Why Fashion's Reappropriation of British Working Class Culture Isn't a Bad Thing

Genius steals.

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There’s been a lot of talk recently about cultural appropriation in fashion, fuelled in part by the seismic shift in menswear to embrace urban sportswear and ‘Lad’ culture, both ignored or derided previously for their social stigma. Kids with privately-funded accents dressing like they’re going for a fight in the dole queue has left a sour taste in the mouth of some, as though the gentry are mocking the struggles of those less fortunate by stealing their uniform for fancy dress. I’ve seen “the Working Class are not a subculture” posted to back this idea up numerous times online, but I disagree.

To give it some context, the fashion world currently has its sights locked full beam onto a fertile transitional period in British youth culture which began a generation ago, when Stone Island-wearing, terrace-weathered lads passed the torch onto a new generation of multicultural kids decked out in sportswear, with clothes, music and ideas from both crossing over to the other. As a teen in East London spending my time between an estate and a high-end clothes shop where I worked part-time, it’s a period I remember well.

Prada, Moschino, Evisu. Reebok Classics. JD Sports. JD & Coke. UK Garage. Charlie Chans, Opera House, Eros. Dealers in Beemers. Dressing up to go out. At the time it was hardly recognised, never mind celebrated, outside of itself. Rude Boys, Chavs, Lager Louts, Hoodies – labels were thought up to demonise young men who carried on the traditions of those born into similar circumstances before them. From neglected urban jungles to decaying seaside towns, association with these types could destroy a fashion brand’s credibility (and in the case of Burberry it almost did).

Things are different today. The axis has spun, as it seems to do every so often, and those previously at the bottom now find themselves at the top. Now everybody loves the Working Class. ‘Roadman’, a word I first remember hearing in the early 00s (but much like ‘Rude Boy’ it had probably been around a lot longer) to describe a street-level dealer, is now being quoted by trusted media outlets as ‘on-trend’. Nike Air Max, jogging bottoms tucked into socks and Stone Island now make up the uniform of the young media professional. Fashion shoots seem to exclusively take place on council estates, often produced by people who never would’ve stepped foot on one unless it was for the pages of an expensive magazine. It’s this overnight change in attitude from the upper echelons of society, from mistrust to fetishisation, which leaves many with a sense of injustice, with accusations of hypocrisy amid offensive levels of appropriation. I however, am not one of them.

I feel a different emotion: pride. Pride that once again, despite the backlash from small minded middle England, we did our thing, we created our identity. While the decline of industry and changes in our social fabric may mean the Working Class has evolved into an unrecognisable entity from our grandparents’ equivalent, the youth are still a confident, creative bunch with our own heroes and ideas that don’t need the approval of the establishment to validate them. Equals, not victims. In need of nobody’s pity.

The fashion establishment, which largely exists by holding a velvet rope between the street and the mainstream, is once again looking sluggish and outdated. ‘Luxury Ladwear’ bleated The Guardian this week, as the catwalk made another clumsy attempt at repackaging sportswear, with questionable success. Turns out Givenchy have been pushing the “ghetto-garage-sports-luxe” look for years, said one bloke at LC:M with a straight face.

Online retailers like like Wavey Garms and Too Hot Limited have flourished by identifying those items from yesteryear which stand the test of time and can be reinterpreted by a new generation, from Prada Americas Cup trainers to Iceberg History sweatshirts. “My customers are such a wide range of people from all walks of life and around the globe. I find it really inspiring that they are buying into a very UK street aesthetic” says Ollie, founder of Too Hot Limited, adding frankly: “Taking pride in representing that you’re from the UK is a good thing, being a multicultural nation is a good thing and being proud of our subcultural heritage is good thing”.

Watching the world play catch-up shouldn’t be a bitter experience. It should feel empowering. UK street kids have a celebrated history of taking the clothes of the rich and powerful and making them their own, from Casuals in eye-wateringly expensive leisurewear to the Teds in Edwardian tailoring. To cry foul when it happens the other way is not a dignified response and just plays to the hierarchy of the old class system. We don’t need anyone’s sympathy, thanks. We’re doing alright.

After all, whether you’re a kid from a sink estate in Birmingham spending your week’s wages on an Italian silk shirt, or a privately educated teenager from Royal Windsor dressing like a Leyton weed dealer circa 2005, we’re all just using clothes to push against our surroundings. It’s natural. A way to create an identity apart from the one life’s handed us. It’s what makes style interesting. This long overdue tribute just proves that nothing’s changed, and when it comes to style in this country, the Working Class will always be two steps ahead of the game.

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Writer
Tom Armstrong

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