The theme for this month’s Feminist Fashion Blogger‘s themed post is social class, which is a topic that has always fascinated me. Hence the intro that has nothing to do with clothes.
I still find it hugely weird social class matters so much in the UK. Luxembourg/Germany where I am from obviously has social divisions, but they are more based on what ever job a person currently holds or what income they have, whereas in Britain this whole structure of behaviours and history and relationships and subtle subdivisions and secret meanings is built on that. The UK is a country where about 50% are in the top category of the National Statistics Socio-economic Classification (NS-SEC), 57% consider themselves to be working class yet taking the piss out of chavs is a national past time. It’s mad, really. You could study class in the UK forever and still not fully untangle it, yet people just take it for granted and conduct their lives around it.
When I moved here in 1999, I was catapulted into a world where the whole class thing was even more important than in British life anyway. Scotland as a country pretty much sees itself as working class and there isn’t much of an upper class as a social force (the Conservative got 14% of the vote in the last election, if that is anything to go by), yet Edinburgh University where I studied is overrun with what are known as yahs (I think this is not a commonly known term?).
Basically privately educated, rich, posh accents, will speak at top volume regardless of environment, often baffling lack of intelligence or common sense yet always massive sense of entitlement, incredibly confident/good at bullshitting. Say ‘yah’ instead of yes, hence the name. See also rah which I think may be the favoured term at Durham uni. I’m using this here because being a yah is more than being upper class. It’s like a concentrated, conspicuous version of being upper class.
But to finally get to the ‘fashion’ point: Yahs are also identifiable by their clothes. When I was an undergrad, the yah style was pastel coloured rugby shirts, pashminas, long blonde slightly messy but very healthy hair. It was nothing to do with fashion, it was about showing your social position. The current yah style is epitomised by Kate and Pippa Middleton, i.e. still the amazingly healthy hair and plain, classic clothes typically worn by women 15 years older than them.
And I think this is why I can’t get behind this whole Kate Middleton style icon thing I see on all the blogs. I know literally dozens of girls who dress exactly like her. It’s just straightforward, 100% yah style. There is nothing interesting or special about the clothes at all, and presumably there isn’t meant to be. The style understated and restrained and the message is ‘I have no need to concern myself with fashion’.
So clothes are a marker of class, but they are only one of a huge range signifiers, and they need to be in tune with all the other aspects, or the result will be very jarring. Ms Cambridge in the grey dress below looks polished and classic. But she’s also incredibly pretty, her hair is shiny and immaculately done, yet natural, she is tall and so so skinny. Now picture Katie Price in that same outfit. It wouldn’t work at all, she’d look like a beauty girl at a department store make up counter. It’s not the dress, it’s how the dress merges with the person.
With apologies for rolling out the French social theorists, this made me think of Pierre Bourdieu’s cultural capital and his idea that every social class (and sub class) has it’s own aesthetic criteria, it’s own ‘its own artists and philosophers, newspapers and critics, just as it has its hairdresser, interior decorator, or tailor’. These aesthetic preferences aren’t consciously formed, but passed down in families, friendship groups and institutions and people are socialised into ‘their taste’ from such an early age that they don’t think about it. Things that aren’t in keeping with that taste are seen as unnatural and rejected.**
And I just wonder if maybe that somehow explains the huge popularity of Kate Middleton, which I still find highly confusing. I don’t think her appeal can really lie in being accessible (she’s far too pretty, and rich, and posh) or in being a fairytale princess (she’s far too safe anf her background is pretty mundane if very wealthy). For all the articles on where to buy her Issa dresses, I don’t think many people really want to emulate her clothes because on a normal, messy, non coiffed and chauffeured person they would really just look like standard business casual.
After mulling this over for ages, I think maybe people (subconsciously) like her because her style and taste and behavious is so utterly in line with what is expected in that position. There is no jarriness at all. She’s the perfect person to save the royal family’s reputation after the decades of loveless marriages, public racism, nazi uniforms and taped sex talk scandals. She won’t embarrass anyone and it won’t be an effort because she seems genuinely happy. Her job is to smile and wave and make small talk and she does it beautifully. It’s like she was born to do it.
What do you think? This was a difficult post to write hence the lack of a coherent argument. I kepts veering into my own personal history which I woluld rather not and was worried I was having too much of a personal go at poor Katie, which I really don’t mean to. She interests me only as a representative of yahness.
A roundup of the rest of this month’s themed posts can be found on the Feminist Fashion Bloggers blog.
Kate and Wills illustration via here. Kate Middleton picture from some tabloid website and Katie Price picture from some showbiz website.
** Apologies for the shoddy treatment of Bourdieu, sociology and cultural studies people. I haven’t read any actual Bourdieu, just about him, but I know there’s more of a point than that, but I wanted to keep it readable and relevant to fashion.