What do your clothes say about you?

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As Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss prepare to become the next Tory leader, it’s not just what they say that’s gaining inches up the spine. His sartorial statements also speak volumes.

Last week, stories about what the candidates were wearing had them in opposite corners, with vastly different budgets. Claire’s Accessories’s £4.50 Truss earrings were contrasted with Sunak’s big-budget style choices, including a £450 pair of Prada loafers and a £3,500 bespoke suit.

If politicians’ clothing is always scrutinized (think Theresa May’s flamboyant leopard heels or Barack Obama’s rolled-up sleeves), the debate over what Sunak and Truss wear is set against the backdrop of the cost-of-living crisis. It focuses on the price and condition that these items are trying to signal. It begs the question: how do style status symbols work in 2022?

Liz Truss last week. Nadine Dorries highlighted her choice of earrings. Photograph: Reuters

Even during a cost-of-living crisis, expensive fashion status symbols retain their power and remain popular with consumers. Fashion brands’ financial results for the first half of 2022 were released last week. Revenue rose 48% at Moncler, where a cropped jacket with a bear logo on the sleeve costs £1,235. At conglomerate LVMH, which owns Louis Vuitton and Givenchy, revenue in the second quarter of 2022 was up 19%, credited to luxury handbags. A classic monogrammed Louis Vuitton Speedy costs £1,030. Meanwhile, Sunak’s favorite Prada posted a 22% rise in first-half sales. His popular Cleo shoulder bag, with Prada’s triangle logo, costs £1,800.

“Clothing has been deeply embedded in status for millennia because clothing is a social language,” says Emma McClendon, fashion historian and author of Power mode: the force of fashion. “It’s the way we make our bodies socially legible.” The symbols change over time. “The way you display strength and power may be different in 2022 than it was in 2016 or 2012,” he explains.

Status symbols of any given time are defined by what the ruling elite looks like. In the digital age, those are the super-rich of Silicon Valley, figures who are more likely to wear hoodies and sneakers than the suits of the traditional establishment. Mark Zuckerberg, hardly a style icon in the conventional sense, masterminded this change. McClendon argues that his casual outfits were “a very conscious mockery of the Wall Street sense of success. Because ultimately what it comes down to is how each given era or each given individual tries to define success and power.”

Some public figures take on working-class tropes to align with something that seems more authentic.

Daniel Rodgers

Sunak has bought the definition of Silicon Valley. For photos of him working on the budget at the height of the pandemic in 2020, he was photographed wearing a hoodie by Californian brand Everlane, a choice meant to frame him as a poster boy for contemporary success and prosperity.

The discussion of status symbols also includes class and who is “permitted” to wear these coveted items. This also changes over time. Twenty years ago, Danniella Westbrook was on the cover of the Sun in head-to-toe Burberry checks, causing outrage, and the fashion house reduced the number of checks it wore for fear of alienating its upper-class customer base. Daniel Rodgers, a fashion writer who has written about the impact of Westbrook’s outfit, says the look would be less disruptive now. “It’s getting harder and harder to tell if someone is middle class, working class or upper class because of the way the internet and social media have blurred all those markers.”

Kim Kardashian at Paris Fashion Week in early July.

Kim Kardashian at Paris Fashion Week in early July. Photograph: Pierre Suu/Getty Images

However, he does see women in the public eye who still provoke outrage for stepping out of their perceived boundaries. “Kim Kardashian is an example,” she says. “Before Kanye, when he was starting to dress in luxury houses like Givenchy, people were like, ‘Why does this basically Page Three girl have access to this?’ She really displaces a lot of people [ideas of] class. It is something so embedded within us, that for someone to cross those limits, for many people, that is offensive. [because it’s] not respect the kind of natural order in the world.”

The signifiers are further complicated by the fact that status can now come from cool and authenticity is often tied to working-class culture. “There are pop stars or public figures who are trying to pick up the working-class tropes and align with something that seems more authentic,” says Rodgers.

Rachel Worth, author of the 2020 book Fashion and Classsays this is not new. She points to the French revolution when “it became dangerous to wear high-class fabrics like silk. Whereas looking casual and working class became politically correct.”

Worth, whose forthcoming book focuses on sustainability, also argues that status can now come from signaling that you’re aware of your carbon footprint. “These things go in cycles,” she says. “In the 19th century, second hand was far superior, even for workers. It’s like we’ve gone back to that.”

“It’s fashionable to be a savvy consumer,” agrees Caroline Stevenson, head of cultural and historical studies at the London College of Fashion, “to know where your clothes come from, to carefully select your wardrobe and to show appreciation for finer things. in the life.”

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In the public eye, this is demonstrated, as in the case of the Duchesses of Cambridge and Sussex, by reverting to wearing outfits or, as in the case of Carrie Johnson, by renting an outfit. Last year, she wore a rented dress to marry the prime minister. In this context, Sunak and Truss’s conspicuous consumption of new items, whether fast fashion or high-end, could be seen as rude, in the same way as Kylie Jenner’s boast about using her private plane to travel 17 minutes between two California airports triggered it. she calling him a “climate criminal” in a viral tweet.

McClendon says what the two candidates wear communicates different points of view about the state. If Sunak’s are “classic symbols of wealth: the tailored suit, the designer rags,” Truss’s earrings are “a kind of reverse status.” [symbol] … There is a sense of status, of power within a democratic system, which represents the people.”

Charlie Porter, the author of what artists wear, believes that Truss’s choice to wear fast-fashion clothes fits with his politics of cheap thrills. “[She] he is campaigning to cut taxes in the short term to feel good,” he says. “The promise is of more disposable income in the face of rising fuel and grocery bills. Disposable income usually means shopping. Shopping makes people feel good in the short term, often at the expense of what would make them feel good in the long term.” Meanwhile, Sunak’s luxury items “can be used to skewer the rich, while remaining items of desire and aspiration.”

She adds: “I think we are in a really difficult time with wealth because there is the prolonged pandemic, inflation, financial problems, but also sustainability. That makes aspiration really complicated.” Stylish status symbols are alive and well in 2022 but, as always, it’s far from simple.

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