“If one looks up the definition of ‘chav’ in one’s dictionary, the following statement appears: ‘A young, lower-class person typified by brash and loutish behaviour.’ We educated fair maidens, studying in one of the country’s grandest universities, would find such behaviour entirely alien. And yet, ladies, for one night only, we feel we should set aside all that we believe to be good, honest and noble, and replace our champagne flutes with cans of K Cider and something called ‘shots’.” – Leeds University Union Women’s Hockey Club, 2018.
If one looks up the definition of ‘ignorant’ in one’s dictionary, the following statement appears: “Destitute of knowledge, either in general or with respect to a particular fact or subject; unknowing, uninformed, unlearned.” The above post from the “educated fair maidens” of the Leeds University Union Women’s Hockey Club, although very beautifully and comically written (despite some ironic spelling and grammar mistakes which I have taken care to correct), is a prime example of that ignorance. The society’s decision to host a chav-themed social on the 24th January prompted so much backlash that it became national news, a scandal that has since seen the captain stripped of her role and the club banned from participating in the Christie Cup. Although not an isolated incident, the choice of costume theme indicates a stark unawareness of Working Class realities, as members were told to ditch their “Jimmy Chou’s” for “Primark’s own leopard print uggs”.
I’ll start with some context. I was born in Rochdale, a town defined by poor social housing, stories of sexual grooming, and the fact that even the universally successful powerhouse of McDonald’s couldn’t survive in the dilapidated town centre. Apart from the sweet, blissful moments of living in Leeds as a student, I have lived in Rochdale for my entire life. The “ASBO behaviour”, “hoops […] as big as a garden hoe”, and “luminous underwear” which the hockey society decided to trivialise are daily realities in my hometown. And while the hockey women may have thought they were simply taking the piss out of a harmless ‘chav’ style, rather than a specific group or class of people, the truth is in their very words.
The invitation to the ‘chav social’ explicitly associated ‘chav’ with “a lower-class person”, meaning the theme went beyond just mocking a particular fashion sense and instead encouraged its members to actively mock an already victimised portion of British society and culture. The post also constructs university as an institution “entirely alien” from so-called chav “behaviour”, thoroughly removed from Working Class people. When University students from less well-off backgrounds are already massively outnumbered by students from affluent backgrounds, what incentive is there for those youngsters so easily cast aside as ‘chavs’ to apply to a University whose students openly mock them?
Dressing as grossly exaggerated representations of ‘chavs’ is not the same as your typical Otley Run theme of dressing up as a punk or a nun or the gimp from Pulp Fiction, because to suggest so synonymises ‘chav’ with ‘choice’. For many people, wearing cheap tops, tacky jewellery and luminous leggings is not a choice – it is a necessity in a world which provides you with very little money to feed and heat your family, and even less funds to clothe them. In the privileged space of the University campus, where there are more Canada Goose gillets knocking around than empty seats in the Laidlaw Library, we seem to have this bullshit ability to just assume people are wearing what they are wearing because they want to, and not because they have to. So how can we justify dressing up as a ‘chav’?
Some people have pointed to the fact that ‘Fruity’ – the University of Leeds’ most popular student night out – used to hold ‘chav-themed’ socials as a means of justifying the whole ordeal, but this is not enough. Now, I can understand why chav socials may have been deemed acceptable only a few years ago, and for a very simple reason. While my brother (who is seven years older than me but about ten years less mature) was attending Secondary School, the popular fashion trends at that time were clothes which were then and still are considered as ‘chavvy’. The ‘cool kids’ in school and throughout my town wouldn’t be seen dead without wearing some form of hoodlum attire to terrorize the local grannies. But trends change, and what was once ‘chav’ gave way to ‘townie’, to ‘hipster’, and god fucking knows what some twats at Leeds wear now. This means that students pre-2010 could feel justified in going to ‘chav socials’ dressed up in their finest drinking-Bacardi Breezers-in-da-club-while-listening-to-‘Put a Donk on it’-attire, because that is actually how they used to dress. The costumes are self-reflexive, not a distant mockery of a different class; they were a throwback, an embarrassed exclamation of “oh remember when we all used to dress like this, what poor fashion sense we all had”; an informed self-jibe from a generation who nearly bought up Adidas and Nike’s entire supply of fluffy trackies.
But the women that I saw walking through town dressed as Vicky Pollard’s second-coming and speaking in accents that directly mocked my town and the people who live there… those women did not belong to that generation. Although I was initially impressed by the Daniel Day-Lewis levels of method acting, more likely than not, these women belonged to an entirely different world. Their actual contact with Working Class people was superficial at best, non-existent at worst. I know I am assuming things here, but I’m angry. Just think, the society members were heading towards The Hedley Verity, a Lloyds bar whose locals tend to be from a more disadvantaged background. The irony speaks volumes.
I am fully aware of how lucky I am that when trends changed my family were able to throw away the matching, electric-blue Carbrini trackies and hoodies, and kit me out with clothes that didn’t belong to conventional ideas of a ‘chav’ aesthetic. Now, I’m not saying I have style – on the best of days I look like a blind witch dressed me with a shit-covered stick. But I have always had the privilege of being able to define my poorly chosen wardrobe, and never to have had that wardrobe define me – or, more accurately, to have that wardrobe define how the rest of the world perceives me.
This is exactly the case for the Working-Class people so quickly dismissed as ‘chavs’; people the hockey girls and numerous other societies on campuses across Britain openly mocked. When in a sport’s society, there is a lot of pressure to attend socials in order to solidify yourself as a more integral part of the team. The point here is not to blame or ostracize these women for going along with the ‘chav’ theme. It’s a difficult choice: sacrifice your position in the society’s hierarchy out of principle, or maintain it by replicating the costume that all of your team-mates have already replicated. Instead, the blame should go to the event organisers for thinking it was anything other than a simple, ‘harmless’ gimmick.
So, if you’re ever considering dressing up as “a young, lower-class person typified by brash and loutish behaviour”, then do us a favour, and just fucking don’t. This isn’t a case of yeh but no but yeh but no but yeh. It’s a case of no – always, always no. Stop trivialising ‘chav’ culture, and fuck off.