The essay will present the different styles of working-class clothing, looking at their social meanings. The paper will also examine how subculture groups are used to challenge these representations of the working-class style. It is argued here that hip-hop subcultures present a form of resistance against classist stereotypes by adopting clothes associated with ‘street culture’ that are seen as dirty and unhygienic.
The working class is often associated with negative characteristics such as ‘dirty’ or ‘smelly’ (Goldin, 2021). Many representations of the working class in the British media take advantage of these associations. Some everyday items are linked to certain social groups, and it seems like all high street brands represent the middle class while poor-looking clothes are reserved for lower social groups (Goldin, 2021). For example, the choice of food served in some cafeterias or budget airlines can reinforce class differences by offering more expensive products such as salmon and champagne for the rich while catering to the less well off with cheap but boring lunchmeat and wine. The mass media representation of a class is limited to shops and goods; rather, it extends to what people wear (Goldin, 2021). From a Marxist perspective, “class becomes visible through dress”. We see this with the style of clothing worn by different social groups.
The grubby stereotype has become popular in both TV shows and adverts which are aimed at middle-class audiences. This stereotype could be due to anxiety about growing inequality within society because once working-class individuals are represented as undesirable, there is an isolating of the ‘white working class’ (Goldin, 2021). This may be because poor people are deemed lazy, smelly, and dirty. The language used by some politicians to describe the poorest in society has made the public believe that this group’s worth is insignificant.
The media representation of the working class often associates lower social groups with dirtiness, which is shown in some TV programs. The biggest example is ‘Dinner Ladies’ – a situation comedy on TV during 1998-2000 (Linke, 2017). This program portrayed an assembly line factory in Northern England, and many characters were working-class women who wore charmless clothing – such as baggy jumpers and ill-fitting skirts. Another example was the British sitcom ‘The Royle Family’, also set in Northern England, where the central character had dirty clothes, unkempt hair, and lived in unsanitary homes (Ala-Kutsi, 2005). These examples suggest that people do not take pride in their appearance and have no self-respect, representing the working class. This portrayal contributes to the idea that they are dirty, smelly and unhygienic.
The mass media also associates groups such as the hip hop subculture with bad hygiene. Researched young people in Hull who dressed in styles associated with hip hop; she noted that these members were often described by their peers and teachers as ‘dirty’ and ‘smelly’. The participants reported hearing terms like this from white adults too: “you smell”, said one skinhead, while another claimed an adult had called him “a smelly little black bastard”. In the documentary ‘The Hip Hop Years’ by Jeremy Marre, a researcher asked several British children if they thought hip-hop groups were smelly and dirty. Almost all the kids agreed with this idea, while some assumed it was due to bad hygiene practices while others cited lack of access to washing powder or facilities. The documentary displayed a range of negative representations about young people who dress in styles associated with hip hop – such as being rude, aggressive, and coarse.
The working class has been spreading this association to other social groups too. For example, middle-class people are perceived as dirty, but not as much as those in lower social classes. Other examples include Goths and punks, both seen as dirty subcultures associated with bad hygiene and drugs (Dobrulia, 2021). Goths members often wear black clothing and dark makeup, which can be linked to night-time activities such as staying up late – this would suggest that it is harder for them to maintain their appearance by regular cleaning. Punks also may not have the time or money to keep themselves clean if they spend most of their time and money buying and looking after punk accessories. These examples indicate that people in social groups seen as undesirable do not care about their appearance, unlike those who belong to groups viewed positively, e.g. middle-class children shown in ‘The Kid’s Company’ documentary.
This representation of an unhygienic working class is problematic because it stereotypes these people as being dirty, and thus, hurting them by making them feel bad about themselves and contributing to the prejudice against this group. The discourse of dirtiness is also linked with race. Since many poor people are from ethnic minorities, there is an association between blackness and dirt, making some white people feel superior to others (Lawler, 2005). This claim that style is used as resistance can be seen in subcultures such as Goths and punks; they use their appearance to express who they are rather than caring too much about how they look. One way is by buying their clothes, accessories, and makeup. They choose what they buy carefully to create a look that reflects their subculture. For example, Goths are picky about what brand of makeup or clothing they use – if it does not have emo or gothic style, these members might be reluctant to wear it. Certain products are associated with this subculture; for example, black lipstick – although dark-coloured lipsticks were already being sold before bands like Siouxsie and The Banshees used them in their music videos – but after The Banshees released the song ‘Hong Kong Garden’, sales increased because people thought wearing black lipstick was something only punks and goths would do.
These products also have a specific image or identity, such as wearing pale face makeup or kohl eyeliner. This is similar to those who try out new slogans and T-shirts, hoping that people will identify them as belonging to these groups. It can be said that Goths and punks use their style to assert an identity – they dress in the way they want, and this becomes their signature of how they look, which sets them apart from those around them. For some critics, the claim that a style is a form of resistance may seem controversial because it does not seem like proper resistance against oppression; some may not see it as a serious protest against the system (Lawler, 2005). This kind of resistance is less forceful than those done through more stereotypical forms such as riots and demonstrations. But these alternative expressions contributed to creating new social movements, like LGBT and punk music, which eventually gained more momentum and became politically significant.
The representations of a stereotypically dirty working class and the claim that style is a form of resistance are both problematic as they contribute to negative representation. Working-class groups become more vulnerable as societies continue to implement these stereotypes (Lawler, 2005). The claim that style is used as resistance can also be misleading as it suggests that there does not need to be any changes made for social progress to occur, which does not illustrate the problems faced by people with lower social status and their desire for change. In reality, the representations are problematic as they represent these people with limited opportunities to improve their social situations (Lawler, 2005). But regardless of how unconventional it is, I believe that style can be a form of resistance if it encourages people to think more deeply about different ways to resist oppression or challenge stereotypes regarding certain groups.
Regarding the claim that lifestyle is used as resistance, there is no universal definition of ‘lifestyle’. It could mean different things such as specific practices (e.g., what you do daily) and specific tastes (e.g., what you like). These two categories become intrinsically intertwined when we speak about alternative lifestyles because those who subscribe to those types usually do so by following those practices and adopting those tastes (Tosoni & Zuccalà, 2020). For example, punks adapt their lifestyles by listening to certain music and dressing up in clothes associated with the subculture. Their lifestyle is also reflected in what they buy; for instance, they buy clothes containing punk logos or listen to music like The Clash. A Goth’s lifestyle includes following specific practices like wearing dark makeup or tights (Tosoni & Zuccalà, 2020). They also consume products labelled as Gothic – for example, clothing with skull prints on them – but if it does not have items belonging to this subgroup, these members might be reluctant to wear it. Some researchers even say that a lifestyle can also be a person’s set of tastes and opinions (Dong, 2018).
When we look at the use of style as a form of resistance, we can see that it is not always helpful. Lawler (2005) argues that young working-class people who use ‘chav’ or ‘ghetto’ fashions to identify themselves might be seen by those in positions of power as ‘disgusting’. This is illustrated with an example from EastEnders; one scene shows a male wearing tracksuit bottoms and trainers lying on public transport. Other characters judge him because he does not wear expensive labels as they do. This judgment feeds into negative representations about how these young people dress, reinforcing societal norms that devalue their way of life (Lawler, 2005). However, Lawler (2005) does not dismiss the notion that people can use their culture and lifestyle as a form of resistance. He argues that young working-class people should produce their products (Dong, 2018). For example, one designer who used to work for a big fashion label wanted ‘to bring down the whole system’ by designing clothes accessible to everyone. This example illustrates how different lifestyles can be used as a form of resistance against hegemonic tendencies imposed on them by society.
Although it might be controversial for some, I believe that style is used as resistance because members of these subcultures use their clothes or appearance to express an identity that turns into part of their political identity. The style of these groups is essentially their way of living and thinking, which has become a cultural movement that has gained popularity and support from other groups (Lawler, 2005). It isn’t easy to trace the origins of the counterculture movement. Still, it seems that any group of people who feels excluded or misunderstood by mainstream society has developed their own culture and lifestyle as a form of resistance. The article Lawler (2005) draws parallels with British working-class young adults and how they use style as a form of resistance.
In conclusion, I believe that style is used as a form of resistance. This claim can be supported by the example of British working-class young adults who use their clothes to announce identity and political opinion, which makes them a counterculture group. Although it seems controversial, people have been using their culture to express themselves since culture. The scale of these cultural movements might vary, but it is important to acknowledge that they are a form of resistance. In some cases, it might be a way of combating society’s viewpoints on their lifestyle and standard of living. In other cases, it is a form of resistance against a dominant culture or hegemony.
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