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Performing Poverty


October 18, 2023

Ainsley King


Performing Poverty


I, like many people, enjoy window-shopping or browsing in stores, even if that store is out of my price range or not my style. Historically, people would have had three to five outfits that they cycled through, mending and tailoring them as they grew older. Trend fashion can be traced back to the 18th century (picture the very tall wigs and powdered faces) once people began to have leeway to afford more outfits and show off their wealth. This began the trend of consumerism and the modern idea of wearing what was fashionable. According to National Geographic, there are approximately 1.7 billion people worldwide that belong to the “consumer class”, meaning a person able to buy goods and services other than those that satisfy the most basic needs such as food, clothes, housing according to The Word Count. This consumerism has terrible effects on the environment because of the natural resources needed for making clothes and the pollution, emissions and landfills created. This consumerism has influenced how people dress and buy their clothes. Fast fashion is meant to pump out “trendy” clothing at a low cost, and this has only become more and more “in-vogue” as social media becomes more popular. You never see your favourite influences re-wear outfits, right? 


So, where does this “performing poverty”- meaning wearing worn down or ripped clothes as fashion-come in? Things like ripped jeans and crop tops became popular in the eighties and cut t-shirts made a statement during the 2000s. Every genuine problem, like choosing between food and utilities, that millions of people face every day is fabricated and misrepresented in the ripped jeans that are sold for $200 and in the $2,000 ripped Balenciaga sneakers. Wearing these scuffed sneakers is now a show of wealth, but you can still tell the differences between someone who is just “pretending” and someone who genuinely cannot afford anything else. Thrifting has become all the more popular among younger people as a way to drive back against consumerism and to afford clothes. Unfortunately, this has the adverse effect of driving up prices with thrift stores or completely leaving them picked over for people who genuinely cannot afford anything else. This means that you have people who can afford other things choosing to go to thrift stores in typically more impoverished neighbourhoods to get a better deal, and that “poverty-chic” is making a comeback as the class gap gets wider.


Good claims, “much the same as cultural appropriation, poverty chic is an act of “cherry-picking” and Refinery29’s Leeann Duggan explains, “It glibly looks at the world with a purely visual eye and refuses to consider meaning. The celebrities and fashion elites flaunting… signifiers of poverty have likely never lived through the abjection they’re mimicking. The 2000s made ill-fitting or too-small clothes trendy.” A whole collection of torn menswear was paraded down the catwalk by Vivienne Westwood in 2010. Miles Aldridge, a photographer, has elevated the homeless in his images. Through the middle of the 2000s, the Olsen twins dressed like homeless people. According to Erin Wasson, dressing like a homeless person is the height of fashion. In cycle 10 of America's Next Top Model, Tyra Banks had the models pose as seductively homeless while The Sartorialist created a model of a real homeless person.  In 2016, Nordstrom was selling a “superstar taped sneaker,” described as a “distressed leather sneaker,” for $530. Despite the criticism they received, the company stated that it was “proud to highlight its pioneering role in the booming of the distressed look, one of the current biggest trends in fashion.” The continued sale of the “distressed” shoe insults the experiences of the poor and reinforces a culture of classism and inequality. It’s insulting in that wealthy people- mostly celebrities- are pretending in order to make them implicitly feel better about their consumerism yet people below the poverty line watch as their lives become trendy. It’s insulting in the same way 


What’s the problem with this? In an article addressing the phenomenon of poverty chic from 2002, writer Zoe William posits in The Guardian that it is "timeless" to equate being poor with being "cool." This, according to the argument, stems from religion and the fundamental "idea of the poor being inherently pious." Williams thinks that the impoverished are absolved of guilt, unlike the privileged, a burden that the upper-class rich must carry forever. It's possible that the demeaning notion of the "pious poor" is what drives the currency of struggle in the current environment. People like Kim Kardashian romanticising or glamorising poverty chic while keeping their $10 million diamonds in their homes aestheticised poor people are constantly belittled for trendy and drives up prices. We glorify poverty while demonising the poor. According to Westhale, this is because of "systemic oppression that makes it difficult for them to have the same access to upward mobility, [the poor] are considered socially uncouth and lazy, while white anarchists... are praised for their radically subversive actions."


And it’s not just fashion. The tiny house and van life movements have become more and more popular. It comes from the soaring cost of housing, but I'm curious to know how many people involved in the tiny house movement have ever actually resided in a small, mobile home. I haven’t, but I see myself in the people online who glorify van life. Judy Westhale writes, “Because what those who can afford homes refer to as "living light" is what people in poverty refer to as "gratitude for what we have." My point with all this is that this continues the trend of “trashy” things becoming “classy” once you have enough money: twenty-year-old ripped jeans are equated to “distressed jeans” that cost over $100 or living in your car. It’s a choice for the people who live a van life; they have a safety net. But for the people who genuinely live off of $5.50 a day, poverty, small homes, and tattered clothing; this is something the disadvantaged are criticised for, while the rich are admired for being "simple."


It’s not all bad. Thrifting is another form of recycling and can help the environment. We should be frugal and cut down on consumerism. Self-expression, according to The Black Mirror, shouldn't be restricted. Some people put a lot of effort into earning the right to choose, and they shouldn't be forced to give it up. This is yet another instance of how political correctness is overused in society. These decisions are not meant to romanticise, glamorise, or mock the underprivileged. For example, to be anti-capitalist, hipster, millennial, fashionable, young, cool, financially responsible in some situations, environmentally friendly, a potential solution to housing concerns, etc., are all good reasons why people might choose to appropriate poverty. Expecting them to purchase new clothing each time their old ones become torn or worn out is impractical. Because they have so many other concerns, poor people aren't concerned with what wealthy people are doing with their money.  Marie Antoinette had a little farm in her palace that she used to pretend she was living in. The problem is not with people living in a van, travelling or being environmentally friendly by thrifting. The problem is romanticising poverty to be trendy or as an escapism.

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