Today, right this very second, hundreds of middle-class teenagers are walking the gentrified streets of the inner city dressed in Kappa, grey marl, and gold filigree ear ornamentation, looking as if their attire was chosen during a consultation with the opening montage of Benefits Britain. But obviously it’s okay to dress like a Daily Mail-defined delinquent if you aren’t one. Working class – read 'council housed' and 'claiming benefits' in the Daily Mail dictionary – is an aesthetic to be exploited, but only by those who can escape such condemnation.
In October 2014, trend forecasting agency LS:N Global claimed that the middle class “chav” aesthetic deserved semantic status of its own, coining the term ‘Chivster’ to describe the onset of middle-class kids forgoing beards and lumberjack shirts in favour of Adidas shell suits and Burberry-branded check. The willing adoption of a subculture born from the union of two unfavourably described sectors of society – “Chav” and “Hipster” – might seem an unlikely one, but that doesn’t make the combination of public school accents and Puma-branded snapbacks any less of a reality.
It may have started in the distant realm of glossy-paged editorials and catwalk presentations, but just like every other trend, the penchant for Chivster isn’t reserved for models, advertisements and editorial themes; it’s already on a street near you, ready to be adopted by art school graduates in need of a new outlet for their ironic post-modern self expression. “I would see students from families wealthy enough to completely support them through their studies wearing Umbro sweaters and Fred Perry,” says writer and Camberwell graduate Ella Plevin. “I’m guilty of it to some degree too, I’m sure.”
At home with an LS:N list that cites London’s new generation of pop-up chefs and the beauty industry’s current inclination towards activated charcoal amongst its other micro-trends, it would be easy to dismiss such a phenomenon as just another example of fashion’s one-in-one out policy for sartorial subcultural appropriation. “I don’t think it’s anything new,” says Pandora Sykes, fashion features editor at The Sunday Times. “The genius of a trend is when a segment of people start wearing something – then more and more people appropriate it. It can be offensive, granted, but it’s more just the dilution of creativity. If it’s more common at the moment, it’s because things spread so much quicker with social media, street style and e-commerce.”
The mainstream appropriation of subcultural tendencies is nothing new, but in a conservative voting climate that sees 4.3 million people a week tune in for the poverty spectatorship of Benefits Street and its similarly propaganda-laden counterparts, it’s difficult to see where the line stops at harmless cultural tourism and where the Reebok classic crosses over to classist spectator sport.
"Nobody actually wants to be working class but the aesthetic is everyone’s for the taking."
For his AW13 show, London-based designer Ashish Gupta provided a press release for his eponymous label that read like a BBC-Three-attempted docu-soap set in the streets. Working Girl detailed the class-crossing abilities of the lumber yard-wearing-clothes-horse of the designer’s inspiration. This penthouse-to-pavement aesthetic, murmured by the designer himself, came incarnated in the form of high visibility jackets and drawstring-waisted joggers – all the more suitable for the ‘keffiyeh wearing labourers and Irish navvies’ of the newly imagined social circle within the show. Harmless irony for laughs perhaps, but when a whole sector of society’s daily reality is compressed into cultural fodder for the front row elite, used as a jump-off point to shill gilded safety jackets for upwards of £500 – who’s laughing, and what exactly are they laughing at?
“I personally have observed an exchange of values,” says Adidas curator and brand consultant, Gary Aspden. “A section of people who come from comfortable backgrounds doing their best to appear street, edgy or ghetto. Whether that be some naive kid from a wealthy home romanticising about life on a council estate, because there is something in that that a trust fund can never purchase, or a fashionista who wants to look like a Scally because they think it is ironic.”
It might seem inclusive that fashion is willing to let the un-trust funded amongst us have a hold of the sartorial reigns, but are class boundaries really becoming less opaque? Is this the last step in that wonderful process of gentrification before middle, upper and working classes alike blow kisses to each other on the tube? Peckham looks more and more like Notting Hill with the opening of every small-plate eatery. And more recently, the application for two residential tower blocks sparked outrage for threatening the light over the glorious Spitalfields market. It seems artisan coffee makers can’t be expected to make foamed milk art in the dark.
In a country where Kate Middleton is repeatedly named best dressed and international supermodel status just happens to be held by the elaborately surnamed Cara Delevingne, whose grandmother was once a lady in waiting, it would appear that affluence hasn’t disappeared into the abyss. It's just been re-imagined, popping up in a Brixton juice bar with a Danny Dyer attitude and a YouTube-learnt South London dialect. Nobody actually wants to be working class but the aesthetic is everyone’s for the taking.
“Middle Class youths have the cultural capital to dress down whereas working class youths can only aim to dress up,” says Chichester lecturer and author of Inside Subcultures, David Muggleton. “We just need to presume, as subcultural theory dictates, that signs and symbols have meaning, if only dimly, to the individuals that choose to wear them.”
Fashion has always strayed for its fantasies, but the aestheticism of an entire class of people delves deeper than the fifth return of the Swinging Sixties or the unrelenting celebration of monochrome. It threatens to reduce a sector of society, for whom reciprocation is not an option, to a trend – a look to be bandied about like a new Instagram filter, ready to be applied to anyone in need of a douse of urban cool. Council Estate backdrops and Croydon facelift models do not spell out equality, but it does make privilege all the more plain, illuminating the group of individuals who, in the putting on and taking off of a neon polyester layer, can shake the derogatory associations a sector of society just can’t escape.
Words by Darian Nugent