The XX Factor

How Do You Guess a Person’s Class From Their Appearance?

Although I’ll be covering “homeless fashion” in my Schmatta Week dispatches this week-literally, I am interviewing homeless people-I just wanted to briefly comment on Guy Trebay’s article, ” Aware of the Homeless? ” published in Saturday’s New York Times . It summarizes the recent series of homeless-themed fashion coverage-most notably, the 28-page spread in September’s W in which models are outfitted in paper bag dresses and sleep on benches, as well as a portrait of a “homeless-looking” man that appeared on the popular street fashion blog The Sartorialist.

Besides being tasteless and base, this got me wondering: How well can we judge a person’s socioeconomic status from their appearance? I think the “homeless chic” trend is an acknowledgment of a new turbulence in this arena.

The fact is that there are people running around who are rich and try to look dirt poor, and there are millions of people who are incredibly poor who look respectable and dignified. Likewise, the casual nature of fashion today, which is essentially thrown-together, improvised, ill-conceived, and mismatched has the look of slobbish itinerancy.

I’m not a fan of Michael Harrington’s The Other America , the Bible of the ‘60s War on Poverty, but these lines from it are interesting: “It is much easier in the Unites States to be decently dressed than it is to be decently housed, fed, or doctored … clothes make the poor invisible,” and “Even people with terribly depressed incomes can look prosperous. There are tens of thousands of Americans who are wearing perhaps even a stylishly cut suit or dress, and yet they are hungry.”

Do you think you can tell a person’s class by what they wear? How do you judge-and has the recession had any impact?