‘Poor core’ is only an aesthetic for those who have the choice

By Vivi Smilgius

There’s a confusing and irritating dichotomy when a student wearing tattered clothing and corded earbuds pulls a $2,000 laptop and a $500 pair of studio headphones out of their Louis Vuitton backpack.

Chances are, during this class, the student will raise their hand to talk about the privilege they come from and how it’s changed their worldview. They’ll tell everyone in the class that they’re aware of said privilege and assure them it didn’t affect them the way it did everyone else.

All of a sudden, it’s clear that tattered clothing and corded earbuds are a fashion choice, not a display of well-worn or well-loved clothing.

‘Poor core,’ also called ‘homeless chic,’ became popular in the 1980s and, like most trends, comes back into style every 20-or-so years. (The most recent and notable example is Christian Dior’s spring 2000 collection, which combined mismatched patterns and textures, rips and frills, and muted tones in an abomination of faux-dirty couture.) One of fashion’s most controversial trends, the style involves high-end adaptations of worn-out clothing— a chic adaptation of difficult and traumatic circumstances.

In an analysis of homeless chic, journalist Leeann Duggan connected the style to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, which ranks human needs from physiological needs to self-actualization.

“Homeless people, totally without a safety net, are living at the very bottom of that pyramid. People who live at the very top, in the heady realm of ‘self-actualization,’ can only see the homeless through their own extremely privileged lens. It’s a phenomenon akin to cultural appropriation,” wrote Duggan in a Refinery29 article on the topic.

The lens of privilege that Duggan refers to is one familiar to many Emerson students. It’s no secret that, at a school where the cost of attendance is nearly $80,000 and steadily increasing, most of the student body resides well above the poverty line.

That’s not to say that those who have wealth are obligated to present it. Shopping at thrift stores or wearing second-hand clothing can be an environmentally sustainable and financially feasible option, especially for college students. It can also be a way to develop a unique style and keep up with trends in a world where they’re moving faster than ever. But the line is crossed when people in positions of privilege or wealth actively present themselves as the opposite purely for aesthetics.

Emerson students are known for being extremely stylish, constantly thinking outside the box, and expressing themselves through unique clothes, makeup, and hairstyles. So, when does a stylistic choice cross the line into appropriation?

The answer: inspiration and intent. There’s nothing wrong with oversized clothes, multi-layered outfits, blends of textures, or muted colors. But if the inspiration comes from someone who has no say whatsoever in the clothes they wear (or own), the outfit has moved from fashionable to fallacious. The same goes for wearers who seek to fit a ‘poorer’ aesthetic for the purpose of fitting in with others or posing as average, which is ridiculous.

Poverty is not an aesthetic, nor is it a circumstance to be mimicked and adapted. Glamourizing ill-fitting or dirty-looking clothing to fit a stylistic agenda reeks of privilege and ignorance. Do not mistake a critique of appropriated ‘poor core’ for a slam on creativity— after all, one is commendable and the other is not.