A Middle Class Mantra

To weave his third and fourth tapestries, Grayson Perry visits Tunbridge Wells, Kent, suitably attired for an exploration into the taste of the British middle-classes. Grayson introduces with ‘today two-thirds of British people identify themselves as middle class’ – but what exactly constitutes being middle class today? As he discussed in the last episode, the working classes are becoming increasingly marginalized as their heritage slips away from them (and, our government isn’t currently in full support of the poor). Does that mean that the working classes are slipping into the middle-class category? Is the middle class spectrum widening? What used to constitute a middle class person was working as a teacher, doctor, shop owner, or professional, but as more of the population go to university, more factories close, and more of us shop at Tesco, it seems being middle-class is a very confusing palaver indeed.

My mum raised this issue a few weeks ago. Her dad was a coal miner from a working-class area in Barnsley and she always identified herself as working class, but after being a social worker for 25 years and accruing wealth, her class status had changed. She was now confused about what class category she fitted into.

Grayson’s second episode really sums up a predicament of the middle classes; they’re anxious and paranoid. He meets anthropologist Kate Wells and explores the history of the middle classes: “They were originally the merchant classes; self-made people who worked hard to get where they are or their grandparents got them where they are,” Kate said.  “The middle classes don’t know they’re place,” and Grayson continues, “they’re not sure of their place so they want to appear good and virtuous and deserving of their place.” What’s interesting about this second episode is that he then splits the middle classes into two categories, the people who like brands, want to show they’re in control, want to fit in, and those who want to define themselves as different and have a very individual cultural taste. He doesn’t define them as ‘lower’ or ‘upper’.

These two caricatures, although appearing so different when recruitment consultant Kate, living in suburbia, explains ‘buying into’ a lifestyle at King’s Hill with white picket fences and Range Rovers, and Amanda discusses collecting her cultural capital with vintage lamps and handmade items in her designer semi-detached, are merely different manifestations of the same idea. They both are buying a lifestyle and buying an identity. As a gastropub owner in Tunbridge Wells explains, are those who shop at farmer’s markets and buy organic any less consumerist than those who buy a lifestyle in suburbia? “We think our badges are cleverer,” he added, “not gauche as the lower orders.  Like they’re all doing something money driven, but we’re purely knowledge driven.” If you buy a book written by Kafka or a Jamie Oliver cutlery set, you’re equally buying into a lifestyle, an idea, and a perception of what you want to be.

As discussed in my first blog post, as classes are now more defined by what we wear, what our children’s names are, where we do our food shopping, could this mean that the classes could easily just meld together? According to the Daily Mail, 71% of people think they’re middle class because of the coffee they drink. Hilariously, when people were asked what object best symbolised their ‘middle-classness’, the most frequent response was ‘a cafetiere’ (1).

I don’t think classes are going to melt together, but do think what we consume is effecting us in so many unseen ways.

We’re all trying to be so different from one another in the middle class, a precocious student may decide to wear all black clothing and read the works of Goethe, or a mum of two will buy an Aga and host Tupperware parties. What is evident is the nervousness of those transactions and our reliance on the products that define us.

I think Grayson Perry paints a dystopian portrait of our consumerist Britain in this episode. This is even more darkly disturbing than his portrayal of the working classes, the class so regularly demonised. Here we’re monstrous consumers, with a guilt-fed reflex to donate to charity or do something good to ‘deserve our place’.

(1) – http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1369410/Are-really-middle-class-70-think–try-quiz-fit-in.html

‘Expulsion from Number 8 Eden Close’, 2012

Masaccio’s ‘Expulsion from the Garden of Eden’, 1425

‘The Annunciation of the Virgin Deal’, 2012

‘The Annunciation’, Carlo Crivelli, 1486

3 thoughts on “A Middle Class Mantra

  1. You make some very interesting observations. Have you ever read Bourdieu on social class?.. I wonder if you could tell me why there are only two Magi in his Adoration tapesty instead of three/.Margaret Mcdermott

    1. Hi Margaret,

      Thanks for reading my blog and commenting. I haven’t read Bourdieu on social class, but I will look into this – if you could recommend any book titles that would be appreciated!


  2. Bourdieu is not an easy read. You know what these French intellectual are like!. He pointed out that social class is not only defined by economic capital (money house etc) but other forms of capital eg cultural capital (liking classical music, reading literary novels, going to plays etc), social capital (what we would call networking) and social capital which I can’t explain because I don’t fully understand but it is sort of like having a very high status in a certain field. So all these factors would need to be taken into account to determine a persons social class. He was writing a bit ago and there are perhaps other factors as well,l things like for example the consumerism of aesthetic taste (which is part of cultural capital of course), the sort of things Perry talked about so well. The food we eat is also a significant class marker and has become more so.Generally speaking the working class don’t eat Waitrose organic sirloin at £28.00 a kilo!.. People who say that social class is no longer significant are fools or liars. Social inequality is not diminishing, it”s growing. One obvious example of this is how few working class kids go to uni. I come from the lower sections of the working class and I went to uni in the 60s. Every single thing was paid for by a very generous scholarship, tuition fees, accommodation, food, clothes-the lot!. A kid from my background would never go to uni now..Sorry for the rant.

    If you want to read Bourdieu himself his most seminal work is “Distinction “, your local library may have it . A good critique of his work is Pierre Bourdieu:key concepts. edited by Michael Grenfell. That is a good introduction to him. He was very good looking in a erxy French way and the son of a Gascon postman. So he too was upwardly socially mobile but in France as here that would be less likely now. Back to Perry, why only two Magi?. Best wishes, Margaret Mac.

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