Sunday 10 November 2013

The Middle Classes in the 80s


The middle-class Upwards loved the 80s. Socialism and feminism were a club they could join. Everyone else was a Sloane Ranger, a Yuppie or on the dole. Thatcher was in power, destroying industry and starting wars. The world had got to change. The Upwards thought they were spearheading a revolution, and soon everybody in the world would copy their earnestness, drab clothes and woolly thinking. They had a lovely time bossing everybody about and telling them off for being ideologically unsound. Like any cult, they were keen to recruit you, and then persuade you to give up your personal life and spend all your spare time working for the cause.

Unfortunately they were the last group you’d want running the world – they couldn’t even run a women’s centre. They got funding for enterprises that did nothing but hold meetings (probably about “this group’s attitude to Nicaragua”).

Some time in the 80s a working-class woman wrote an article in the Guardian urging us to “go for what’s winnable”. Upwards were puzzled. It was a totally new idea. Their plan was to go for nothing less than complete equality, worldwide. This excused them from actually achieving anything, like deciding where to keep the stapler. More silly ideas: they thought science was “hubristic”, logic a male conspiracy, and knitting anti-feminist. Show them a party line and they toed it. Instead of science, they believed in magic – they loved Freud and Jung.

They couldn’t say someone was pretty – it was “conventionally good-looking”. They chose plain girl/boyfriends as a political statement. Female pop stars wore long baggy overcoats and danced clumsily to prevent women being seen as “sex objects”.

We couldn’t be girly. Upwards always like being puritanical and ascetic: they enjoyed banning hairstyles, fashion, makeup – and sex with men. They wore cheap, practical, hardwearing dungarees and parrot earrings, and cut each other’s hair. They didn’t read chicklit but Virago reissues of women novelists, or books of boring essays. We couldn’t go to the movies but had to go to political cabaret, pretentious French “cirques” and miners’ benefits. We listened to U2 and Mary Black (PC messages), not Duran Duran or Gary Numan (tunes).

Stoke Newington used to be a hangout for girls with white legs and short hair who wore summer dresses made out of 50s curtains (and were accompanied by stooping, weedy boyfriends). Stokeys have become much more normal, but maybe that’s because many of their obsessions have become mainstream and commercialised (health food, modern antiques, vintage clothes, cappuccino, sitting in cafes, baby slings, massage, yoga, visiting the third world). Also bus services improved and we're no longer so cut off from the rest of the city.

They gave sons dolls and daughters plumbing sets. A writer in The Independent (May 12, 2004) calls the idea that gender is a product of nurture, not nature, “an idea that was briefly fashionable in the 60s and 70s”. It was all a fashion? Unthinkable!

Being Upwards, they worked the system like mad, getting a grant to do up a five-bedroom house in Hackney, or blagging a council flat in Westminster, living on the dole and getting their mortgage paid but still making money at a creative skill that they didn't “declare” (ie you lied or kept quiet about it). They then boasted about their cleverness and creativity in a quiet way. And their friends flourished them in front of their other friends to make them feel small.

The wider world paid them little attention, and 20 years on, high streets are full of tanning salons, nail bars and waxing parlours. Female pop stars went back to being sexy and glamorous in a few years. (OK, some important laws were passed, and society became less authoritarian and unfair. The liberal project is still going – we've got women bishops at last!)

When the party was over, people who had wasted years of their lives in a travelling circus with a political message dusted themselves down, got a teaching qualification and ended up running something, buying a house and joining a pension scheme. They were never much bothered by contradictions.

I even wrote a novel about it all called The Fourth Door.

Thursday 7 November 2013

What to Wear II

Clothes for a girl in a government job

At the time there was, in fact, a perfectly acceptable bourgeois female trouser in circulation – only none of us possessed a pair, of course. This was the knitted nylon taper trouser with a strap beneath the foot to keep the hem from rolling up. This garment, originally some form of skiing apparel, combined with a chunky Italian sweater and beehive hairdo, was standard lower-middle lounge bar gear. (Angela Carter, on the earnest discussions people used to have about what women should wear for sit-ins – protests where they might be carried off by the police and reveal their knickers, suspenders and stocking-tops).

She said it was common to wear silk stockings in the country. (Our Spoons Came from Woolworths, set in the 30s)

I would rather not wear all of these rings at once for fear that I may be inclined to start calling people “daahhling” and ordering them about. ( Miss Manners' Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behaviour)

And she much prefers wearing rings to gloves. Maybe she thinks they do not go together? (Etiquette guru Emily Post on the vulgar woman with an elaborate hat and fur coat who is always to be seen eating in restaurants.)

“From a long way away – a long way – she might have looked 30. Close at hand the result of make-up artlessly applied made her seem rather older than 50, but on the whole he put it at 50. Dark hair heavily hanging. No hat... a dark coat and skirt and a white blouse. Carrying a large tartan bag. A jingly bracelet or two, several rings…” (Agatha Christie, The Clocks This is a character who calls herself "Merlina Rival".)

What has become of the woman who had a small dog, a charm bracelet, pin heels and a fur coat? Plus hot pink lipstick that stained cigarette ends and teacups, and a cloud of choking perfume. She either wore a brocade dress over an obvious corselette, or a frilly white blouse and a very tight black pencil skirt. In early decades her high-heeled shoes had ankle straps. She shakes hands with her tight, coloured suede glove on, possibly saying “Excuse my glove!”, as it would take too long for her to peel the glove off. As well as the lipstick (that went over her lipline in a cupid’s bow and “bled” into the fine lines round her mouth), she wore thick, pale, chalky powder that smelled of Edinburgh Rock. (She’s the one who says “tata” for goodbye, or "Well, I must love you and leave you!" or "Be good!".)

In the 50s women were admonished not to wear “clanking” charm bracelets (a polite way of saying they were common). Sealskin jackets, frilly blouses and ankle-strap shoes were also nonos. A schoolfriend was forbidden by the headmistress to take a tartan bag on a day out. (The same nun forbade clip-on pearl earrings – which we had all got free by collecting special crisp packets.)

Upwards never wear 15-denier tights – they’re too sexy. They’re very puritanical about turning yourself into a sex object – or at least they were round about 1975. Even drab icon Emma Thompson (she used to dress entirely in unbleached linen shrouds) has become glamorous now.

In 2012 toffs took to wearing wearing red trousers - with tweed jackets. Hipsters are also wearing very, very tight red trousers.

Stow Crats match the clothes to the occasion. Caro wouldn’t wear a sunhat on a dull day, or in a town or to the theatre. She wouldn’t wear a cocktail dress at 9am, like a weather girl. When Sharon Definitely and her children go on breakfast telly, they all wear party frocks and hair ornaments and look fabulous.

Lower-middle class Jen Teale loves pleated necklines and cutwork (a lot of work for a hideous result). Bryan Teale hangs his jackets or spare shirt on a hanger in the car.

What do you do when it rains? Howard Weybridge and Harry Stow Crat carry black rolled-up brollies in town. Harry shudders discreetly when Howard turns up in an anorak over a city suit. In a sudden shower, Christine Teale buys a “tote” from a stall which breaks before she gets home. (A “tote” is a telescopic umbrella that comes in a little “pochette”.) Jen buys a clear plastic dome-shaped umbrella from a souvenir shop – well, the Queen's got one, though hers isn't printed “I heart London”. Otherwise Jen’s umbrellas are turquoise or fake tweed (but not Burberry). Caro grabs a city brolly, or maybe a huge golfing umbrella. Sharon Definitely has a brolly with cats’ ears, which she uses as a parasol.

In Jilly Cooper’s Class (written in the 70s), Jen memorably wore a plastic mac with a rainbonnet and rain boots. These days she wears a smart trench coat (she calls it a “trench”) and a hat from Accessorize. Caro is still wearing a Barbour jacket and a headscarf. Samantha Upward wears a strange assortment of garments and gets soaking wet because she can’t wear anything plastic or even rainproofed. And she's never "prepared", like a Boy Scout.

Definitelies wear sovereign rings and glitter ball beads (“berry” beads) and pavé diamond chips. The beads have moved up the classes and are now everywhere in 2013. Oddly, Teales have taken to nose studs – but very tiny diamond ones.

More here.
More jewellery here.

Sunday 3 November 2013

The Art of Blending In

Theatre and cinema seats used to be organised by class. Boxes for exclusivity and to be seen (upper class); the upper circle, where you had to wear evening dress; the stalls for the less well-off (but evening dress was still expected); the gallery for the plebs where you could wear what you liked. They had different entrances so the classes didn’t have to mingle. In early theatres there were no stalls with fixed seats: the ground floor was the “pit”, where commoners sat on benches and ate (gasp!) oranges, probably throwing the peel on the floor. The bar was also on this floor and you might expect to bump into some shady ladies.

A friend tells me that on cruise ships, restaurants on different decks act as a filter: some won't serve fried food for breakfast, or chips for lunch. These delicacies can all be found on the top deck.

And why do we have two “classes” of train travel?

A social mobility tsar was appointed in June 2013. Will he address the problem of people wishing to climb down the ladder? The working classes always seem to be having more fun, and the Teales have life sewn up. How do you become lower middle class? Save money and move to a suburb. Enjoy your garden and good local (free) schools. Make friends at the many organisations that exist for improving the area. Join whichever church has the most members. Sing in the choir. Raise money with crafternoons and cupcake decorating sessions. Research careers with your children and send them to catering college or hair and beauty school. Dress conservatively – copy your neighbours.

But if you want to pose as a member of another class, do your homework: on consumer TV programme Watchdog a researcher posed as a “post-modern artist” who’d created an installation out of fly-tipped rubbish. She talked very “posh” – almost an “OK, yah”, something no posh person has ever said and is a cliché from the 80s. She wore a back-combed pompadour held back by an elastic band, with a flowery silk bandeau, teamed with a long, flowery skirt. What was she aiming for? Did she think "artists = pretentious = posh"? Did someone tell her that posh girls wear headscarves and hairbands? (Again, 30 years out of date.) Why didn’t she go to Shoreditch and find out what artists really look like (and sound like)?

How to blend in

The upper-class Stow-Crats go in for bonkers cheese-paring methods – writer India Knight recommends making your own butter, David Cameron says he never buys budget bread, he has a breadmaking machine. In the 20s, they employed French chefs but made their guests hand over twopence if they used the phone.

The middle-middle Weybridges are looking for love online, claiming they are interested in evenings at the theatre or concerts, or long walks in the country. That should filter out common timewasters.

What to say about wind farms: Socialist – not in my backyard! And they’re part of this global warming conspiracy which is just common people telling us what to do.

What to say about fracking: It’s destructive, ugly, aggressive, bullying – what’s not to like? And it will only inconvenience people living in “desolate” parts of the northeast.

What to say about the badger cull: We’re all for it because the lefties are against it, and besides cruelty is somehow good for us.

The upper middle-class Upwards don’t believe in magic any more, but they are into mysticism: the kind that involves a lot of hard work and self-denial and harsh meditation weeks in India. They don’t like a philosophy to be too “utilitarian” – they prefer them to be completely useless.

The more downmarket Teales and Definitelies prefer magic, which is fun as long as you don’t end up handing over hundreds of pounds to Madame Sosostris.

Upwards and Weybridges get terribly wound up over how to ask for things in shops. “Can I get a latte” is a ghastly Americanism and everybody who uses it should be shot, or perhaps just horse-whipped. Can we say “I’ll take a…” No, no, no! And as for “Give us a…” or “Give us one of those”! You expect it to be followed by “dude”! Small children are tortured over “Can I get down?” or “Can I have a biscuit?” “You can – and you MAY,” answer their parents. So, how do we ask for things in shops, cafés and restaurants? I’ll take vanilla. I mean “May I have a…” (How do they feel about “Could I have a…” or “Just a latte, please”? Or “mine’s a pint”?)

Upwards think that they run the world and nobody tells them what to do, but look down on public service roles that are filled by Weybridges and Teales – parish councillors, aldermen, mayors, social workers, probation officers, the staff of town halls. These people are “petty bureaucrats”. A friend writes: “They’re always terribly snobbish about the councillor class, civic pride generally, because they've attained a distinction which has nothing to do with birth or breeding (or culture).”

Sometimes they go so far as to claim they want to abolish government, repeal all laws and get rid of science, because there are too many laws, politicians are all lying twisters, and Brian Cox smiles too much (telling us what to do, and knowing more than us). 

Moving with the times

Upwards frequently “muddle their values” (Margery Allingham). They don’t seem to know what’s really important.

In the kind of shabby-genteel family that I am talking about there is far more consciousness of poverty than in any working-class family above the level of the dole. Rent and clothes and school-bills are an unending nightmare, and every luxury, even a glass of beer, is an unwarrantable extravagance. Practically the whole family income goes in keeping up appearances. (George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier)

We were prepared to have a nurse and a servant as a necessary extravagance, but would never have dreamed of having a car. If we went to theatres it would be to the pit. I would have perhaps one evening dress, and that would be a black one so as not to show the dirt… We would never take a taxi anywhere… It made for less luxury, plainer food, clothes and all those things. (Agatha Christie, An Autobiography)

My parents tried gracious living on a too-small budget. They couldn’t afford to heat the house, which was too big anyway, so it was always freezing in the winter. Why didn’t we heat one room (apart from the kitchen), put the telly in it, and all live there? People were always being hived off into separate rooms. We ate off Georgian silver but our parents were stingy about butter, sugar and jam. Why didn’t they sack the nanny, sell the silver and buy lots of butter? Of course they had to pretend that it was common to eat lots of butter or put sugar in your tea or be warm enough! Every meal had to be formal, and they were one long opportunity for issuing orders and bullying. Silver items were brought out, not used, and put away again, twice a day. (And then my parents retired to a bungalow and put all the silver in a safe – and there it stayed.)

More here.