The British subculture that was tirelessly mocked then re-purposed into fashion inspo: let’s talk about the C word

Kate Moss next to comedian portraying Vicky Pollard, a "chav" stereotype. I wonder if Kate knew this would become an un-ironic trend 10 years on.

If you’re a young person in the UK, the chances are you’ve either sported this style or complained about those who do. On campus or at non-uniform days you are never at a loss for trackies (Kappa, Adidas, Fila) sweatshirts (Ellesse, Puma, Reebok) or some variation of Nike trainers (Air Force, Air Max 95’, 97’s or Tn’s). A decade or two ago you might have seen a group of teenagers in that attire and assumed they were off to day-drink in the local park or smoke a zoot behind McDonald’s. And although this style is still the uniform of antisocial youths, today the trend seems that the more Kappa jackets there are in your vicinity, the higher the ratio of private school kids. 

@gullyguyleo showing us the impact of "chav fashion" on street style.

I am not immune to this style myself (I’m wearing an Adidas sweatshirt as I write this). Although admittedly it’s not the epitome of fashion, I find appeal in the nostalgia, bright colours and tackiness. In any case, it’s certainly no new phenomenon for teenagers to don sportswear. And this brings me to another reason I opt for this style: we, ("the youth"), are notoriously lazy. It’s fun to pull a look when you can be bothered, but it’s convenient that some of the most comfortable pieces in my wardrobe would also make me look natural or even fashion-conscious amongst my peers.

Kurupt FM have become unlikely style icons.

Is this Steves from Kurupt FM or a pretentious guy on Tinder?

Young David and Victoria Beckham looking like half the people on Uni of Leeds campus.

Having said that though, this style (popularised by the “chav” subculture and vilified by tabloids, parents and young people who hate their own generation) has impacted British style and become much more than just something to be comfortable in. The term “chav” came into use in the late 90s, at first mostly in Northern England. It was used to describe brash, obnoxious youths who used slang, whose style relied on labels to show status and who never seemed to have any school or job to go to. Their speech, dress and behaviour were taken to imply their lack of education and the word was strongly associated with the working class. Although it has since become controversial due to its derogation of said class, the 00s saw the word being thrown around as the hottest punchline of the British media. 

Google Images' answer for what a chav looks like. Note the Burberry cap, Adidas hoodie and gold chains, definitely relevant today.

Exhibit A: Little Britain’s Vicky Pollard. A comedy sketch show on British TV which definitely took advantage of the age before political correctness, Little Britain’s list of characters included teen delinquent Vicky, an embodiment of the chav stereotype. And let’s not forget the tabloids’ fondness for dubbing certain celebrities with the title, most notably David and Victoria Beckham. A Daily Mail article from 2006 called them “undoubtedly the king and queen of planet Chav”. Posh’s Spice Girl sister, Sporty Spice, experienced her share of criticism too, despite being a fashion icon for many IG girls today. In 2010 a study at the Uni of Leicester named the Reebok Classics the footwear of choice among burglars, based on a tally of footprints left at the scene. So why now are the trainers likely to be seen in an Urban Outfitters ad? How was a subculture which faced so much derision for being the pinnacle of bad taste only a decade ago able to make its way to fashion week?

Mel C or Sporty Spice on the far right in the staples of 90s sportswear: Kappa trackies and black Air Forces. 

Honestly, it’s not very surprising. The fashion industry is fickle and forgetful: what may be style suicide now will be repackaged in a few years as the new edgy trend. And this style lends itself perfectly to today’s fashion climate because the “chav” uniform really boils down to: the more brands, the better. Sound familiar? It’s what hypebeast culture is founded upon. Stone Island, Nike, Lacoste, Fred Perry, Ralph Lauren, Adidas, North Face… Burberry caps, bucket hats, heavy rings, gold chains. These are as commonplace amongst e-boys as they are with the drunk football fans doing lines of coke in your local pub toilet. The once sneered-at style has been re-purposed into streetwear. 

The colour choices make it more fashion than uncouth youth, but the elements are there.

The design collective which has got the streetwear disciples on their knees, Vetements, is no stranger to the "chav" style, or its equivalent around the world. Some of their pieces may give you construction site realness. But don't be mistaken, you could easily drop a few grand on an item of theirs.

The Vetements SS17 collaboration with Reebok highlighted the brand's current relevance.

Vetements collaborator and favourite of e-boys, Gosha Rubchinskiy, is worthy of note here too. The re-packaging of chav style in Britain has been emulated by Rubchinskiy in the case of Russian “gopniks”. His aesthetic was influenced by his upbringing in Post-Cold War Russia which gave him inspiration in the form of youth subcultures and hooliganism. 

Google Images result for a "gopnik". You can see where Rubchinskiy got his inspo from.

And then you have Balenciaga further perpetuating the hype with overgrown puffer jackets and football manager anoraks walking down the runway. 

Parallels between Burberry and Gosha Rubchinskiy collaboration (above) and what your mum would call a "chav" (below).

Of course, there’s the influence of music too. The stars we listen to certainly have the power to impact our style. And in this case, owing to genres such as hip-hop, R&B or grime, current popular dress-sense reflects what’s on the radio. 

Take grime star Skepta releasing a pair of Air Max 97s which enticed hypebeasts and flooded Depop. 

Or all the photos of A$AP Rocky sporting a huge puffer jacket and designer bumbag. 

And why has the style done a 180 and been welcomed by the wealthier classes? “Posh people have always been embarrassed about being posh – if they can wear something classless, they’ll embrace it,” said Kate Reardon, editor of Tatler. That’s why you’ll see private school boys from North London sporting North Face puffers with silver Nike 97’s. I came across an interesting point that after the recession the suit was resented. Gone are the days of middle class boys dressing in a Hollister top, tight jeans, boat shoes and a blazer. They have been replaced by a desire to act “hard” and blend in, possibly as a defence mechanism against getting ripped off by their dealers.

A bucket hat, bumbag and North Face jacket: classic "pinging white boy" attire.

You could call it fashion’s answer to gentrification. Although sportswear is deceptively expensive anyway, it is also true that the increased demand for typically cheaper brands has caused an inflation in prices. Think something which you would have seen in Sports Direct a few years ago being resold on Depop. This is nothing shocking though, designers and artists have been taking inspiration (or stealing) from subcultures and re-selling it to the masses for decades. 

Champion has been having a moment lately too, resulting in its prices creeping up.

To those not “in the know” the scuffed white trainers, trackies and oversized windbreaker may say builder. But to those with an eye for streetwear, it’s a nod of “yeah, I’m cool too”. Or, as analyst at trend forecasting agency The Future Laboratory – Maks Fus Mickiewicz – put it, “It’s a tracksuit, but it’s also about communicating that you’re part of a tribe and that you understand certain references… There’s a sense of humour in fashion right now.” It’s a sort of fashion elitism, a way to stand out to the “right people”. Otherwise, how else would you know who listens to drum & bass?

@steffoakes in those classic Fila trainers, Burberry print bucket hat and glow-up trackies.

Written by Anastasia Vartanian


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