what does your clothing say about you?

what does your clothing say about you?

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As Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss compete to become the next Tory leader, it’s not just what they say that grabs headlines. Her fashion statements also speak volumes.

Last week, stories about what the contestants were wearing had them in opposite corners — with wildly different budgets. Truss’s £4.50 earrings from Claire’s Accessories contrasted with Sunak’s big budget style choices, including a pair of Prada loafers worth £450 and a tailored suit worth £3,500.

If politicians’ attire is always analyzed — think Theresa May’s quirky leopard-print kitten heels or Barack Obama’s roll-up can-do sleeves — the debate over what Sunak and Truss are wearing is taking place against the backdrop of the cost-of-living crisis . It focuses on price and the status these items are trying to signal. It begs the question: how will style status symbols work in 2022?

Liz Truss arrives for the BBC's Conservative Party leadership debate last week

Liz Truss last week. Nadine Dorries highlighted her choice of earrings. Photo: Reuters

Even in a livelihood crisis, fashion’s expensive status symbols retain their power and remain popular with consumers. Financial results for fashion brands for the first half of 2022 were released last week. Revenue rose 48% at Moncler, where a cropped down jacket with the bear logo on the sleeve costs £1,235. At conglomerate LVMH, which owns Louis Vuitton and Givenchy, revenue rose 19% in the second quarter of 2022, credited with luxury bags. A classic monogrammed Louis Vuitton Speedy costs £1,030. Meanwhile, Sunak’s favorite, Prada, posted a 22% increase in sales in the first half. The popular Cleo shoulder bag – with the Prada triangle logo – costs £1,800.

“Clothing has been deeply rooted in status for millennia because clothing is a social language,” says Emma McClendon, fashion historian and author of Power mode: the power of fashion. “This is how we make our bodies socially readable.” The symbols shift over time. “The way you show strength and power might be different in 2022 than it was in 2016 or 2012,” she explains.

Status symbols of each moment are defined by what the dominant elite looks like. In the digital age, these are the super-rich from Silicon Valley, figures who clad in hoodies and sneakers rather than the suits of the traditional establishment. Hardly a style icon in the traditional sense, Mark Zuckerberg has been driving this shift. McClendon argues that his casual outfits were “a really conscious tampering with the appropriate Wall Street experience of success. Because ultimately, it’s about how each particular era or individual tries to define success and power.”

Some public figures are picking up on working-class tropes to align with something that seems more authentic

Daniel Rodgers

Sunak is dedicated to defining Silicon Valley. For photos of him working on the budget at the height of the pandemic in 2020, he was pictured in a hoodie by California brand Everlane, a choice intended to portray him as a poster child for contemporary success and wealth.

The discussion about status symbols also takes place in class and who is “allowed” to wear these coveted objects. This also changes over time. Twenty years ago, Danniella Westbrook was on the cover of Sun dressed head-to-toe in Burberry plaids, prompting outrage – and the fashion house reducing the amount of plaid it used for fear of alienating its upper-class client base. Daniel Rodgers, a fashion journalist who wrote about the impact of Westbrook’s outfit, says the look would be less disruptive now. “It’s getting harder and harder to tell if someone is middle class, working class or upper class because the internet and social media have blurred all those lines.”

Kim Kardashian at Paris Fashion Week in early July.

Kim Kardashian at Paris Fashion Week in early July. Photo: Pierre Suu/Getty Images

However, he sees that women still cause public outrage for overstepping their perceived boundaries. “Kim Kardashian is an example,” he says. “Before Kanye, when she started dressing by luxury houses like Givenchy, people were like, ‘Why is this page three girl basically getting access to this?’ It really drives a lot of people away [ideas of] Class. It’s something so embedded in us that for many people it’s offensive when someone crosses those boundaries. [because it’s] disrespecting the nature of the natural order of the world.”

Signifiers are further complicated by the fact that status can now come from “coolness” and authenticity is often associated with working-class culture. “There are pop stars or public figures who try to take working-class tropes and align with something that feels more authentic,” says Rodgers.

Rachel Worth, author of the 2020 book fashion and class, says this is nothing new. She points to the French Revolution, when “it became dangerous to wear high-quality fabrics like silk. While looking casual, the working class became politically correct.”

Worth, whose upcoming book focuses on sustainability, also argues that status now can result from signaling that you’re aware of your carbon footprint. “These things go in cycles,” she says. “In the 19th century, second-hand was far superior, even for working people. It’s like we went back to that.”

“It’s fashionable to be a knowledgeable consumer,” agrees Caroline Stevenson, head of the Department of Cultural and Historical Studies at London College of Fashion, “to know where your clothes come from, to carefully curate your wardrobe, and to have an appreciation for.” to show the finer things in life.”

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In public, this is demonstrated either by putting outfits back on, as with the Duchesses of Cambridge and Sussex, or by borrowing an outfit, as with Carrie Johnson. Last year she wore a rented dress to marry the Prime Minister. In this context, Sunaks and Truss’s conspicuous consumption of new items, whether fast fashion or high end, might be seen as bad style, just as Kylie Jenner’s boast of traveling 17 minutes between two California airports in her private jet has prompted her branding as ” climate criminals” in a viral tweet.

McClendon says the two candidates’ attire communicates different assumptions of status. If Sunak’s are “classic symbols of wealth — the tailored suit, the designer clothes,” Truss’s earrings are “sort of reversed status [symbol] … There is a sense of status, of power within a democratic system that represents the people.”

Charlie Porter, the author of What Artists Wear, believes in Truss’ decision to quickly wear fashionable chimes with their cheap thrill guidelines. “[She] advocates lowering taxes for short-term goodwill,” he says. “The promise is greater disposable income in the face of rising fuel and food bills. Disposable income usually means shopping. Shopping makes people feel good in the short-term, often at the expense of what might do them good in the long-term.” Sunak’s luxury items, on the other hand, “can be used to skewer the rich while still being objects of desire and aspiration.”

She adds: “I think we’re in a really complicated moment with wealth because there’s both the ongoing pandemic, the inflation, the financial issues, but also the sustainability. It makes the pursuit really complicated.” Style status symbols are alive and well in 2022, but as always, it’s far from easy.

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