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Cultural Capital within Fashion

Photographs by Robert Mecea and John Ferrell

Coined by French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, “cultural capital” describes the experiences and understanding of individuals—reflective of their social status and competency. While the idea of cultural capital is most commonly discussed in terms of the social nuances of one’s interactions with society, it is regularly undermined when presented on the foundation of aesthetics. Although cultural capital is sporadically mentioned within fashion and dress, its impact is often reduced in regards to how it can spark opportunities within one’s education, career, or life. As opposed to the Kantian aesthetic—the feeling of pleasure or displeasure - cultural capital within fashion nowadays focuses on the divide between pure or bourgeois aesthetic and popular or working-class aesthetic. While the pure or bourgeois aesthetic has the luxury of choosing fashion according to their desires, the popular or working class aesthetic must focus on the functionality and reliability of fashion in order to exact their everyday laboring needs. Fashion has always been espoused as a channel for free expression and articulation of one’s personality and individuality but to what extent is ‘aesthetic’ a reinforcement of societal stereotypes and conformity on yet another aspect of humanity?

Within professional fields such as business and politics, one’s fashion and dress is most commonly restricted by industry standards that were built by white male authority. Under these conditions, white women and people of color often struggle to decide what is “adequate” for them to wear in these environments, as they’re rearranging their fashion based upon these outdated ideals. Moreover, individuals who never grew up with the cultural capital to be familiar with “professional dress” would be essentially behind in trying to figure out what to do for an interview or a job search. Even such small elements of fashion could play a huge role in impacting their future education and careers as the tiniest details may transform someone’s perception about one’s ability and qualifications—all based on the transgression of cultural capital.

For New York City mayor Eric Adams, “what you wear matters” as it holds “meaning and import” (Friedman), and “everything about you must say power.” While this is true under most circumstances, this idea furthers stereotypes that are damaging about one’s fashion aesthetics. When Adams was a state senator in Albany, he ran a campaign focused around one’s clothing while advocating “[r]aise your pants, raise your image!” Although the campaign purported its message as transforming one’s image, Adams ignores the background of cultural capital and socioeconomics within the message. Within different communities, a specific style of dressing may be more common where individuals are not commonly exposed to Adams’ ideal of “purposeful dressing” with his gray suit, green tie, and white pocket square. While it is insightful to acknowledge these differences within dress, it should not be said that certain styles are congruent to certain behaviors or stereotypes as cultural capital is accumulated in different forms between everyone.

For the youth that sagged their pants, their way of dressing demonstrated a rejection of societal conformation—parallel to how black and Mexican-American youth donned their oversized zoot suits in the 1930s. For many, they did not have the luxury of buying clothes that fit so they transformed these oversized pieces into expressing their own personal style of fashion while society grew to condemn the look as “unprofessional.” According to UCSD historian Luis Alvarez, zoot suits and sagging pants are intrinsically linked together as “they were ways that people made statements about their relationships to other people and their circumstances” and “a mechanism [for the wearers] to reclaim dignity that has been taken away from them” (socioeconomic ability for purchasing specific clothes). Rather than simply having a campaign about stopping sagging pants, cultural capital boosting conversations about what fashion communicates to overall society should be held instead. Instead of condemning such forms of casual dressing, knowledge about professional dressing within education or the workforce should be disseminated on a greater level. As society progresses, it is much more important for fashion to become more inclusive in expanding cultural capital but also knowledgeable of different cultural and social ways of dressing.

The best representations for development of cultural capital within fashion can be seen through Ralph Lauren’s collaboration with historically Black colleges and universities as well as legislation such as the CROWN Act. In Ralph Lauren’s collaboration, cultural capital is developed on the college level that many students may not have had access to previously before. In doing so, students gain the ability to test out their own fashion styles while being offered some traditional dress aesthetics that they can weave into their own outfits. Historically, Ralph Lauren has catered more to the Ivy League schools—“a group of predominantly white colleges and universities in the US known for their academic rigor and social prestige” (Butler-Young). However, this campaign with HBCUs highlights the integration of Black culture in transforming preconceived notions of the brand’s fashion as well as the development of cultural capital for Black college students. Moreover, the CROWN Act recently enacted on federal levels showcases the evolution of fashion and dress in rewriting traditional forms of cultural capital. Rather than promoting a specific way of dress and hairstyling based upon archaic and discriminatory professional dress codes, legislation like the CROWN Act upheaves and reconstructs what is said to be “fitting” for the professional workforce. Therefore, cultural capital within fashion can only truly be revolutionized by becoming more inclusive and responsive to dynamic cultures and aesthetics.

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