University life isn’t meant to be glamorous. Living off Lidl baked beans, inhabiting mouldy houses, and hunting for the highest alcohol percentage for the lowest price are all features of the classic student experience. Cracking Dominos discount codes is an exact science, and the reduced aisle is hallowed turf. It follows then, that any outward display of wealth, however small, brands you a ‘Tory’ for the rest of your days. Particular malice is reserved for Ocado delivery vans, while conversations with friends often revolve around who has most decimated their overdraft. To paraphrase Huey Lewis and the News, it’s hip to be bare.
This attitude has consequences. Recently there has been a rise in fetishizing the working-class, ‘slumming it’ lifestyle, by students who cannot remotely relate to the genuine hardships of others. Using street slang ironically, thrift shopping for roadman fashion, and the timeless ‘I’ve actually got nooo money’ after three nights out in a row, all spring to mind. Though harmless enough gestures in themselves, they serve merely to imitate struggling urban communities, with all of the benefits and none of the drawbacks. When down to your last 89p, there’s a clear difference between those who can rely on financial support from their families, and those who can’t. Students with no fall-back options find it uncomfortable to hear about the amount of Uber rides and ASOS deliveries that have emptied their friends’ bank accounts, knowing full well they’ll be topped up next week.
The obsession with working class trends has not been helped by the fashion industry. In the early 2000s, the tracksuit was a symbol of ‘chav’ culture, more or less an attack on the dress sense of ‘antisocial’ youths. Fast forward ten years and the humble tracksuit has gone designer – Supreme joggers and North Face hoodies are sold out upon release, FILA and Puma have rehashed old backstock into new upmarket gear, while battered Umbro sweatshirts are fished out of attics and flogged on Depop as thrifted #y2k pieces. While there’s no knocking the appeal of these garments, their cost is problematic. At a large multiple of their original price, clothes once sneered at are now vintage streetwear reserved for well-off teenagers.
The class schisms at our university are best summed up by an incident which most current third years will remember well from their Freshers Week: the story of ‘F*ck the Quads’. I imagine that this fable has been passed down through the years but for those of you who haven’t heard, there was once a conflict between rival accommodations, between the haves and have-nots. Shocking, I know. In short, the fiasco consisted of mostly green and blue t-shirts chanting obscenities across the dancefloor at the red t-shirts. The red t-shirts, it being their second night in Bath, had likely done nothing wrong but this immediate tension caused by ‘showing your colours’ served only to divide students into camps. In the reds’ defence, this incident was unacceptable, and is part of a bigger problem bred from perceived inequality on campus. Despite attending the same university and studying the same courses, not all students are equal when it comes to accommodation.
And yet in some ways, pretending to be poorer is well-intentioned and often well-executed. There are many students from wealthy backgrounds who are very much aware of their privilege and try their honest best to hide it. They disassociate themselves from their upbringing and decide to start afresh. In fact, in an atmosphere where flashing the cash is so frowned-upon, who can blame them for wanting to blend in with their friends? Backgrounds are something to be proud of regardless, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with coming from money. No doubt it’s an uncomfortable situation for those who hold relative privilege to find their identity, at an institution where many students desire riches yet detest others who already have them. Faced with a catch-22, it’s somewhat reassuring that the lost middle classes tend to side with regular people, rather than aspire to be aristocrats. The line is crossed, however, when commendable modesty becomes cultural appropriation. Rigorous budgeting, working part time just to get by, and being denied enriching add-ons (gym memberships, ski trips, and the like), are all part of the harsh reality that many students face. This is neither cool nor edgy, and wealthier students who have renounced their own background should be careful not to overstep the mark and claim they can relate to their friends’ struggles. Sadly, this starts with refraining from calling hometowns in leafy London suburbs ‘ends’.
It is perhaps helpful to disclose a bit about my background for some perspective on the debate. State schooled but not starving, with no accrued family wealth to fall back on, but free from any discriminatory barriers so often encountered by minority groups, I suppose I lie in the murky grey area between working and middle class – none of the advantages of the richest, and none of the disadvantages of the poorest. This delicate position affords me the freedom to upset all sections of Bath Time’s readership as I aim to find common ground on such a divisive subject. I believe that language, fashion, and the occasional moan about money, should be open to everyone. But there is a fine line between admiring a lifestyle and imitating it to suit your image. The Great Gatsby opens with apt advice, to ‘just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.’ We can all learn from this.