As part of its Fashion Week coverage, New York magazine published a fascinating account of Kevahn Thorpe, a teenaged shoplifter who is serving one to three years at Sing Sing. It seems that the allure of golden Prada sneakers, skinny Dior jeans and Fendi eyeglasses was too strong for the 17-year-old honors student from the Queensbridge Housing Projects to resist. And even though the calculus-loving thief is doing time alongside murderers, rapists and other violent offenders, he’s said he’ll probably resume his shoplifting ways when he is released in March.
It’s easy to dismiss Thorpe as a hopeless recidivist whose problems run deeper than the law enforcement community seems to realize. But in the midst of Fashion Week, it’s also worth considering the impact of all the hype on poor kids inundated with upscale imagery. Consider the very American maxim, “dress for the job you want, not the job you have.” What, exactly, is dressing like a rapper, an athlete, a model or video vixen, even if you live in the projects, if not dressing for the job you want?
For many African Americans, this is nothing new. As historian Stephanie M.H. Camp has shown, slaves in the U.S. South went to great lengths—often risking their personal safety—to attend dances and other events that offered them opportunities to wear stylish clothing. For women, wearing full skirts with hoops fashioned out of grapevines or tree branches and dresses with colorful and vibrant patterns helped not only to show off their feminine curves but also to showcase their ingenuity and creativity in procuring and designing festive attire. In dressing up, those men and women claimed their bodies as sites “not only of suffering but also (and therefore) of enjoyment and resistance.” The very epitome of aspirational dressing.
From elaborate church hats to zoot suits to Air Jordans, black people have long found ingenious ways to infuse clothing with complex social meanings. Whether by dressing for the Lord, signaling individuality through bold color and pattern statements or simply by wearing a coveted item with a well-known price tag, African Americans have a deep history of giving and getting respect through attire.
So it came as no surprise to read that, when asked about the worst thing about being in jail, Thorpe replied: “There’s no respect. I’m used to walking in a luxury store and being greeted at the door.” In a world where many black men and women have stories about being followed around by suspicious clerks even in places like Wal-Mart, there is something rather alluring about being treated like Someone Special when walking into up-market retailers like Bergdorf’s or Barney’s. Even if you’re there to rob them blind.
Of course, this is not to excuse shoplifting, nor the kind of conspicuous consumption that keeps people in debt and unable to retire. But Thorpe’s story reminds us of luxury’s destructive pull. We all have a bit of Kevahn Thorpe in us. Looking like a million bucks, and having other people notice, takes a bit of the sting out of not actually having any money.
Reading about Thorpe, I was reminded of another person whose clothing choices are getting breathless press coverage right now: first lady Michelle Obama. In some ways, the two could not be more different. On one end of the spectrum, we have a high-profile woman whose poise and aesthetic has brought the fashion industry to its knees while the world looks on in awe. On the other end, we have a child who is so obviously desirous of public admiration that he’s willing to steal for it.
Just think what the young Mr. Thorpe might amount to if he had the initiative and support to mold his obsessive interest in fashion into a career. Now would be a good time for the kid to get his act together. The first lady has made a habit of using her position to bring attention to young designers of color. Thorpe’s eye for detail could actually take him somewhere, if he added substance and context to his blind passion for clothes.
Why be a Kevahn Thorpe when you can be a Michelle Obama? What is the point of merely being blindly influenced by fashion, to the point of personal ruin, when you can reshape it? There is a real opportunity now to change conversations about black people’s place in the world of luxury. Young people like Mr. Thorpe might have interesting things to say about it, if only they find the right voice.
Tamara J. Walker is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Pennsylvania, where she teaches courses in Latin American history.