The Gentrification of Clothing

Katie Moseley outlines how “edgy” has turned into appropriation.

Something I’ve banged on about for a while now, much to the dismay of some of my friends, is the phenomenon I call the “gentrification of clothing”. It’s something that’s only really struck me in Bristol; more so than at other universities I’ve visited. The gentrification of clothing, as I see it, is an appropriation of working-class culture, in which upper-middle-class students see something “funky” in dressing in traditionally working-class clothing. When looking ‘noughties chavvy’, as I once heard some charming student say, is apparently now a great look for a night at somewhere like Lakota or Blue Mountain – that’s the gentrification of clothing.

By definition, gentrification is “the process of renovating and improving a house or district so that it conforms to middle-class taste”, as well as, “the process of making a person or activity more refined or polite”. I would maybe add the phrase “elite”, too. Where I grew up has certainly influenced my thoughts on this topic. Although I was very fortunate, my hometown in the Midlands is considered a socially and economically deprived town. The unemployment rates are particularly high – noticeably higher than the national average. It features pretty highly on a few of those “worst [blank] in the country” lists. Essentially, it’s very different to Clifton and the surrounding areas of Bristol Uni, and very different to the areas where so many of the people I’ve met at uni have grown up.

In terms of how my hometown has shaped how I see the gentrification of clothing in Bristol, I’ll start with a story. About a year ago I went home for a few days and was making a trip to the local corner shop. Down the street, I saw someone wearing baggy, wide-leg trousers – maybe flares – trainers, and an oversized sports sweatshirt. I thought, “ha, that’s strange, they look just like everyone in the ASS… they could go to Bristol,” and carried on my merry way, thinking nothing more of it. As I stepped into the shop, the woman behind the till was shouting at the person I’d spotted in the distance. She was screaming at her to leave because she’d tried to steal. The woman ran out of the shop; she was old, as were her clothes, and evidently wasn’t wealthy. I kept thinking about how earlier I’d thought she looked like a typical Bristol student. Why did I think that?

People often laugh about the stereotype that Bristol students like to dress like they’re “homeless” or “poor”. But my primary issue is that it’s not just dressing like you’re ‘poor’ – it’s making those clothes fashionable, and therefore elite, rendering them far more expensive than they would otherwise be. That’s gentrification.

People in my hometown, like that woman in the shop, are wearing the same nineties and noughties clothes students buy from vintage shops because they’ve had them for years and haven’t been able to afford some stylish wardrobe update.  And in those vintage shops, the same clothes cost a fortune: take a Kappa sweatshirt in a vintage shop on Park Street for £35. My boyfriend noticed it was almost exactly like one he’d bought in the 90s for P.E. for less than £10 from JJB back in the day because he couldn’t afford anything more.

Gentrification illustration - Maegan Farrow

In a predominantly working-class community, wearing one of those cheap, baggy sports sweatshirts wasn’t a good look; what to some people is now cool and edgy is to others symbolic of economic deprivation. Importantly, fashion is always politicised; people read social status into clothing. When less wealthy people wear clothing that seems to reflect their financial position, they can be shunned and looked down upon for it. When middle-class university students, on the other hand, wear the same style (via Depop or an over-priced vintage shop), they’ve made it chic. The controversy last year surrounding society ‘chav’ socials is pretty emblematic of this: an appropriation of working-class culture for one ‘fun’ night out.

It’s hard not to be frustrated by issues like this. People are paying this money to look “cool”; rebellious maybe, a little dishevelled. It always reminds me of Pulp’s song ‘Common People’ – a friend once commented that that was basically an anthem representative of Bristol Uni, and when you look at the lyrics, it’s scarily true. Bristol is known for its significantly middle-class student body. Every year it makes the top 10 in those lists of Russell Group universities with the lowest intake of state school students, with only 4.7% (TES) of its student intake in 2017 coming from disadvantaged areas of the U.K. This figure is lower than both Durham and Cambridge. A lot of these wealthy students do want to look like “common people”. They think that “poor is cool”, but they’ll never understand what living in that world is actually like.

We need to be more mindful of the social significance of what we choose to wear. We need to be more conscious of why we think something is “edgy” so that we’re not appropriating a style of clothing that to someone else means something very different – so that we’re not guilty of fetishising socio-economic realities that for some aren’t simply a fashion choice. Next time you’re scrolling through Depop then, or browsing in a vintage store and spot an absurdly overpriced pair of jogging bottoms, think about why they might have become so expensive just in the last year: that’s the gentrification of clothing.

Illustration by Maegan Farrow.



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