The Classist History of Being ‘Fashionable’

The act of being “fashionable”— to the displeasure of every fashion publication and trend spotter — is something that is inherently subjective. Someone’s idea of fashion can revolve around Nike shorts and a tank top, whereas another’s is based on the latest designer goods. Regardless, these two styles, out of the millions that exist in the fashion world, deserve our respect. However, the Nike shorts and a tank top wearer is never applauded for being Fashionable. Yet, it is not because their choices of clothing do not hold historical significance. Quite the opposite. 


Being deemed fashionable relies on outside perceptions of your clothing. How do you look wearing those Nike shorts? Do they make your butt perky? Are they, God forbid, stained? As society progresses, one’s clothing becomes less about intrinsic comfort and more about the desire for external validation. Unfortunately, it is impossible to escape that reality. Even while writing this article, I am thinking back to the times I have felt uncomfortable wearing something that got too many befuddled expressions or not enough compliments. Although fashion has always been used as a means of representing oneself, the importance of external perception and/or validation increases after every trend cycle. Why?


To answer that question, we must look at 16th-century England. During this time, social classes were strictly separated through the enforcement of sumptuary laws. These laws created a strict dress code for each social class, making it easy to identify anyone based on their clothing. Although forms of sumptuary law were cross-cultural, they were instituted most severely by the English who popularized the practice across Western Europe. European imperialism then spread this oppressive practice to other cultures, allowing for the international implementation of class-based dress codes that served to limit social mobility amongst the lower classes. In the 21st century, as in the 16th, clothing is used as an extension of personhood. However, in the 1500s, someone’s personhood was their source of shame; a peasant could not wear the clothes of a king. Sumptuary law allowed shame to be injected into fashion, something that remains salient to this day. 

In fact, I would argue that we are still living in a sumptuary society because certain items are inaccessible to a majority of individuals. More importantly, everything we put on our bodies signifies our personhood, completely open to judgment. People do not want to wear certain pieces because they are afraid of being perceived negatively. For instance, my mother always told me to never wear mismatched socks because onlookers would think that I was poor. Her statement was ironic since we were on food stamps and lived in Section 8 housing. But, my mother was raised in a more sumptuary society than I was, one where individuals did not want to wear mismatched socks,  stained clothes or anything “too worn.” Yet, individuals are not just avoiding looking “poor”; they are aspiring to look “rich” 


In our sumptuary society, every item contains a label. This could be viewed as over-categorization. Yet, there are instances where these labels are extremely important. For example, the Qipao is a traditional Chinese form-hugging dress. Due to its historical significance to the Chinese people, it should not be altered or worn in a situation that would undermine its cultural significance, an extremely important label. Yet, the labels given to clothing and accessories allow for the cultural significance of items to be scrutinized, affecting the external perception of one’s outfit or fashion sense. 


External perceptions have undermined the purpose of fashion. To be “fashionable” is to be secure in what you are wearing. It may rely on material possessions, but our internal perception of these items impacts how we are perceived. External perceptions, however, can be judgemental. However, that judgment is rooted in antiquated, classist values. If what you are wearing brings you confidence, no one can tell you anything.

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About Author

Anwar Boutayba is an npcoming sophomore studying ad/pr and global studies. When he’s not writing, he likes to cook and binge watch Scandal.

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