Clothing Styles and Class Consciousness

Anyone who is critical of the ways marketing affects poor and middle class people today may wonder what trends in clothing styles show about class distinctions. The term “Conspicuous Consumption” was introduced in Thorstein Veblen’s 1899 book, The Theory of the Leisure Class. Since then it has been an increasingly important aspect of marketing. I want to extend his ‘leisure class’ distinction to include conspicuous consumption in lower classes.

This post aims to understand why so many poor women – especially Blacks – want to look sexy and attract attention by their appearance, behavior and manner. There’s little doubt that they do want this. Throughout my neighborhood, it’s hard not to hear their voices, watch their walks and see their eye-smacking colors from head to foot (or hair to shoes), nor do I try. I do try not to gawk, because mother said it’s impolite. Some observers may decide these women are begging, selling their favors, or are ‘wannabe’ successes. I have no idea of their motives. Even if one should approach me directly, I wouldn’t know her true motives. However, it’s a safe bet these folks are spending more than they can comfortably afford.

So if saving money is not their goal, what might it be? If they’re desperate for money, this method is certainly better and safer than theft. On the other hand, they may have a worthier goal, like hoping for justice, being accepted, belonging, gaining respect, or looking for happiness. If that’s the case, I’d say more power to them and good luck! Being a teacher of philosophy most of my life, I can safely say none of the great ethical thinkers, from ancient times till now, has believed wealth is life’s goal. A person who thinks it is, is twisted – a miser, or one of the few who get caught up in the ‘never enough’ delusion.

I live in an affluent part of Chicago called Old Town. I can’t stop one of these charming ladies and ask why she’s wearing whatever it is. Obviously I’d be ignored, yelled at, slapped, or reported. So I need to count on indirect research, and compare it to my experience and ideas. This is a complex and confusing topic with no simple answers; that’s why I chose it.

When Michael Jordan was all the rage in Chicago and national news, young blacks wore shoes with the Nike ‘Swoosh’ icon. (I doubt many people know Nike was the Greek messenger god who wore winged sandals.) Here’s a very recent and costly version – the Satan Shoe – modeled by rapper Lil Nas X. It’s an aftermarket item, made by MSCHF (pronounced Mischief), complete with Biblical text ref. to Luke 10:18: “I saw Satan fall like lightning”. The 666 pairs produced sold out immediately, at $1800 each! Nike sued and settled. I won’t give more details about the shoes; they are obscene and blasphemous.

Since Black Lives Matter (BLM), most major brands are using black celebrities, especially women, to push their products. I believe that’s harmful to their followers, and posssibly themselves as well. There’s no doubt these ads continue to raise the cost of the products. 70 years ago, when I was a teen, we found white sneakers in a big box at the local general store (e.g. Woolworths), to sort through for size and/or brand; they cost $2 or $3. ( says ‘The average MSRP price of Nike shoes is $110.15 while the average available lowest price is $66.75. Nov 7, 2021′.) This is way over the inflation from that period, which is about 10X the earlier cost.

Without taking sides on the racial divide over clothing styles, Harvard economist Raymond Fisman discussed the psychology and economics of dress in a 2008 Slate Magazine article. His main suggestion is that everyone wants to fit in well with the community where she/he/they feel comfortable. Dress styles are a natural part of this effort. I presume it has been so all through recorded history as well. But in many countries and cultures, from ancient to modern, people have been told how to dress and how to behave. This includes America today. Some of the USA ‘dress codes’ are reasonable; some are arbitrary and unjust. Compare a corporation, a government agency, a conservative religious community, and a sexist (male) spouse or partner. Misogynistic inequities aren’t only in Middle East religious countries like Iran, Iraq, Arabia, Turkey, Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, Israel (if not in law, in practice), and Palestine. See, e.g., this 2018 AlJazeera article on Patriarchy in Palestine, from which the following quote is taken: “Indeed, Palestine is a perfect example of how colonialism, capitalism and patriarchy work together to keep women, as well as the poor and the marginalised, under a devastating system of oppression”. Yes, and who controls capitalism? America and her allies around the globe, through the money system. Europe’s currency is being attacked by Putin’s only-Rubles policy; and the US Dollar is ‘Devouring the Euro’ as well, according to Michael Hudson and the helpful comment section in this Naked Capitalism post of 04/07/22.

Many commentators suggest that sexism is morally equivalent to racism. That’s a good point. Both are ways to act with prejudice against those one hates, and then justify it by saying they’re inferior, ignorant and properly subjects. Not surprisingly, someone who ‘blames the victim’ like this is looking to justify his behavior and attitude. So even the worst people want to be respected in their circle, as long as it benefits them.

Are Blacks demeaning themselves? Bill Cosby said ‘yes’ in 2004, starting a controversy that’s still going. He claimed that flamboyant dress styles, ‘bling’, bad diet etc. showed it. His speech and complaint to the NAACP is recorded in this 3 min. video titled Come On People. A Wikipedia article, titled The Pound Cake Speech, critiques the speech. He ‘was highly critical of the black community in the United States. He criticized the use of African-American Vernacular English, the prevalence of single-parent families, perceived emphasis on frivolous and conspicuous consumption at the expense of necessities, lack of responsibility, and other behaviors’. (The title is Pound Cake Speech, because in it he expressed his disgust at seeing a black man holding a pound cake, making a point about bad diet).

Despite much testimony against Cosby’s personal life, and his own admission of sexual assault against Andrea Constand, in 2021 the Pennsylvania Supreme Court overturned his conviction in Montgomery County the same year. (The highlighted NYT account is paywalled.) The judge decided Cosby should never have been tried, because he cut a deal with the County prosecutor Bruce Castor. Castor promised not to prosecute Cosby in criminal court if he agreed to give a deposition in the civil case to follow. Cosby did so, and paid Constand $3 M. Most people think this was an unjust legal technicality, given his abuse of this woman, and claims of abuse of various kinds by  60 other women. For what it’s worth, first, Prosecutor Castor successfully represented Mr. Trump in his second (2021) Impeachment Trial. And second, Cosby published a book with co-writer Alvin Toussaint in 2007, also titled Come On People!

Back to our topic of Clothing Styles, it used to be said, ‘Clothes Make the Man’. I would add, ‘and No Clothes Make the Woman’. Using sexy ads to market everything is ever increasing, even though actual sex with others is getting less frequent among women, shown in this article from UC Berkeley Greater Good Mag. It includes this thought: “The decline in sexual frequency probably reflects women’s increased ability to say no, and men’s increased consideration for them” (By the author Stephanie Coontz).

Scholar and international style critic Anna Batista kindly gave me permission to publish her article on Trends to Avoid, and use these visuals to illustrate another dimension of our topic – “Poverty Chic” – which is a travesty against people in real need. She reports that Maison Margiela “Future Destroyed” sneakers were apparently slashed with a razor blade and then put back together with hundreds of staples, and sold at Neiman Marcus sites for $1,425. 


Battista adds the Golden Goose company to her critique. Allegedly honoring the West Coast’s rich skateboard culture, these “Distressed Superstar Sneakers” have ripped laces, duct-tape reinforcements around the toe area and looked ‘pretty dirty and run down’. Released last year at $585, they were attacked on social media with many people accusing the brand of “poverty appropriation”. The brand simply ‘explained’  that pre-distressed footwear was their specialty. As usual, anything to increase sales.

A week ago I saw a black woman delivering mail from a USPS truck, in mailcarrier uniform. She was sporting thick boxbraided straw-colored hair, with a bun, and long intertwined extensions, hanging down her back like coiled snakes. Gorgeous. I can’t find anything close to it online, so imagination must serve. [If you find something like this, please let me know.] The elegant hairdo definitely didn’t match her clothes. Could she be trying to fit in with her (male) mail customers? I really doubt it.

As said above, using sex in ads and media of every sort is increasing. I enjoy observing trends of all sorts, and predicting what the logical outcome might be. Regarding this style topic, e.g., I noticed some time ago that threadbare jeans are more and more common. But they didn’t wear out from use; they were purchased that way. And the more theads showing, the more the price paid. I guessed correctly the outcome; it would be frayed cut-off shorts, with nothing covering the legs. The maximum cost has already been reached (as found in women’s clothing shops currently, for about $50). To generalize, this was a trend toward less and less covering (i.e., more and more showing) in women’s jeans. My son told me the end product is called Daisy Dukes.