Liechty (2012) points out that ethnographers and historians of middle classness often experience ‘déjà vu moments’: in the particular case they study, they may recognise discourses, aspirations, preoccupations and problems that similarly classed people from other spaces and times have as well.
This post is meant to be the first in a series that foregrounds such commonalities, which we also notice while revisiting the anthropological record and putting our ethnographic data in a comparative perspective.
In my conversations about clothing and middle classness, a preference for natural fibres (cotton, wool, linen, silk) was mentioned as being typical of middle class consumption.
Some of my interlocutors self-defined themselves, upon reflection, as belonging to the middle class; others did not identify themselves in terms of class, but stated that they lived ‘comfortably’ and ‘did not have to worry about the next day’; yet others considered themselves to be ‘poor’.
Their explanations of this preference indicate that natural fibres index:
- social status (garments made from natural fibres are presumed to be more expensive and, thus, unaffordable or unavailable to the ‘poor people’)
- comfort (garments made from natural fibres are known to be more wearable, a previous tactile experience being activated in these comments)
- self-esteem (garments made from natural fibres are known to be more expensive and more wearable and, thus, become a means to indulge oneself)
- responsibility (garments made from natural fibres are known to be central to sustainable fashion and, thus, their consumption represents a means to include oneself in this domain of responsibility and citizenship)
This capacity to index social status, comfort, self-esteem and responsibility makes natural fibres a type of materiality that can be used in projects of class distinction.
A relationship between middle classness and garments made from natural fibres is also discussed in Schneider (1994) (the study documents the elaboration of this relationship in the United States, at a time when the commercialisation of ‘man-made’ fibres brought significant profits and threatened to financially dwarf companies that traded in natural fibres and garments made from natural fibres) and Gurova (2015) (the study reports, but does not elaborate on, a similar (declared) preference for natural fibres among middle class people in Moscow).
Liechty, Mark. 2012. “Middle-Class Déjà Vu: Conditions of Possibility, from Victorian England to Contemporary Kathmandu”. In Heiman, R, C. Freeman and M. Liechty. The Global Middle Classes: Theorizing Through Ethnography. Santa Fe, NM: School for Advanced Research Press. Pp. 271-299.
Gurova, Olga. 2015. Fashion and the consumer revolution in contemporary Russia. London: Routledge.
Schneider, Jane. 1994. ‘In and Out of Polyester: Desire, Disdain and Global Fibre Competitions’. Anthropology Today 10 (4): 2-10.