The Aesthetics of Poverty – Why students at UniMelb are so keen to appear poor.

The discourse accusing this so-called ‘student aesthetic’ of fetishising poorness has surfaced within the past year on social media (especially TikTok) and in conversations between students on and off-campus.


Also published in Edition Four (2022) of Farrago. 

I’m sure you have become familiar with the tote bag wearing, op-shop frequenting, Brunswick share house residing “Unimelb student” that has become emblematic of student life aesthetics. Or perhaps you’ve been susceptible to the appeal of the waifish, dishevelled ‘heroin chic’, popularised by on-screen characters like Effy Stonem in ‘Skins’ and, more recently, Rue in ‘Euphoria’.

The 2017 Universities Australia Student Finances Survey evidenced that 58% of domestic undergraduate students are concerned about their finances, demonstrating that university life is synonymous with poorness and financial instability for many Australian students. However, there has been a growing trend of wealthier students, who have complete or significant financial support, eagerly adopting what they think is the look of a ‘poor student’ without the hardship that comes with it.

The discourse accusing this so-called ‘student aesthetic’ of fetishising poorness has surfaced within the past year on social media (especially TikTok) and in conversations between students on and off-campus.

A TikTok by creator and former Unimelb student @lucy.holz, with over 1000 comments and 225,000 views since it was posted in October 2021, shed light on how widely recognised this phenomenon is among students. Commenting on the perplexing subversion of traditional class hierarchies during her time studying, the creator claims, “Everyone acts like they’re poor… it would go from talking about money or how a café is particularly expensive, all the way to straight out lying.”

She gave several examples, recalling that “one of [her] best friends would constantly complain about money but was getting an allowance from his parents, he wasn’t working, he had never worked in his whole life”.

Whether it’s romanticising 2-minute noodles, rolled tobacco or a studio in Brunswick with five roommates paid for by their parents, students have continued to try and ‘look the part’ of a broke uni student without considering that for some, this experience is unavoidable.

The creator emphasises, “I think some people just genuinely do not comprehend what it’s like to be impoverished.”

Her TikTok was met with a myriad of comments, most of which expressed a profound agreement for this shared observation that has not been addressed enough.

One commenter alluded to the privileged ignorance of some students, claiming, “I’ve seen Melbourne Uni socialists handing out our socialism flyer to homeless people.” Another commenter mentioned a seemingly familiar trend of wealthier students; “when they complain about having to pay rent, but their dad owns the property, and they only pay $100 a week.”

Although the phenomenon of a ‘poor aesthetic’ isn’t new, universities all around the world have begun to recognise this all-familiar romanticisation of a ‘poor student’ lifestyle that middle class or wealthier students are so keen to insert themselves into without having to endure the ongoing barriers, prejudice and challenges that come with being genuinely impoverished.

Nadja, a 20-year-old student currently enrolled at UniMelb, lamented the typical characteristics of performative poorness that she has witnessed in the University community.

“Poor aesthetic can involve students buying expensive vintage clothes and claiming that they ‘stole it from salvos’, it can look like complaining about rent that they don't pay, it can look like going to their parent’s holiday house on the peninsula and leaving their aesthetic behind when they do so.”

An example of this discrepancy between privilege is the different understanding of the word ‘broke’. Traditionally, and for low-income students, brokenness refers to a genuine lack of financial stability.  By definition, it is the state of having run out of money. However, it has become socially acceptable for upper, middle-class, or financially stable students to colloquially profess brokenness despite having adequate financial support. I know I have made throwaway comments like “I can’t go out this weekend, I’m too broke”, all the while ignoring the money I have in savings, and I’m sure many others have too.

Aside from the belittlement of lower-income students that arises from the increasing romanticisation of their financial instability, a consequence of students trying to ‘look the part’ has been the gentrification of op shops. Op-shopping as a growing trend among Gen Z and Millennial populations has become a point of contention – creating a paradox between the desire to shop sustainably and the need to maintain appropriate op-shop prices. Buying second-hand clothing supports the ethical shopping movement, as opposed to the convenient consumption of fast fashion at the expense of sustainability. However, the influx of middle-class individuals buying from places like the Salvation Army and Vinnies to uphold their ‘poor student’ aesthetic is inflating the clothing prices in these shops, making it difficult for low-income individuals to access affordable second-hand clothing.

Kaylee, another 20-year-old Unimelb student, referred to some of the ‘grungier’ fashion choices that are trending again in the student zeitgeist that, to her and many others, seem like a choice to mimic poorness.

“Students are now using wired headphones, wearing fingerless gloves, ripped tights and

baggy jeans. Their hair is DIY dyed and cut, they are covered in stick and poke tattoos, and

their black nail polish is chipped.”

When reflecting on why students seem so keen to appear poorer than they are, Kaylee stated:

“I believe it stems from their desire to reinvent themselves upon leaving private education… I truly think that students who dress “broke” are attempting to highlight their favourable left-wing beliefs in a tertiary setting. Their clothing is a way of outwardly snubbing their ‘white privilege’”

On the other hand, Nadja thinks that conforming to poor aesthetics is a way to demonstrate an ‘individuality’ or ‘uniqueness’ that is perceived as linked to being impoverished.

On a more systemic level, the ignorance associated with these behaviours comes from a myriad of upper- and middle-class students who genuinely don’t understand the scope of their wealth because of the existence of those wealthier than them. Holz referenced this in her TikTok, mentioning, “I had a friend who went to an elite private school, and I think I said something about it, and he said, ‘well like, I don’t live in Toorak, I live in Camberwell’”. She clarified, for those who aren’t familiar with the class hierarchy of Melbourne’s residential suburbs, “It’s like saying, ‘well, at least I don’t live in this incredibly opulent suburb, I just live in this slightly less opulent suburb’”.

Ultimately, this can be attributed to the fact that most people have a skewed perception of what constitutes wealth, relative to their own experience. For example, an impoverished student will have a very different perception of wealth than someone who grew up in wealth and continued to be financially supported. This subjective perception has the potential to become increasingly harmful if continually perpetuated in student bodies.

Some will misconstrue this discourse as an attack on the upper or middle-class students at Melbourne University – this is not the case. No one can elect what family they are born into and the financial position they are raised in. Instead, the issue lies in the ignorance of wealth and opportunity that middle or upper-class students have and the privileged positionality they refuse to acknowledge.

Unfortunately, as long as fashion and lifestyle aesthetics continue to emerge and capitalise off disadvantage, the trivialisation of legitimate poorness within the Unimelb community isn’t likely to cease. However, I urge you to think about the connotations and consequences of these fleeting trends and question the morality of adopting poverty tropes when they are positioned as a ‘cool’ aesthetic rather than an inescapable reality.


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