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For Fall, Fashion Designers Find Inspiration in Middle Class America

Why the sudden interest in middle America and its purchasing power -- or lack thereof?

Following his Dallas-themed pre-fall collection, Chanel's Karl Lagerfeld looked again to middle America for inspiration for his fall 2014 lineup, staged in Paris Tuesday. The set was a supermarket of a bygone, mass consumer era -- the kind you'd see on reruns of "Supermarket Sweep," or memorialized in the most recent film remake of "The Stepford Wives."

(Of course, while most mass market superstores advertise discounts, Chanel cheekily advertised a 20 to 50 percent surplus on its goods. Satire at its fashion best.)

Lagerfeld wasn't the only designer to borrow motifs from America's middle and working-class cultures this season. In New York last month, Rag & Bone's Marcus Wainwright and David Neville showed grease-stained skirts and pants, rucksacks, bowling shirts and embroidered mechanic’s jumpsuits. In the most talked-about show in Milan two weeks later, new Moschino Creative Director Jeremy Scott showed runway versions of the ketchup and mustard-colored uniforms worn by McDonald's employees. (Later, there were outfits inspired by Hanes's white briefs, which are sold in packs of seven at Walmart, and gowns and capes made from the packaging of such popular consumer goods as Coca-Cola and Budweiser.)

Why the sudden interest in middle America and its purchasing power -- or lack thereof? The answer may be a simple one: The woes of America's working and middle classes have been under the national media spotlight lately, driven by census and polling data about the U.S.'s disappearing middle class, steady unemployment, rising healthcare costs and the real estate crash in Detroit . Last year, McDonald's became a public scapegoat for the U.S.'s minimum wage problem.

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These headlines and images were apparently fresh in the designers' minds when they were conceiving their fall collections, but the results -- and resulting commentary -- were widely different. Rag & Bone's collection, which was described as "Frank Sinatra meets '50s bowling and English Teddy Boys," was nostalgic and tasteful. Scott said his collection was about taking something trashy and making it "something that you’ll treasure forever" -- though it read more like a satire of both Chanel, with its chain bags, and middle America's lack of taste.

For Lagerfeld, the supermarket set was about embracing something totally modern. "The supermarket is a thing of today’s life," he told WWD. "Even the woman who wears expensive clothing goes to the supermarket" -- one thinks of the constant paparazzi photos of Kate Middleton pushing a shopping cart -- "but she shouldn’t go in stilettos." But there was satire there, too: In the Chanel bags shrink-wrapped to look like produce, for example, and the ratty stretch tops and legging sets that called to mind Juicy Couture suits (and Like Scott, Lagerfeld tried to refashion the distinctly unfashionable as something luxurious and desirable: And what's more powerful than that?

The collections were also a painful reminder that, while the upper classes can afford to appropriate the artifacts of mass consumer culture, the middle and lower classes, at this time, can't.