Demonisation of fancy dress

Every child’s favourite pastime suddenly becomes a political issue at university, but for no significant reason. We aren’t going to start hating one another because of how we were dressed while we drank cheap cocktails

If you wear Burberry or you live on a council estate then you’re basically rubbish and if you’ve ever been near someone who was wearing a monocle and/or a top hat then you’re great and you should make sure those dirty proles know it.

Imagine if the Facebook event for the Chavs vs Toffs barcrawl said that. Imagine! The Socialist Society would be foaming at the mouth. One of their committee would tell a campus newspaper that the whole event just makes fun of the working class. And the hacks would all be hunched over laptops, typing furiously – trying to find outraged and indignant students. It would be hilarious how seriously the whole thing was taken. Some would argue that the offending statement is obviously a joke. Then some would argue that if it is a joke, it’s obviously in poor taste.

Of course, the Facebook event didn’t say anything about the relative worth of chavs and toffs. That would be ridiculous. Regardless, the reaction to the event has been pretty much what I just described.

The statement from Megan Ollerhead, Chair of the Socialist Society, said in no uncertain terms that the event was “poking fun” at the working class. No mention was made of any unfair fun-poking aimed at the toffs. Quelle surprise.

Our glorious leader Kallum Taylor, on the other hand, made it clear that both “chav” and “toff” are terms that he takes issue with. Pretty reasonably, he said they both have unfair connotations about the people they’re applied to. Taylor even went as far as to recommend that students read Chavs: The Demonisation of the Working Class, in which Owen Jones argues that chavs are used as a caricature of the working classes in order to create ideological support for the middle classes.

Does a fancy dress bar crawl warrant the kind of reaction we’ve seen? Or the kind of reaction that the York Tories’ fox hunting social (which involves female members dressing as foxes, and male members as hunters) got? Maybe some such events would. I’d expect YUSU to step in if James and Halfifax colleges held an event that involved everyone wearing swastikas and marching round York chanting “Nazis aren’t that bad”, but I just find it so hard to care about this chavs and toffs business even half as much as the bloke who lives on Fishergate and seemed to think the event would put some people off coming to study at the University.

But my apathy about the event isn’t borne out of a lack of respect for the seriousness of issues of classism. Rather, it seems incredibly obvious to me that the event is not at all classist.

Here’s my thinking: people don’t go to these events dressed as middle class people or working class people. They go as toffs and chavs, which as Taylor rightfully points out, each have a specific set of connotations. If I turned up wearing a pair of jeans and a jumper from BHS, I would not be dressed as a toff. People would say “Hey, Gary, you’re not dressed as a toff. You’re just wearing quite a nice jumper. You could be dressed as a member of any one of the socio-economic ‘classes’ that we in the West so crudely force everyone into in order to reinforce our own narratives, disregarding the complexity of any individual’s personal situation.”

People go to these events dressed as caricatures. Nobody thinks all middle class people wear tweed or that all working class people wear Burberry. Nor does anyone want to push this idea, or otherwise make fun of either group. Consider it this way: if everyone didn’t recognise that the whole event is just a ridiculous exaggeration of stereotypes then they wouldn’t think it was any fun, would they?

Perhaps you could argue that this kind of event actually somehow subliminally desensitises people to an adversarial juxtaposition of socio-economic classes, but you know what? I think you’d be entirely wrong. Give people some credit. We aren’t idiots. We aren’t going to start hating one another because of how we were dressed while we drank cheap cocktails.

4 comments

  1. I was skeptical about your argument at first but I agree with you. Obviously when you dress as a zombie for Halloween, you don’t consider the marginalised status of the zombie you’re dressing as (zombies deserve healthcare!)

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  2. Get your facts straight.

    Everyone knows Chavs wear TN and Toffs wear red/mustard coloured trousers.

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  3. Damn good article. When I dressed up as a Gollywog last week and ran about campus shouting “where da white women at gimme sum fried chicken” people recognized that it was a just a caricature of a black person, and therefore OK.

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  4. Not quite sure what your argument actually is, but it seems to be something along the lines of “I don’t really care myself therefore it’s OK” and “It’s fine because these are just exaggerated caricatures!”

    I recommend the book that Kallum Taylor talked about; Owen Jones and the demonisation of the working class. It really does make a compelling argument about how the working classes have over time -and not just with the ‘chav’ label -been demonised by the media and politicians alike. Essentially, there used to be a rich working class culture in many parts of Britain which was largely destroyed by Thatcher and the continuing neoliberal project that continues today. The working class today are now often vilified as feckless, benefit scroungers who’s only goal in life is to drink super strength cider in the park and the derogatory term ‘chav’, although not the only aspect of this vilification, is used to perpetuate this myth.

    There is a pernicious effect of things like these fancy dress nights out with ‘chav’ themes, or people using the term as an insult, for example. It ensures that for many people there exists in their mind a clear distinction between ‘us’ and ‘them’, when in reality the vast majority of the working class just want work, job security and a relatively comfortable life. When there’s a lack of respect for the working class, or a subtle fear or hatred, then policies which hurt the poor become much more supportable. Encouraging largely white and middle class university students to dress up as chavs admittedly isn’t suddenly going to change them all into working-class hating snobs, but it does contribute to a negative perception of the working class which is the last thing they need.

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