Why do well-to-do people wear ripped jeans?
And why do they buy their jeans pre-ripped?
Wouldn’t they rather look rich, than get stopped and frisked? Humans desire status. Wealth is a sign of status. So why dress poor if you don’t have to?
Welcome to Poverty Chic: where popular fashion adopts the symbols of poverty.
It makes no sense.
If you are like me then you’re probably thinking this is just a rare, weird, sub-cultural thing. Desperate fashion designers looking for ideas. Those stupid pre-faded jean shorts. End of story.
Prepare to be surprised.
Poverty Chic is everywhere.
Poverty Chic goes well beyond clothing. Redecorating? Rehabilitate old furniture with “shabby chic”. Guys? Try tending that beard for the rural working man “Lumbersexual” look. Going on holiday? Try a sightseeing slum tour, available now in all the world’s best slums.
Culture is littered with the ghosts of Poverty Chic past. History was into it just like us. French Queen Marie Antoinette even built herself an entire rustic village where she could play at being a shepherdess. French aristocrats liked pretending to be French peasants, back before they got executed by French peasants.
Poverty Chic has even gotten into our language. “Pimp” has become a word for over-the-top decoration. A real pimp manages prostitutes.
Any symbol of poverty that you can think of has become Poverty Chic somewhere, somehow, at sometime. Race, religion, drugs, homelessness, mental illness, even the emotions. It’s all there.
Why on earth do we do this?
We can see a touch of mockery here. It has parallels in Blackface, dressing up like Indians, and putting on a Chinese accent to make a racist joke. Stereotypes and play. Strangely, dressing like poor people denies the reality of poverty. Suffering is reduced to a set of symbols that can be adopted and discarded at whim. The play makes it unreal. And that is half the key to understanding Poverty Chic.
We are afraid of becoming poor. But if you can control what you fear, you feel safe. Poverty Chic is control. It’s like the difference between falling off a bridge and bungee jumping. Poverty is your plaything. You are rich enough to be poor. But only if you want to.
You are in control.
You have nothing to fear. The horrifying beast of poverty is boxed, wrapped, and yours for $99.95. Enjoy.
Poverty Chic is visibly different from poor. The Chic version is clean, temporary, and partial. Safe. Not quite real. Torn jeans above expensive shoes. An aftertaste of mockery lingers in the mouth. I do by choice what they do by force. Status. Control. However, as soon as the beast bites back the fashion flees. The “Heroin Chic” look soon vanished when its main photographer died of a heroin overdose.
Poverty Chic also has another side. Poverty is romantic. Poverty looks more real. More authentic. More simple. The monk in a cave. The starving artist. The Blue’s player, all true soul.
Poor people are cool.
Part of us wants to be them. Just like part of us wants to be a cowboy, a noble savage, a shepherdess. We want to escape. They seem to have something we don’t. In the past you might have fed this appetite by going on a pilgrimage, or joining a monastery. Today you can go shopping.
Youth in particular seem to feel this pull. The disillusionment. The angst. The escape from a culture which seems so fake. Poor musicians often lead the way. They’re standing on the outside. They’ve got that feeling too. Grunge. Hip Hop. Rap.
Soon the style goes mainstream. The symbols of poverty become associated with celebrities. The money machine takes over. A new Poverty Chic is born. The style comes to represent everything that people were fleeing from in the first place. Culture gains another Chic ghost. The cycle begins anew.
Fear and escape, then conformity and forgetting, and the search for a new fad. Poverty will always be fashionable. That is, unless you’re poor.
Further Down the Rabbit-hole:
The cases of Poverty Chic are too many to list. Here’s a few to wet your poverty hungry appetite…
- Slum Tourism.
- From the American Girl doll company: Gwen the homeless girl.
- Fashion designers can’t keep their hands off it. For two examples, see ‘Heroin chic’, and ‘Boho chic’ (bohemian + homeless = boho).
- Yuppie Outlaws, the bikers with steady employment.
- For some satire not everyone could tell was a joke try “The most Melbourne man ever”, and the Bindle Brothers.
Read about Poverty Chic as a way of managing upper-class fear in “Poor Chic: The Rational Consumption of Poverty”, by Karen Bettez Halnon. Here.