Hobo Chic: Offensive, Expensive 90’s Grunge?

I don’t believe there are many women under the age of 30 who don’t own at least one pair of ripped jeans and spent a good amount of money on them. Currently a fashion staple, deliberately ripped jeans seem to be originally associated with punk movements as early as the 1960’s. But before that, ripped denim simply signified poverty—jeans were literally invented to withstand hard labor conditions, and those who continued to wear them even after the durable fabric ripped and tore bore the double stigma of being both working class and too poor to afford new ones. Even today, wearing ripped jeans around my grandmother’s generation provokes a smirk and a cheeky comment along the lines of “what, you can’t afford new pants?” (I wonder if they can even perceive that the wearer may have paid $150+ for them?)

(Image from Vogue Korea)

Currently, it is common for ripped jeans to be complemented by and made socially acceptable with more refined and tailored items, like knit sweaters, blazers, or sophisticated prints. (I’ve even worn mine to work teaching English 100 at a local university!)  Pairing ripped denim with polished pieces removes them from their grungy contexts, and it seems as though now they are rarely perceived as an item originally associated with poverty or rebellion. However, in the last few years, the distressed concept has risen in popularity and taken to an extreme; the “ripped jean” phenomenon transcends denim and can be found in oversized, ripped or scraped sweaters, loosely knitted, oversized scarves, burn holes in t-shirts or sweatshirts, flannel everywhere, excessive layering (think Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen), and even shoes that are made to look worn, like these by Golden Goose. The trend is often called “hobo-chic,” a term that is descriptive of the way that the clothes that are typically associated with poverty and homelessness are now fashionable and desirable. Another term often used is “luxe-grunge,” again juxtaposing high-end fashion and street style.

(Image of Golden Goose sneakers via Barney’s New York)

Whatever you choose to call it, the trend does call for some discussion. Many take issue with the fact that designers are taking their looks from those with nothing and selling them for exorbitant prices. It has even been compared to cultural appropriation in reference to the way that a certain aesthetic element may be taken from a marginalized culture, population, community, or demographic and allowed into the mainstream, and yet the issues faced by those demographics remain in the background.

Some offer defense against this criticism, however, by pointing out that designs inspired by the subjugated or impoverished either help bring forgotten populations into the spotlight. Similarly, people who have been accused of cultural appropriation claim that they were simply “inspired” by other cultures, or that the clothes they design after a cultural costume are a sort of tribute. But it cannot be ignored that in the case of hobo-chic, people who have the means to drop $400 on a distressed sweater romanticize and glamorize the lives of those living on the streets, mimicking the aesthetic of a hard life. They may ultimately return to a more-than-comfortable home, eat expensive food, receive health care, and generally access all the things that their fashion inspirations don’t.

 Maybe some are overthinking this trend. After all, isn’t the thought of fashion being inspired by the street rather than dictated by fashion houses a progressive thought? Doesn’t it mean that high fashion can be accessible by anyone? But remembering that it is a historical pattern for the rich to steal from the poor makes me wonder if the homeless-chic trend is just another iteration of past moments where the identity of the poor and marginalized is appropriated by those with money hungry for power and ownership.

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