Fashion is the primary communicator of class. It has always been that way. In many ways, it is the purpose of fashion – a visual display of who is in what station in life.

Beyond the basics (ie: blizzard protection), we humans have choices. This color or that color? Long coat or jacket? Immediately we enter the realm of judgment. And a huge factor in what we choose is the message we send – the thought of, “How will people see – and judge – me?” We all want to belong and to be liked.

Culture comes barreling in to set up decision-making criteria for us. It shows us finely groomed men in tailored suits wearing expensive watches – in front of expensive cars. The message is, “I have my act together. I am financially independent. I am king of the jungle.” Women wear dramatic and somewhat revealing fashion, hair that flows, red lips, diamonds sprinkled everywhere – in front of the luxury car. The message? Surprisingly these messages can be for men who want to be in the company of a woman like the one in the ad. It says, “Drive this car – this very expensive car – and look who will come your way.”

These sorts of ads are selling status, giving everyone an understanding of what exclusivity looks like. If you want to belong, here’s what you need to do.

Fashion guidance works the very same way. Madison Avenue masterfully presents image after image of status or wealth to promote high-end brands. Fashion runways and magazines tell the story. Consumers who are already in that class – or aspire to be, notice everything – the body type, the fit, the fabrics, accessories, the hair, the make-up – the brands. Page after page.

Those who ‘know’ then recognize those same details in those around them. The group’s members constantly reinforce their compliance to evolving group standards. Their active social network keeps demand high and relegates last year’s trends to the back of the closet or to Goodwill.

Marketers also flood media with images intended for middle class consumers, offering brands that may reference high-end trends in more accessible ways. New colors, patterns or fabrics this year? Hints of military? Different fit? People in the middle class aren’t in a position to abandon last year’s fashion – just yet. They are more likely to add a piece or two, perhaps for special occasions.

For this group, the brand itself can be the statement. So small logos or brand identifiers are common and important. Peers judge not just on the trendiness and quality of their clothes but also on the depth of one’s closet. Not repeating items – having a week’s long rotation or more – can be important.

Working class people obviously have fewer resources and fewer choices. They are more likely to have a few garments they wear repeatedly – perhaps even wearing them out. Discount centers and second hand shops provide access to affordable but not necessarily fashionable or even well-constructed clothing. Overstated and dominating brand knock-offs are in abundance – Gucci in 8” gold lettering. These can provide a message to the upper classes that, “See, I have good taste, too.”

When people step into a class or status above their own, they know the stakes. They may overspend, and perhaps not wisely, for those occasions. The higher status members can tell; they can always tell. But the gesture and effort is appreciated.

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