Style, Shame and Stereotypes: Dressing the Working-Class Woman
The intention of my dissertation is to examine the relationship that working-class women, based in the north of England, have with everyday dress by conducting a series of interviews.
In the UK, class is a largely contested and political subject. Professor of Sociology, Ken Roberts, asserts in the introduction to Class in Contemporary Britain that, ‘Britain today is one of the most unequal countries in the western world […]’ (2011: 1) However, there is no universally agreed upon definition of class, and many sociologists position their research alongside the work of Karl Marx, Max Weber and other functionalist sociologists. It is generally agreed that the concept of class links the economic, the political, the social and the cultural (Roberts, 2011: 3-5). Professor of Sociology, Beverly Skeggs, argues, within the framework of Pierre Bourdieu, that class division is, essentially, a social construct where classed representations are reproduced and proliferated to assert authority (2004, 117-118). Defining class, and the contemporary British working-class, is, in itself, a dissertation, and even though these debates will be referenced within the essay, there will not be an extensive discourse on this subject.
Analysis of the interviews, which will be conducted as primary research, will be situated within the context of existing work regarding the British working-class. However, I believe that, in this instance, it is important to critically situate myself within this work. My own class history is central to my understanding of how culture works, and it would be disingenuous to pretend otherwise. Contextualising my own situation is relevant to how I will conduct the research and position my findings. I was raised in West Yorkshire by a single-parent family. I identify myself as working-class because where I lived, my sense of self, whom I socialised with, and available cultural capital meant that this was, and remains, my socially constructed identity. In my current situation I am aware that I occupy the paradigmatically bourgeois roles of academic, writer and master’s student. A number of academics have already acknowledged this cultural cusp, and highlighted how this has affected their own research (Munt, 2000). Andy Medhurst, for example, refers to this in-between positioning as, ‘the knowledge class’ (Medhurst, 2000: 32). He argues that, ‘Any academic who claims an uncomplicatedly working-class identity is at best self-deluding, at worst grossly appropriative’ (2000: 20). Similarly, Skeggs states, ‘Who would want to be seen as working-class? (Perhaps only academics are left)’ (1997: 95). However, despite being essentially paid a middle-class wage to do middle-class work, I do not, and probably never will, consider myself to be middle-class. It is important to identify this because while I have already stipulated that the focus of my dissertation will be working-class women, and I identify myself as being working-class, I will not be targeting people like myself. Therefore, it is also acknowledged that by identifying participants for this study I will be categorising individuals, and, just as I don’t identify myself as being middle-class, they may too disagree with the working-class label.
Understanding representation, and the stereotypes this generates, is central to any analysis of class. Representation works with a logic of supplementarity, condensing many fears and anxieties into one class representation. Being working-class is not perceived to be aspirational, and it has become a symbol of fear and ridicule. For example, Little Britain‘s undesirable council estate character, Vicky Pollard, the ‘spectacle of cruelty’ (Seymour 2014) seen in ITV’s The Jeremy Kyle Show, and the controversial Channel Four documentary, Benefit Street, are all visual interpretations that have informed the stereotype of what it looks like to be working-class. As a result, media and politicians alike dismiss as feckless, criminalised and ignorant a vast, underprivileged swathe of society whose members have become labelled by one, hate-filled word: chavs. In Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class, Owen Jones argues throughout that the chav stereotype is used by the government as a convenient distraction to avoid genuine engagement with social and economic problems, and to justify widening inequality (2012). For example, in 2006 there was a lot of media rhetoric regarding Prime Minister David Cameron’s, “Hug a Hoodie” campaign (Fleming, 2011). Cameron said, ‘We, the people in suits, often see the Hoodies as aggressive. The uniform of a rebel army of young gangster’s […]’ (Ibid.) Even though class was not specifically referenced in this speech, by signifying one item of clothing, a hooded sweatshirt, Cameron segregated and demonised a large portion of the population. The message was clearly us, the suited, professional middle-class, against them, the hoodie-wearing, violent working-class. However, this image has absolutely nothing to do with the working-class, but rather the middle-class creating value for themselves through distance, denigration and disgust, and reproducing the concept of power.
On the other hand, political activist and academic, Barbara Ehrenreich, documents a shift from the representation of the working-class as useless, tasteless and inarticulate, as in the case of the chav, to its having a culture worth plundering (1990). Subcultural movements, such as Teddy Boys, Mods and Punks, all originate from working-class youth cultures, and are constantly re-appropriated and re-worked (Hebdige, 2007). Subcultures have been thoroughly analysed and extensively written about, and it is not the intention of my thesis to re-tread this topic. It is worth noting, however, that these movements were largely written about from a male perspective with the influence of women often omitted (it is acknowledged that this oversight has been addressed by several academics, see the work of Leblanc, 1999; McRobbie and Garber, 1976). However, to date, there is no extensive research conducted on the relationship working-class women, not involved with a subcultural movement, have with everyday dress and personal style.
The women targeted for this research will be based in the north of England. The north of England has been specifically selected for this study due to the on-going perceptions of the North/South divide, as represented in media and political discourse (Jones, 2014). George Orwell’s essay, “North and South”, states: ‘As you travel northward your eye, accustomed to the South or East, does not notice much difference until you are beyond Birmingham[…]But when you go to the industrial North you are conscious, quite apart from the unfamiliar scenery, of entering a strange country” (1937). This persistent stereotype associates the affluent, intelligent middle-class with the south of England, and the underprivileged, industrial working-class with the north of England.
This can be observed in film portrayals set in the north of England, which conform to existing stereotypes. Peter Cattaneo’s The Full Monty (1997), Shane Meadows’ This Is England (2007), and Stephen Daldry’s Billy Elliot (2000) are all set in the 1970s/1980s, and emphasise the destruction of industry in a fading northern town. Here, the working-class do not act as a sign of danger, but instead working-class poverty acts as shorthand for emotional impact generating affect through mimesis (which cannot be expressed by middle-class codes of restraint and manners) (Skeggs 2004: 110). It is also worth noting that all of these films are lead with a male protagonist: northern working-class women are almost never represented on film.
To narrow this area of study further, Yorkshire, particularly West Yorkshire will be targeted. West Yorkshire is my home county – and I know the area well – however, in the last couple of years there have been a number of working-class women from this area who have received a lot of media attention: Karen Matthews from Dewsbury (mother of missing girl, Shannon Matthews), Josie Cunningham from Leeds (who had a breast enlargement paid for by the NHS), Chloe Victoria/Mafia from Wakefield (who appeared on The X Factor and Snog, Marry, Avoid, and received negative media attention after it was revealed that she was working as an escort), and Gail Speight from Castleford (who runs the Yorkshire division of the far-right protest movement, the English Defence League). All of these working-class, West Yorkshire women will be used as a case study because, in various ways, they have been demonised by the media and their images have been used to promote on-going stereotypes.
This dissertation will not involve conducting a phenomenological or a full-wardrobe material culture analysis. However, Simon Charlesworth’s study, A Phenomenology of Working-Class Experience, which was based in Rotherham, South Yorkshire, has informed the approach of this proposal. The focus of this thesis is to analyse media representations and negative stereotypes of the working-class, and observe the real relationship working-class women have with dress.
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