It’s the fashion… When the rich dress up as the poor

We were familiar with the concept of cultural appropriation. This practice of the dominant classes which consists of stripping minority or dominated cultures of elements of fashion or rituals. “It’s when a borrowing between cultures is part of a context of domination”, summed up the sociologist Éric Fassin. Today with “Poverty Cosplay”, as the Americans call it, we are witnessing a form of class appropriation, or when the rich believe they are dressing up as poor people and workers. A trend that sells for gold.

The origin of the phenomenon is unclear. Some are referring to millionaire influencer Kim Kardashian when she staged herself on Instagram in a seedy motel room. Still others point to actor Timothée Chalamet, who poses eating a dish of instant Chinese noodles on a corner of the table. But it is above all luxury brands, such as Golden Goose or Balenciaga, which rightly raised the indignation. Golden Goose, for example, put up for sale $570 a range of canvas sneakers, new but with a frankly worn appearance and patched with plaster, or jeans covered in fake mud for the modest sum of $475. The palm of indecency goes to the Balenciaga Paris range. She dared to create shoes largely inspired by the well-known canvas Converse, but shredded, and sold for up to 1,500 euros for the “full destroyed”, namely completely destroyed! The brand had already done well by selling several hundred euros of large shopping bags, copies of large blue Ikea bags. Whatever the starting point, some rich people have taken to “romanticizing” outward signs of poverty.

A search for transgression

The term cosplay is interesting. “In English, this word is very often used to say to dress, or disguise oneself, in fashion, suggesting that there is a form of performance in wearing clothes in which one should be seen, explains the art historian Charlene Lau. Dressing in an identifiable and consistent style could be considered cosplay, however, this principle can also encapsulate what fashion has always been about. Fashion and style are inspired by the world around us. Unfortunately, poverty is only one reference among others”, analyzes the teacher-researcher at the London College of Fashion and at the University of Toronto. There were many outraged reactions to these products or displays: no one in need would voluntarily choose to wear dirty or damaged clothes. So there’s something crude, cynical about paying a fortune for it.

To explain the phenomenon, the historian Nils Gilman evokes Marie-Antoinette, who already disguised herself as a poor person to blend into the street without being recognized. Others suggest that Poverty Cosplay represents for the wealthy a search for authenticity or transgression. “To be honest, I don’t even think it’s that complex. The rich and the affluent buy goods marketed by haute couture that are intended for them, without awareness or concern for their historical context”, nuances Charlene Lau.

Labor nostalgia or lucrative vein?

At the Saint-Ouen flea market, work overalls, even completely patched, are top sellers. It is omnipresent on rue Paul-Bert. “Even the lady specializing in copper pans a little further on has also taken up overalls,” laughs a salesman at the entrance to the street who claims to be a pioneer in the niche of the revival of outfits. workers. “I’ve been selling it for a good six years! “he assures. However, he ends up recognizing that since then the price has increased tenfold, from 5 to 50 euros per jacket. Because it is no longer the same public that buys. Today, overalls are trendy on the trendy terraces of Bastille cafés. “American or Japanese tourists who come to Paris absolutely want to leave with a blue, continues the seller. It reminds me of when, a few years ago, we visited the United States, it was absolutely necessary to leave with jeans as a souvenir. In France, it’s blue! Apart from the fact that he finds his account financially, he sees no malice in a work tool becoming a fashion accessory. “It’s a form of nostalgia, in a world where there are no more workers, or in any case where we no longer see them. It may remind young people of the jackets their grandfather wore, he supposes. It reminds me of the 1970s, when young fashion was inspired by the codes of the peasantry, a way of life that was disappearing. »

The communication agency Weematch also saw a vein in it. She therefore convinced the RATP to transform the outfits of its agents into fashion clothes, in partnership with the BHV. Laughable but juicy. For no less than 90 euros, you can now wear an “authentic” RATP agent suit, or a no less real Paris metro driver’s jacket. “You could say that workwear has been in fashion since denim overtook the professional world and entered the realm of mainstream and youth fashion in the mid-20th century,” recalls Charlene Lau. In the early 2000s, Brooklyn, New York was the epicenter of so-called American “heritage” clothing, based on ideas of authenticity, hard work and courage. In Japan, this subculture and appreciation of classic American style is known as “ametora”. For the researcher, fashion tends to decontextualize clothing from its use value. Workwear has become an aesthetic in itself, used also for its solid and practical virtues, but in any case detached from the values ​​of the working class. “Although I don’t consider this to be malicious, it certainly raises questions of appropriation, or respect for what can be considered a work tool,” she specifies.

Social media ripple effect

This phenomenon joins the more generalized craze for the second hand. Charlene Lau sees it as a reaction against “fast fashion”. As the industry shifted to fast, disposable fashion, the availability of quality, well-made, and durable garments declined. This made them rare, unique and therefore more coveted, more expensive, again diverting the popular, initial target from thrift stores. For the historian, it is simply a question of supply and demand. “We may also be living through a golden age of thrift shopping with these highly inflated prices, ushering in a new class of vintage clothing hunters. The supply of high-quality used clothing is shrinking, as the average consumer now sees thrift stores as ‘cool’, thus increasing the cultural capital of those who buy second-hand goods,” she explains.

Add to that the role of social media, which has a huge ripple effect in today’s fashions. For Charlene Lau, “Instagram is the most public platform to see and be seen, a kind of forum, an international promenade. Social media has simultaneously liberated and oppressed bodies, of all generations, in stagings and performances. The historian concludes, “When the clothes of one culture are seen worn there by people of a different culture (typically white, wealthy bodies) solely for aesthetic reasons, it can become problematic. There is always a gray area between cosplay and real life. »

“The aristocracy mimicked a social class it feared”

According to historian Denis Bruna, since the XVIIIe century – and the appearance of a certain social mix – until today, the rich have never ceased to borrow the attributes of the most modest classes, thinking thus to transgress the codes. Maintenance

We speak today of a class appropriation of the poor by the rich. Is this trend new?

In the second half of the XVIIIe century, we notice that in two large cities of Europe, Madrid and Paris, the aristocracy imprinted with popular clothes. She goes in search of new models and she will regenerate herself with the peasantry, but also in the suburbs. In Madrid, people dress as a majo, like the people of the popular suburbs. They are plasterers, tanners, shoemakers, etc. The women, on the other hand, sell donuts and fruit. During this period, we are witnessing a new phenomenon of social diversity in the cities where the rich can meet the poor.

What will push the aristocrats to borrow the clothes of the poor?

The XVIIIe century saw popular uprisings. In Paris and Madrid, flour is lacking. Bread is expensive and revolts multiply. At the same time, intellectuals are beginning to take on a lot of importance. Those of the Enlightenment, in France, are more and more interested in popular circles and revolts. These scholars will lead the aristocracy to question its legitimacy with regard to its own privileges. The rich then want to mark a deviation from the established order. Clothing is a code. Either we follow it, or we transgress it. But the aristocrats are not going to wear the clothes of the poor. They are going to have luxurious clothes made, reminiscent of those of the poor. It is a masquerade dedicated to warding off this terror of one day being really confused, related, mixed with the working classes. The aristocracy wears the clothes of a social class it fears and thinks of repressing it by aping it.

What types of clothing could you see at the time?

At the highest peak of the court, Queen Marie-Antoinette will wear the shirt dress. An evolution of the dress of the Creole women of the colonies that we found on the quays of the ports, in Bordeaux. The ladies of the court will wear aprons, like those used by those who work in the stalls, the workshops. Another very fashionable element in the aristocracy: the straw hat, like the one worn by women who worked in the fields. A portrait of Louis XVI’s sister shows her with a straw hat and a laced bodice reminiscent of that of common women. In Madrid, the Duchess of Alba, one of the most important women of the court of Charles III, demonstrated to the King of Spain her contempt for court etiquette by having luxurious garments tailored which were inspired by what worn by the women of the suburbs. At the theater – very important throughout the 18th centurye century –, from Marivaux to Beaumarchais, the valet will take a considerable place. “The Marriage of Figaro”, performed for the first time in Paris in 1784, was a triumph with aristocratic and bourgeois audiences. A year later, in the most famous fashion magazine, we see an aristocrat wearing a cap “à la Figaro” reminiscent of that worn by the valet in Beaumarchais’ play.

What link can we make with the contemporary era?

The same patterns repeat themselves. Today, archetypes are also worn with popular clothing ideas. Pants, shoes with holes will sell for a lot of money. But people of very little means rarely wear shoes with holes in them. In the collective unconscious, torn clothing with holes refers to our idea of ​​poverty. When, at the fall-winter 2017 ready-to-wear collection show, the Dior house made its models wear work overalls with berets and musettes worn by workers of yesteryear, the artistic director did not go looking for overalls working at the factory. She was inspired by the archetype of worker clothing. With this backward-looking vision of the beret and the musette. Also in the Dior house, in spring-summer 2000, John Galliano presented his haute couture collection called “Tramp”. He had said very openly that he had been inspired by the homeless people he met under the bridges when he was jogging in the morning. Hence the protest demonstrations that followed in front of the store on Avenue Montaigne.


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