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’.
‘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