WALLS OF WEALTH
Marking the basis for how we are perceived in society, clothing, and the way in which we wear it, is one of the most apparent signifiers of identity in our consumerist society.
In the eighteenth century, fashion was one the most obvious way of flaunting one’s social position in public. Wealthier classes would exercise their profound social status by decorating themselves in fine golden jewels, silk dresses and upholstered blazers. It was not uncommon for men to boast tight-fitting shirts and trousers in a bid to accentuate their physical masculinity, displaying their power through fabrics and tailoring. Cloth constituted a form of currency, and because it was so expensive and hard to come by, it frequently replaced gold as a form of payment. In essence, those who wore the most eccentric clothes were wearing their own fortune.
Costume analysts now believe it was during the nineteenth century that clothing was democratized, as all social classes adopted similar clothing habits and styles. This transformation, they argue, was pronounced in the United States of America first, as in the nineteenth century it branded itself as a classless society, characterized by high levels of upward mobility. Perhaps then, unlike the purposes of the eighteenth century, one could argue that fashion, in this case, was more of a reflection of wider society and a country’s mood, as it acted as a unifier rather than a barrier.
During the height of the Cold War, however, social tensions lent fashion to once again enhance social barriers. In the German Democratic Republic, nearly all clothing available was mass-produced and functional rather than fashionable, leaving little room for individuality and self-expression. Metaphorically, this uniformity grouped people together as one, eliminating any sort of hierarchy; reflecting political undertones of communism. Conversely, those in the Federal Republic of Germany were free to dress themselves in ripped denim shorts, studded leather jackets and punk rock boots, echoing the liberal philosophies of the western world.
In the twenty-first century, however, clothes have
gradually depreciated in economic importance and political potency, with the enormous expansion of mass-produced, ready-made clothing at all prices. The availability of inexpensive clothing means that those with limited finances can easily find or create the personal styles that present themselves as how they want to be percieved in society. This is arguably because in today’s world, class does not play such a dominant role.
Nevertheless, some would suggest that there is still a defined working class fashion code in existence today. Artist Grayson Perry believes that areas of today’s working class adopt sophisticated, upmarket fashion conventions, but make it their own by taking these conventions to the extremes.
Perry believes clothes form a persona and that by putting them on we take ourselves away from the everyday reality of the working week, into our own ‘dream persona’. The theatricality of Fake Bake tans, Jessica nails and Gucci dresses can give the world a chance to see the dream you, with there being a sense of pride in the fantasy present.
Marketing analysts might here refer to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, with the working class seeking to obtain greater status by adopting trends and styles that are commonly associated with the wealthier classes. Grayson Perry summarizes this idea, stating: “Just like in the eighteenth century, we are still strategic about the effect we are trying to create through fashion.”
Today it is hard to determine a person’s financial or political standing through fashion alone. As free individuals with an unlimited supply of clothing materials at our feet, we can openly construct an image that defies the barriers of pre-held perceptions, financial or otherwise, with relative ease.