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When Rags Become Riches: The Ironic Pursuit of Low-Class Aesthetics in High Fashion
Understanding the enduring appeal of poverty symbolism among the rich
At the dawn of the French Revolution, the Palace of Versailles was widely perceived as a lavish symbol of the French monarchy’s excesses. Amid a world of extravagant banquets, elaborate hunting trips, and luxuries beyond the average French commoner’s wildest dreams, the most ironic symbol of opulence was not the grand palace, but a pastoral village. This modest dwelling within the Versailles estate belonged to Queen Marie Antoinette, offering her a stage to masquerade as a simple country maiden, indulging in an idyllic fantasy of rustic life.It may seem paradoxical that someone with a nation’s wealth at their fingertips would aspire to impersonate a peasant, no matter how idealized the portrayal. Yet, numerous modern examples show that the pinnacle of status can often be the freedom to emulate those for whom opulence remains but a distant dream.
High-class aesthetics are often rooted in exclusivity, a pattern that echoes across time and cultures. Take, for example, the case of meticulously maintained lawns. These manicured greens emerged as symbols of affluence by wealthy landowners who had no imperative to convert every parcel into agriculturally productive land. In an era when subsistence farming was the norm, a well-appointed lawn with no productive value represented an ultimate status symbol.From the British countryside to American suburbs, a well-kept lawn endures as a symbol of affluence and a hallmark of social prestige.
In the realm of beauty standards, a comparable trend is apparent in skin tone preferences. Historically, a light, untanned, and even pale complexion was seen as desirable, symbolizing high social status of individuals who did not have to toil under the harsh sun.This trend was especially pronounced during the Victorian era in England, when noblewomen often carried parasols to protect their skin from the sun’s rays. In numerous cultures worldwide, especially in parts of Asia, a pale complexion remains a sought-after beauty standard. The booming market for skin-whitening products stands as a testament to this problematic yet persistent ideal.
In light of these examples, it is all the more intriguing that elements associated with lower social classes or even poverty have found favor among the affluent, particularly in high fashion.
Denim and Decadence
Consider the evolution of denim jeans. Originally designed for miners because of their unparalleled durability, jeans have transcended their utilitarian origins to become a staple of high fashion.Intriguingly, some of the priciest jeans today flaunt signs of significant wear — distressed fabric, deliberate tears, and even artificially added stains — all nodding to the garment’s working-class heritage. The irony is palpable when fashion enthusiasts spend exorbitant amounts on a pair of jeans that appear so worn, a blue-collar laborer might deem them too threadbare for use.
Or observe the iconic style popularized by hip-hop tycoons and streetwear aficionados: sagging pants. This fashion trend is widely believed to originate from prison attire.Behind bars, clothes were typically ill-fitting (resulting in a baggy appearance) and lacked even a simple draw-string belt, a safety measure against their use as a weapon or suicide tool. What began as a matter of institutional imperative now stands as an emblem of edgy urban culture and high-flying lifestyle.
Many luxury brands capitalize on the allure of class tourism, echoing Marie Antoinette’s fascination from centuries ago. Balenciaga, a label known for its audacious designs, made headlines by launching a high-end tote resembling the frugal Ikea Frakta bag.However, the resemblance ends with aesthetics as its price tag soars to an astonishing $2,145, a stark contrast to the original’s 99 cents. Equally as baffling are Balenciaga’s distressed sneakers. Worn so heavily that their very purpose as footwear is questionable, they resemble an item salvaged from a trash heap — a choice of necessity rather than fashion. Yet, they carry a staggering $1,850 retail price.
One can only speculate why the charm of modest aesthetics continues to captivate the wealthy. Transcending material wealth, this allure hints at a complex interplay between societal perception and individual identity. One possibility is the romanticized notion of a life defined by scarcity — a lived reality that wealth cannot replicate. Another suggests it could be an attempt to project a façade of imagined toughness or grit. For some, a penchant for poverty chic may stem from a desire to reconnect with their humble origins, particularly if they or their forebears ascended from humble means. Alternatively, it might serve as a memento mori, a sobering reminder that even the most prosperous can plummet from grace, whether due to recklessness, misfortune, or circumstances beyond their control.
Granted, one could also take a more cynical perspective. Jeans weathered to the extreme and sneakers crumbling at the seams are of no use at a construction site but would serve just fine on the pristine walkways of the Hamptons or Saint-Tropez. Viewed from this angle, artificially worn-out clothes are akin to well-kept lawns: they are less about practicality and more about a conspicuous display of wealth, a declaration of status over those less affluent.
The pinnacle of status can often be the freedom to emulate those for whom opulence remains but a distant dream.
Having grown up on one end of the social spectrum and gradually working my way to the other, I vividly recall the thrill of purchasing my first piece of clothing that was not a hand-me-down from my older brother. It strikes me as both ironic and amusing that my alignment with high fashion tended to fade as my financial footing strengthened; yet, to each their own.
Still, I am drawn toward more hopeful interpretations of why the allure of low-class aesthetics persists. I choose to interpret them as a bridge, a point of shared human experience that connects, rather than separates, different social strata.
Perhaps this is why low-class aesthetics appear to be more prevalent in the fashion expressions of countries boasting greater social mobility. Maybe, just maybe, Balenciaga’s overpriced sneakers invite the privileged to step, quite literally, into the shoes of the less fortunate and bridge societal gaps, even if the connection is only skin-deep.
It is unfortunate that Marie Antoinette’s make-believe sessions as a peasant girl failed to instill in her a deeper understanding of her subjects’ hardship, a failure that cost her dearly at the guillotine.
Weber, C. (2007). Queen of Fashion: What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution. United States: Henry Holt and Company.
Jenkins, V. (2015). The Lawn: A History of an American Obsession. United States: Smithsonian.
Jones, G. (2010). Beauty Imagined: A History of the Global Beauty Industry. United Kingdom: OUP Oxford.
Juliano, C. C. A. (2022). Spreading of Dangerous Skin-Lightening Products as a Result of Colourism: A Review. Applied Sciences, 12(6), 3177. https://doi.org/10.3390/app12063177
Sullivan, J. (2006). Jeans: A Cultural History of an American Icon. United Kingdom: Gotham Books.
Demby, G. (2014). Sagging Pants And The Long History Of “Dangerous” Street Fashion. NPR. https://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2014/09/11/347143588/sagging-pants-and-the-long-history-of-dangerous-street-fashion
Larkin, A. (2017). Balenciaga’s $2,145 bag is just like IKEA’s 99 Cent tote. CNN. https://www.cnn.com/2017/04/19/style/balenciaga-ikea-bag-trnd/index.html
Ryan, H. (2022). Balenciaga selling destroyed sneakers for $1,850. CNN. https://www.cnn.com/style/article/balenciaga-destroyed-sneakers-intl-scli/index.html