The Unpaid Muse: The Fashion Industry’s Contradicting Relationship With The Working Class

Written by Charlie Elizabeth Culverhouse

The working class: to many, they represent anti-establishment, people who have not been sold or bought, unlike the jaded middle classes. They’re hardworking, purely authentic people. Especially for the young middle class generation, who rightfully want to rebel against the morals they’ve lived under so far, this ‘realness’ and ‘uncompromising’ appeals to them on all levels. Mainly through carefully curated fashion choices, members of higher social classes have taken to desperately trying to convey that they too are working people, wanting to distance themselves from being viewed as privileged or spoiled. Whether it be the guilt of privilege or an attempt to be seen as self-made, the working class aesthetic has become a mainstream fashion ‘trend’ within younger generations. 

The rise of this aesthetic is drawn from the ideology that cultural products, such as art, fashion and music, and their creators, must be free of economic interest to be truly authentic. This is not a new stance, sociologists such as Pierre Bordieu have been writing on the topic for decades. This disregard for income automatically situates the creative world as one only accessible for people with money. People with the ability to not rely on their creative careers as an income stream. 

So, for a product to sell it has to be accompanied by the right amount of ‘authenticity’. The right amount. The true struggle of working class life isn’t exactly the most sellable idea. Companies turned to cherry-picking the parts of being lower class that allow their customers to look the part without having to experience the struggle that usually comes with it. The carefully reworked working class aesthetic is now heavily monetised, with labels and celebrities adopting the idea that appearing poorer than you are is cool. While it’s reassuring to see these traditionally sneered upon styles being adopted in popular culture, it’s important to acknowledge the privilege some people have of being able to wear a tracksuit without experiencing the inconvenience of being stopped and searched by police. The reworked working class aesthetic communicates two contradicting messages; the clothing must be authentic while also allowing the wearer to maintain their position of greater relative power over the person they’re borrowing from. Someone experiencing poverty does not have the choice of wearing clothes branded with high fashion logos that have been authentically ripped, muddied, or dirtied.

This glamorised version of poverty has been peddled out as a ‘cool’ marketing tactic by many brands. Perhaps the most disgusting was Puma’s party inspired by council estate drug dealing.  The upscale party goers were invited to live out the ‘working class’ lifestyle for one night, complete with a burner phone, graffiti decor, and business cards telling them to “turn on the trap line”. The upper class, who can attend parties like this, will never have to stoop to ‘trapping’ (selling drugs) as a means to survive. The party’s vibe may have been somewhat diminished while discussing how a lack of decent wages and increasing hardship makes a life of drug dealing appealing to hard-up working class people. If Puma wanted to make their drug dealer fantasy theme more authentic, their SoHo venue would’ve more likely mirrored the homes of their guests. Middle class people are statistically more likely to use and buy drugs than those lower on the social ladder and, as well as being 9% more likely to have taken illegal drugs, middle class people are also heavier drinkers. But is it really a surprise that those with bigger salaries have more money to spend recreationally? 

While fashion brands are ‘embracing’ the style of the working class, they are certainly not welcoming in actual working class people. UK law ensures all workers have the right to earn minimum wage but with the label of ‘internship’, companies get away with offering experience and exposure instead of actual payment. These unpaid positions uphold the exclusivity of the fashion industry, allowing only those with the economic ability to take on free labour to gain a foothold into the sector.

86% of internships in the creative industries are either unpaid or pay less than the minimum wage. Just 16% of people working in the creative industries, which include fashion, journalism, publishing, and many more, are from working class backgrounds. Internships have become a vital way for young people to get into paying positions as the creative sector finds ways to keep costs at a minimum. Many jobs require years of experience on top of graduate degrees, leaving entry-level jobs at near extinction. Add to this that these companies are running out of the UK’s capital, where cost of living is significantly high, working class people are effectively barred from joining the industry. 

Unpaid internships make complete sense in theory; companies hire someone that is not yet qualified or experienced, the company spends on training throughout the internship, and the intern won’t be paid for their work because they are actually the one getting something from it: experience. This experience is needed by the intern to become qualified in order to access paid jobs. Applying theory to practice, only 39% of unpaid internships lead to full-time jobs. Many of these unpaid opportunities consist of menial tasks that don’t provide any real job training – it’s only free labour. With over 75% of fashion students and graduates partaking in internships of some kind, and with some statistics suggesting that a third of all graduate interns are unpaid, can we really sit by and let high fashion brands embrace working class culture so performatively? 

It is difficult to pin down whether or not the working class aesthetic can be labeled as class appropriation. The issue is not that brands are taking influence from working class culture, it is that they are doing so while actively oppressing working class creatives. The exclusivity of the fashion industry was once it’s allure, now it is it’s aversion. Opening up the opportunity for more people of all social standings to join the industry will only bring more exciting changes and new visions to the world of fashion. 

Featured image courtesy of Pixabay. Image license found here. No changes have been made to this image.

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