the aesthetics of scarcity

In the midst of unprecedented abundance, nothing captures the imagination quite like the idea of scarcity. Even the name of this blog – Final Fashion – is a nod to the contradictory idea of a post-fashion future, something I believe is impossible in reality but fascinating in theory.

The intersection between money and fashion is one I like to explore, and in this post, I inadvertantly coined a phrase (at least, it was previously un-googleable) – the aesthetics of scarcity – that provided the title for this post. So what are the aesthetics of scarcity? From my readings, there are two significant angles – affected scarcity and actual scarcity – and the more provocative question is how they might indicate a future of fashion, when the abundant tide of high street fashion inevitably dries up, and what we may be left with.

1. affected scarcity

Nostalgie de boue – Marie’s Milkmaids

The it girl we’ll never get over no matter how many centuries pass, Marie Antoinette remains inextricably linked with the concept of “Nostalgie de la boue”. Her hobby farm, Hameau de la Reine, was a place where she and her court would go to “slum it”, an idealized version of a peasant farm. The fashion for simplicity that went with it, a direct reaction to the excesses of rococo, was weirdly prescient: the filmy, classical muslin anticipating the post-revolutionary Merveilleuses.

Punks & Westwood’s Nostalgia of Mud

Vivienne Westwood referenced the idea of romanticizing the exoticism of poverty in 1983. Placing her finger on a potent nerve with signature guilelessness, she sought to abandon the intramural nature of British street fashion up to that point. Taking more worldly inspiration and expanding on a newly fashionable interest in the plight of the Third World was very prescient as Live Aid was to come in 1985.

Nostalgia of Mud also signalled the end of the creative partnership between Westwood and Malcom McLaren, a team that exploited – perhaps even manufactured – one of the most significant signposts of affected scarcity – punk.

Oogles & Crust Punks

Punks, more than any other street style movement, are obsessed with the idea of authenticity. In this post, I posited that this was because it had to do with “poor dressing up as poor”, but the more I investigate, the more it seems that the lady doth protest too much. The idea of punk as an indigenous proletariat style movement dissolves under scrutiny. The fashions in SEX were expensive, designer clothing – and the look was so successful that the clothing was sub-licensed to a high-street shop called Boy. The lack of ethnic diversity in the early movement suggests that its members were not demonstrably disenfranchised at all.  Most damning of all, the aesthetics of punk has much more to do with bourgeoise concepts of poverty than actual poverty itself, as scrolling down will show.

Modern subcultures of punks – Oogles and Crust Punks – appropriate the most lingering middle-class preconception of poverty – hygiene. The image above of “crust pants” is an example of the uniform of modern punk – these pants are meant to appear as if they are never washed and rarely removed – though of course the reality is not so rigorous.

Homeless Chic in fashion

Every so often, for reasons that its perpetuators seem to be unable to articulate, fashion turns to the visible homeless for inspiration. The resulting controversy always seems to take fashion’s muddy nostalgists by surprise. In recent memory, there was Galliano’s FW 2000 menswear collectionWestwood’s FW 2010 menswear collection, this Meisel editorial for Vogue Italia June 2010, Erin Wasson telling Cory Kennedy her SS 2009 style inspiration, this Sartorialist post from August 2009, and of course “Derelicte” from the hilarious 2001 fashion parody, Zoolander.

What is it about the visible homeless that inspires such tasteless homage by fashion influencers? Perhaps there is a hunger for what is unaffected, a scarcity of novelty. Modern street style is so quickly corrupted by fashion – grunge was appropriated and rendered toothless within a year, and modern style trends are so quickly sucked into the well oiled consumer feedback loop that they never seem to develop lasting significance. Taking inspiration from foreign locales is perceived as colonialist and outdated and besides, globalization has rendered foreign locales virtually indistinguishable in reality from the local. Sick of cannibalizing itself, fashion has to resort to extremes for novelty and relevance – whether on the street or or on the runway.

This Orwell chapter is well worth a re-read – once again, the last visceral shocker left to fashion is olfactory. This is why crust pants, whether affected or actual, seem to represent fashion’s last stand.

2. actual scarcity

Teddy Boys

Perhaps the only modern style tribe with a truly indigenous origin in poverty, the Teddy Boys are a potent demonstration of how the bourgeois conception of the aesthetics of poverty are so vastly off the mark. These weekend warriors dressed in homage to the leisure class, a statement that was about personal pride. These boys may have slept four to a room in squalid council estates, but in public they visibly proved they were dignified.

This BBC documentary about the slums of Mumbai discusses some of the parallels between post-war Britain and the modern Third World, and its host comments on the striking appearances of the slum-dwellers – they may sleep on dirt floors at night, but during the day they wear crisp school uniforms and brightly coloured, embellished saris.


Perhaps the most famous modern version of this phenomenon is the Sapeurs of the Congo. The affectation of the clothing and manners of a privileged class mirrors the punks, both in extremity and a hunger for authenticity.

The Teds and Sapeurs visibly defy the idea of poverty, but the reality is that most poor people just look like ordinary people.

Any close examination of the poor in any country reveal that they are almost indistinguishable from any other class. The effects of fast fashion have succeeded in achieving an uninspiring aesthetic equality for all. But what about those who conform to the fashionable idea of poverty? The visible homeless?

Perhaps the most famous of the visibly homeless, Brother Sharp has strode his way into internet meme-dom. His look is iconic vagrant-chic – all layers and insouciance and mystery.

But the reality is unfortunately unromantic necessity. From The Joys of Being Homeless:

You ever wonder why lots of homeless people wear so many layers of clothes? Here’s a few obvious and not so obvious reasons;

1… It gets cold out at night (duh) even in the summer.

2… Sooo many pockets- next best thing to a pack of some sort.

3… This way nobody can steal them from your “campsite”.

4… Much easier to conceal a weapon, just make sure you can easily access it.

5… Excellent protection from slashing knife attacks and good padding for the times you find yourself being clubbed.

The author goes on to discuss appearances:

In the “big” city or inner cities, where the homeless populations can be substantial, I found that it was to my advantage to look pretty scruffy. One reason is that it saves the good clothes you might have from damage when you’re dumpster diving, picking through the trash and other things that might cause you to get messy. Also, the average citizen tends to ignore you, and the criminal elements don’t readily target you as a mugging opportunity unless you openly display some form of wealth.

The reasons why the appearance of the visible homeless is so unusually unaffected is because the considerations are anything but aesthetic. This is the final aesthetic of scarcity left, the one that fashion by its very nature has always failed to appropriate. Hopefully, it never will.

What does all of this suggest for a possible future of fashion, one where there isn’t so much available to everyone? A Mad Max style, post-punk tribalist world seems a very unlikely, bourgeois fantasy. Perhaps the blurred line between rich and poor will be become sharper again. What do you think that would look like?

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterPin on PinterestShare on TumblrEmail this to someone

9 thoughts on “the aesthetics of scarcity”

  1. I love it when you post entries like these. So much to learn…

    A question I had from your youth trend post and this post is whether the street fashion reaction for a particular era is globally or culturally uniformed.

    For example, you talked about hippies in your other post. During htat same period, was there a fashion basklash against that look in the western world (or even the eastern) or did everybody wear hippie duds?

    What were the reaction, if any, to the Teds or Sapeurs?
    I think this would be interesting to explore.

  2. The issue is so close to my heart. In Mumbai the poor are too poor to be able to mask it, the middle class are comparable to the poor elsewhere wearing the sharp clean clothes you describe. And all classes show their wealth by dressing well. The idea of grunge or homeless as a look is unthinkable.
    The irony is middle class garment workers that are part of the fashion machine making clothes for the grunge designers – they cannot fathom who would buy the drab/garbage-y looking stuff at those prices.

  3. Rebecca – in that period there were a number of loosely defined style tribes that existed alongside hippies – and as a response to hippie style, disco emerged as a mainstream counterpoint. I’m not sure about how to answer the question about whether a street fashion reaction is globally or culturally uninformed – I don’t think it’s a simple thing, a movement is an aggregation of cultural attitudes both intentional and unintentional.

    leah – thanks for your comment, its almost like irony or rebellion is a privilege. I think there’s something to that.

  4. oogles are not a subculture. “oogle” is not a title anyone would ue to define themselves. it’s a word that crusties use to describe people within or peripheral to the traveling punk scne in the united states who never have their shit together. the line between decent street kid / punk and oogle is sometimes blurry. mainly it’s an insider term and use by people other than punks is usually inaccurate, as understanding traveling punk life and its history, the various cultural signifiers, etc. requires more immersion than a journalist can usually muster.
    as usual, commentary on this subject is off-base due to a poor understanding of how most punks (and by this i mean people associated with the diy strain of punk that traces its roots to crass, amebix, disorder, and early american hardcore) live.

  5. Thanks for the helpful expertise Ben. Could you please write an authoritative history of punk or recommend one? I’d read it if it’s readable. Until then, off-base commentary is all you’re going to get.

  6. i’m not a sociologist. i’m probably not going to write a book of any sort apart from the occasional zine. what i would suggest is that if you’re going to comment on a culture you should be more than marginally familiar with it. i am personally not fit to comment on rave culture in the u.k., or the customs of the nomadic hadza, though i could find plenty of information online.

    an authoritative history of punk would be very difficult to write. i am personally thankful that one does not exist. we write our histories in zines and small books, in collections of photographs, fliers and records, and largely through an oral tradition. one monolithic book attempting to capture our history and traditions, our folk heroes, etc. is thankfully a near impossibility. you, or anyone else, could read it and feel entitled to comment on our way of life, as if a book could make a person an expert.

    i have read a stack of ethnographies, but i do not think this gives me anything other than the vaguest glimpse at the life of the people described in them.

    i am not trying to make this a big argument. as a person who does genuinely know more about this particular subject than you, i was attempting to correct an error.

  7. I’ll write about whatever I want. This idea that you need some type of tacit authority to be “entitled” to express ideas is so ridiculous. Stop shutting me down, stop shutting yourself down.

Comments are closed.