By: Jessie Yu
Photos by: Isabel Lord
On a warm spring day, there sit three houses lined up. They’re not perfect: a couple of holes in the wall here and there, an unfinished porch, graffiti tags on the front and back outer walls. While small, they are well-used and loved, the inhabitants happy to have somewhere to live.
Flash forward ten years, an elite land contractor has discovered this “cute” patch of land, and realizes that he has the potential to turn it into something popular. He buys a pair of the houses, taking them from the renting inhabitants, and fixes them up. He wants to keep the look “authentic” so he only patches up some holes, makes them neater. He adds some decorations that add to the “rustic” look and then begins selling these houses, capitalizing on their “vintage” qualities.
Sound familiar? Look down. Are you wearing a pair of ripped jeans? Given recent trends, the answer is more likely yes than no. Just as gentrification finds “potential” in low income neighborhoods, fashion’s recent trends do the same.
As a child, I was never allowed to wear ripped jeans because it would make my family “lose face” and was “messy dressing”. However, now everyone dons them. They’re sold for $25 at Target or $300 at Calvin.
What do we see in these jeans anyways? Probably the same we find in trends like “hobo-chic”, thrifting for “vintage finds”, and utility wear. All of these trends are like alternative and different, and like super cool… right?
Sure, they may fit the definition of “cool” created by elite fashion designers, but the problem is they appropriate the socioeconomically disadvantaged. Just as neighborhoods are gentrified and cultures can be appropriated, the same has happened within the fashion world. Fashion is the constant search for the next new, the expressive ‘different’. Yet recently fashion, and more specifically, elite designers have taken one step too far.
Ripped jeans once belonged to those too poor to afford clean, properly tailored, whole jeans. It was for those who fell, ripped the knees, and couldn’t afford to buy a new pair. Go even further into the past, jeans once belonged to cowboys in the south, the blue-collar worker. Utility suits as well, once belittled in shows like Zoey 101 where Chase Matthews dons a pair to avoid getting pantsed, are now considered “cool”. Camille Rowe-Bel claims her utility suit to be her favorite possession, and The Sartorialist, arguably the most famed street-style photographer, has featured models clad in utility shirts. Just like the two sides of gentrification, this situation has positive and negative attributes.
Many of the arguments are akin to those made for gentrification. Just as people argue that those who hold land in gentrified areas now have properties of greater worth, one can say that those who have such clothing can fit in with current trends. However, just as most people who are socioeconomically disadvantaged would be renting these houses and not owning them, the same goes for clothing. It is, unfortunately, not a fashion trend led by them. Instead, when they look for clothing, prices will have gone up for the clothes they used to be able to purchase. Moreover, thrift shops, places that were first established specifically for those low in income have been raided by fashion bloggers and elites looking for the “new cool”. While thrifting, in and of itself is a good practice—it takes business from fast fashion that uses child labor and reduces the waste in clothing—it worsens the economic inequality by raising demand and thus prices at thrift shops. Because much of fashion is located in larger cities, thrift shops in New York, for example, are particularly picked over and more expensive compared to those in the Midwest.
Moreover, fashion gentrification also shares attributes of cultural appropriation. Trends like hobo-chic take away from the hardships and difficulties of being without a home and without one’s day-to-day needs. Those who start such trends do not credit their inspiration nor attempt to understand the conditions from which it came from. These fashion industries are further capitalizing on the lower classes for more monetary gain. It honestly feels like mocking; playing dress up in someone else’s life for fun. It is flaunting the luxury of being able to buy a pair of perfectly nice jeans and destroy them simply for the sake of being able to, trying to fit in with the latest human-constructed trends.
Fashion needs to do better, be better. But how? First, recognize the place from where the inspiration came from. Second, do not use this fashion as a mere means to more money, but rather use the meaning and power behind these trends as a way to promote more recognition for social justice issues. Donate some of that money. In this way, designers can at least try to credit the groups they are taking advantage of.
I’m not asking you to toss out your ripped jeans because, honestly, it’s too late. The fashion industry started this trend, and it will continue to take hold. But there are other ways we can hold ourselves accountable. Start to think more about the clothes we wear, about not only whose culture we’re appropriating but whose socioeconomic status, whose lifestyle. In other words, what you always hear, but actually need to do—acknowledge your privilege. Dress with more awareness for such issues and hold companies (i.e. Urban Outfitters) who practice fashion gentrification accountable. And lastly, talk about it; hold conversations about appropriation and gentrification. Work to understand these issues.
JESSIE YU is a junior in the College, studying international relations with a minor in business administration. Hailing from New York City, she enjoys what her mom likes to call “grandma hobbies” such as knitting, baking, collaging, enjoying nature, and scaring people. Even so, she considers herself a “cool grandma” who advocates for women’s rights, religious freedom, and environmental conservation.