High Fashion and "Class Appropriation": How Much is Too Much?

While shopping in Boston over fall break, I stepped into The Frye Company and wandered around the high-end footwear store looking at various men’s boots. Stopping at a pair labeled “Prison Boot,” I could not help noticing the price. They were $378.00. I put them back and continued browsing. The next pair I found was called “The Union Worker Boot”—priced at $298.00. The irony was not lost on me. There is little chance that Frye sells these boots to their namesakes. It markets them to a wealthy clientele.

High fashion has recently come under criticism for “class appropriation.” High-end designers have added to their collections pieces that resemble firefighter’s jackets, nurse’s outfits, and even DHL shirts. It intuitively seems wrong that the wealthy are taking something that blue-collar workers wear every day and using it for their amusement. The ethics of such a practice are up for debate.

Take, for example, Timberland Boots. They were originally designed as work boots for blue-collar workers. Now, however, they are a fashion statement and a common sight on college campuses. While designers have taken a fancy toward them, blue-collar workers can still use them for their original purpose. In the time it took them to become popular, the price did not skyrocket to the detriment of lower-income consumers. It stayed the same, which allowed working-class people to keep using the boot. I do not believe this is an example of class appropriation, since the price does not exclude the boot’s original demographic.

If you look at Frye boots, the same cannot be said. They were specifically designed for a wealthy clientele. Frye designers had no intention of selling their “Union Worker” boot to actual union workers. I believe this is when companies go too far in class appropriation. When the demographic with which it is associating certain products can no longer afford the clothing or footwear, the industry needs to step back and reconsider what it’s doing.

The clothing and fashion industries have always pushed the boundaries of controversy and style. In the many cases of class appropriation, they can be seen as exercising their rights as capitalists. They saw a market and took advantage of it. But why does this market exist in the first place? What makes wealthy consumers want to dress like the working class and be willing to pay hundreds of dollars to do so? This is a curious topic to consider. While the fashion industry needs to make money and can do this by marketing a blue-collar style to affluent customers, it must be frustrating for workers to see their uniforms and clothing taken and used for a fashion statement by those who have never worked a twelve-hour shift in an emergency room, or spent a day doing construction, in their lives.