Saturday, 15 January 2011

Classy Dress

Immediately outside the university library, there is collected a small number of students, third years perhaps. Your eyes come to rest on one member of the party, because she has pretty features and healthy, long, blond hair. And then you take stock of the rest of her, and what you see is this: dark green, rectangular-cut jacket with diamond-patterned quilting, such as people wear on TV programmes about horses; a foot, or less, of visible denim; and then the Hunter wellington. And you think: "Why would a pretty young woman dress in a jacket for which her shape is irrelevant, and a pair of wellingon boots?" And the answer follows fast: this is the uniform of a certain class of young woman, one who has horses, if not quite in her stables, then at least on her list of hobbies, one who wishes to attract a man to, if not quite yet, then at least very soon, keep her in the manner to which she is, if not quite accustomed, then at least determinedly aspiring. That she judges her chances of attracting this man to be greater when attired in a quilted green rectangle and boots for mucking out in than it would be in a mode of dress designed and worn to, say, emphasize her femininity, to - let's keep this very general - make her look nice, speaks volumes for the manner in which class has trumped style, of dressing and probably too of other aspects of living.

During the nineteenth century, when industrial modes of cloth production began to undermine the distinction that had been easily available to those who could afford dresses made of fine fabrics, middle class women became fearful of being mistaken for their servants and, what was almost worse, of their servants being mistaken for themselves. There promptly followed the introduction of the servant's uniform so that style continued to remain the preserve of the privileged. Society has changed sufficiently for the imposition of a class uniform to have become outrageous. But it has not changed so much that the benefits of such a uniform are no longer felt. It is simply that, now, the middle classes, constrained from dressing others in it, consent to dressing themselves in it, and opt to preserve a badge for their position in society by claiming as their birthright, no longer style but rather a green-quilted absence of it.

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