We are what we wear

Display of wealth through clothes arrived in Europe in the late thirteenth century when a person’s class affiliation was signaled by what they wore. Because dress was recognized as an expressive and a potent means of social distinction, it was often exploited by the upper classes to gain leverage over others.

Sociologist Pierre Bourdieu argues that the dominant social classes tend to possess not only wealth but “cultural capital” as well. In matters of dress, this capital manifests itself in the possession of refined taste and sensibilities that are passed down from one generation to the next. Taste is not pure. Bourdieu demonstrates that our different aesthetic choices are all distinctions – that is, choices made in opposition to those made by other classes.

Economist Thorstein Veblen, argues that the drive for social mobility moves fashion. In The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899), Veblen claims that the wealthy class exercised fashion leadership through sartorial display of conspicuous consumption. Upper-class people dressed in way that indicated they did not carry out manual work, that they had enough disposable income to spend on an extensive wardrobe, and — long before Rent the Runway — that they were able to wear a garment only a few times before deeming it obsolete.

American style

Writing in the Weekend FT, columnist Robert Armstrong examines American style and what it says about class. He notes a fundamental dichotomy in what many American’s think of as a ‘classless society.”

If, like me, you think of clothing in terms of cultural capital as much as its visual properties, you will notice that the dichotomy [between workwear and preppy clothes] maps very well on to Americans’ jittery and contradictory attitudes towards its class system. The preppy branch speaks to a fantasy about moneyed ease, about how the upper classes, free from aspiration, fritter their time away sailing, hunting, playing tennis. It is east coast and old money. The workwear branch, on the other hand, speaks to a fantasy of earthy authenticity, of autonomous, honest work. It is western and owes nothing to inheritance and pedigree.

The appeal of both fantasies is apparent and both are peculiarly American, opposed though they may be. We all aspire to be educated and successful, and to be totally relaxed and sophisticated about our success. We all want to be the Kennedys at Hyannis Port. At the same time, we hate all that. We want to be rugged individualists who trust in our hands and live by our word, who don’t want the rich man’s dollar, his country club or his company. To be American is to entertain both the urge to separate from the working class and to identify deeply with it.

The denial of the class system in America is coeval with the class system itself. We Americans all acknowledge that there are wide disparities in wealth. What each of us denies about ourselves is that class retains a powerful moral, social and aesthetic valence. The thinness of our denials is revealed by the incredible persistence of the two styles. Even as it has become standard to criticise the elite and their institutions, prep marches on. And even as we have become a nation of service workers and data manipulators, workwear is everywhere. Class consciousness is inscribed in our clothes.

Weekend Financial Times, January 20, 2023

Armstrong credits Ralph Lauren as a genius who was able to “play the two styles off each other” and that “both the preppy and the workwear traditions are essentially about the outdoors: the idea of physical freedom and vigour. So is the idea of casualness. Part of both codes is not looking like you are trying too hard.”

This in the land where hard work is a fetish that trumps, so to speak, all other values.

Source: Midjourney A.I. — Click to enlarge

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This ad for Snap-on tools embodies the American working class spirit.

in contrast to the leisured elite caught in faux-Brideshead aspic

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