled with Nike, Reebok, Fred Perry and Champion. Jogging pants, hoodies, tracksuits and minimalist sneakers are staples of poorer, urban communities from London to Aberdeen; what’s surprising about their current surge in popularity is just how far opinions have shifted in a relatively short space of time.
It wasn’t long ago that Burberry – one of England’s most storied and prestigious fashion houses –was facing a business-crippling identity crisis as its signature tartan found unlikely popularity among the public nuisance-causing, low-income British youth group known as “chavs”. The detrimental effect on the brand’s upper class image was catastrophic, and threatened to undo over a century of elite heritage. In the end, a combination of radical business tactics and young fashion’s own desire for something new averted total brand meltdown, but it was a close call.
Back in the height of mid-’00s chav anxiety it was inconceivable that mainstream fashion might one day be taking style tips from a sector of society so openly derided. Yet today, little more than a decade later, designers like Gosha Rubchinskiy are walking models at Paris Fashion Week with jeans tucked into socks (a classic hallmark of chav dress lifted from Russia’s own “gopnik” culture), while respected fashion publications like Fucking Young! are commissioning photoshoots openly imitating the “eshay” look (an Australian working class subculture near-identical to the UK’s chavs). Almost every major fashion house has expanded into producing its own line of sneakers (many of which openly mimic mass-market, entry level models), while a brand like Palace are making shellsuits – once the very definition of poor, uncultured taste – and selling them in Dover Street Market. A new generation of "Lad” culture is thriving in the UK and beyond, and it's being fed on a diet of nostalgia and “salt of the Earth” fetishization.
Over in America, meanwhile, we see a similar phenomenon. While class itself is nowhere near as ingrained there as it is somewhere like the UK, the past couple of years have seen an explosion of styles like the “New York Look” – a combination of high-cost menswear with classic hip-hop staples such as tracksuits or Air Jordans – that display a hitherto unseen crossing of socio-economic boundaries. You only have to look at mega zeitgeist brands like J.Crew, Aime Leon Dore or a magazine like GQ (whose Designers of the Year in 2014 featured both suit-and-tie specialists Brooklyn Tailors and kings-of-the-sweatpant John Elliott + Co) for an idea of where US metropolitan menswear is at right now. The lines have never been more blurred.
But what has brought about such a change? Why have styles of dress once so looked down upon now become the style du jour? For one, there’s always an element of grassroots authenticity that comes with trends lifted directly from the street (as opposed to those inspired by something more abstract), and fashion is a sucker for anything that makes it seem more edgy or sincere. However, beneath that lies something more sinister, with far deeper cultural connotations. If fashion is about “dressing up” – creating a costume, of sorts – then the appropriation of formerly working class dress habits can represent a kind of sardonic play acting. Like a big game, where those who never had to live through social hardship themselves get to act like they did and feel cooler for it.
In effect, the explosion of streetwear in high fashion (and the subsequent trickle down into mainstream wardrobes) feels like a budget holiday for a scene simply curious to flirt with its diametric opposite. In its insistence on reinventing everything from snapbacks to sweats in a more “premium” format, the fashion industry sends the message, “we will take your ideas, but make them ours before they’re good enough.” This kind of reinvention is nothing new (and could even be considered integral to fashion’s history), but it does little to acknowledge true cultural roots or celebrate originality.
Even in the (entirely deserved) success of someone like Nasir Mahzar – a designer with a genuine background in working class East London and a loyal, local customer base – or Astrid Andersen, it seems their acceptance into the top-tier fashion circuit is laden with irony, like a token bit of rough brought in to offset the smooth. Just as fashion in the ’70s waited until punk was less raw and dangerous to cherry pick the parts of it that could cross over into their world, today it seems the Forces That Be have decided enough time has passed since the phone-mugging, hoodie-phobic social hysteria of the mid-’00s to make sportswear socially acceptable. Thanks to fashion's blessing, an expensive wool topcoat paired with a tracksuit and pair of sneakers can finally be considered stylish, as opposed to laughable.
Of course, this is only one small part of the fashion landscape, and it would be ludicrous to suggest that the fashion industry simply sit around waiting for the working classes to come up with ideas it can sample, steal and make their own. However, in a time when what little subculture there is seems to be driven almost entirely online, with little grounding in the real world, fashion finds itself increasingly short of ideas that people can relate to beyond the nebulous depths of blogs and social media.
And, when faced with such a problem, there’s always one place it knows it can turn to. Provided, of course, enough time has passed…