Wednesday, 26 March 2014

The Prince, the Fogeys and the Sartorial Police

I have met only one prince in my life, and he was wearing stained jeans and a button-down shirt undone to the third button. To Mass. He wandered into the tea-room after a post-Mass restorative cigarette.

What was very funny about this scene was that the prince was surrounded by much plumper, much shorter young men all turned out like Evelyn Waugh: loud tweeds, red cords, shiny shoes. It was not a Young Fogey hour of glory. Compared to the prince, they looked like they were trying too hard. The word middle-class comes to mind, spoken like an insult (B.A. will cringe at reading this, head disappearing into shoulders) and I am middle-class---that is, I acknowledge that this is where I fit on the British class system chart, which vaguely reminds me of apartheid-era South Africa.

It is considered very rude and outré and possibly middle-class-as-a-bad-thing to ponder the British class system when one lives in Britain, and of course it has changed very much although I know elderly semi-aristos and public school men who still think they can get away with being simply disgustingly rude (they can't), and I encounter chip-on-the-shoulder working-class types from time to time. Once when B.A. went to the front of a loosely organized bus queue to peer at the bus schedule, a rheumy-eyed old man, slightly the worse for drink, angrily demanded that he get back: "those days are over." The implication was that tweed-coat wearing B.A. was the upper class oppressor, thrusting himself before the Honest Working Man.

Have I mentioned it is actually dangerous for me to wear any hat more ornate than a beret on the Rough Bus? I love hats, especially cute vintage ones with eye-veils, but I can't wear them on the bus or while alone on the public street. The one exception may be when I look as though I were going to a wedding. The sartorial police would probably then give me a pass.

"Oh I know," said a Scottish lady I know, who is always beautifully turned out at parties. "On the bus I wear a hoody and pull the hood over my head, willing myself to be invisible."

This may put the Young Fogeys' choice of clothing into perspective. It is actually brave to dress according to an older idiom in Edinburgh, especially if you leave the pretty Georgian parts for the grimier neighbourhoods, and the Historical House lies between two grimier neighbourhoods. If ever I am killed by a rock flying through the window of the Rough Bus, you may all consider me a Scottish Architectural Heritage martyr. The papers got all excited because boys from the right-hand grimy neighbourhood threw rocks at a Pole. Racist hate crime, shrieked the papers. But I snorted because those boys throw rocks at anything that moves.

I do hate the fact that actual fear of attack, whether verbal or physical, governs my sartorial choices. Of course, it is not as bad as it is in Egypt or Afghanistan. But, honestly, given where I live, I think I could be forgiven if I left the house only in long T-shirts, leggings and trainers (running shoes). I have never in my life--even as a middle-aged lady--managed to be invisible, but the T-shirt, legging and trainer combo would offend no-one as I tramped around the down-at-heels town to the left.

Edinburgh University, which is in a nice part of Edinburgh, is a different story, and my Polish Temporary Pretend Daughter mentioned yesterday that she gets more male attention when she wears a skirt than when she wears jeans. PTPD is a cute wee thing in her early 20s, but wearing a shortish skirt and a Nordic pullover makes her super-cute, and thus all the masculine attention and "Oh, you look very pretty today".

What I draw from this is that "pretty" is okay and indeed good in the area around Edinburgh University, at least for women under thirty. However, I suspect eccentricity is not okay there either, especially when eccentricity looks like a "middle-class" person trying to look "upper class". (In the narrow minds of the "socially excluded" people on the Rough Bus--no-one on Council having thought to do anything about the stultifying mental poverty the "socially excluded" are forced into--anyone on a bus cannot be authentically posh.) The poor of Edinburgh grudgingly respect poshness in the obviously rich, but loathe it in the possibly poor, in the "Who does she think she is?" spirit their more adventurous great-uncles and great-aunts took with them to Canada.

It strikes me as absolutely pathetic that I have to worry about looking like I am "putting on airs", and I suspect this is a problem that plagues young black women in American ghettos. "Acting posh" is the British equivalent of "acting white", and it is really very sad. Indeed, I am factoring it in as I decided whether or not to buy that absolutely beautiful tweed jacket for sale at Walker Slater.

So although they occasionally look silly, I must say that I admire the Young Fogeys of Britain for their counter-cultural stand. Compared to a Young Fogey, punk rockers are boringly conventional and cowardly sheep. And, now that I think about it, I admire even more the non-Fogeys who go to Mass with us Fogeys and Fogettes, and treat us like normal human beings instead of real-life versions of the most hated fictional character in Britain, Hyacinth Bucket. That is real Christian charity.

Update: As a Canadian of British descent, I am trying to understand how a real British person would read this. Am I like a Central European trundling up to a white American and saying, "Is it true that you are frightened of black people?" or to a black American and saying, "Are white people really that awful to you?" On the other hand, I live in this uniquely British class mess, so I think I have the right to complain and work to change it, insofar as that is humanly possible.

Update 2: At a party last weekend, I met someone who teaches Social... er. Actually, it was such an Orwellian phrase, I can't remember it. Basically she works in a "socially excluded", welfare-dependency neighbourhood in Glasgow, and has to teach teenagers social skills. "Like filling out tax forms?" I asked brightly. "Nothing so complicated," she said. She seemed a bit gloomy. "Like how to eat in a restaurant?" I suggested. (In Germany, applicants for Top Jobs are still taken to restaurants so that the interviewers can assess the interviewee's table manners.) But no. It seems it is mostly about staying off drugs.

Update Three: Actually, though, when I was an undergrad it was de rigeur at the University of Toronto for students to despise "the petits bourgeois", which quite often meant their own middle-class parents. Actually, now that I have finally looked up the term, I see that the petits bourgeois includs hard-working shopkeepers. So how dared they?


MaryT said...

I had to laugh at this. I am a long time reader, but I don't think I have ever commented. I am Canadian, living in London now for almost a year, and have never encountered this interesting concept of appearing "posher" than you are, or indeed of worrying about it. Is this a uniquely Scottish thing, do you think? Or am I immensely oblivious? I wouldn't be surprised if it were the latter, but then if that is the case, I am slightly disturbed at my own....obliviousness.

Seraphic said...

MaryT, you don't live in the UK. You live in London. Different place altogether!

Amused said...

Okay, I am intensely curious as to what prince that was....

Seraphic said...

Not an English one, & that's all I'm saying!

Jam said...

As a new grad student I always dressed reasonably professionally, and it got Commented Upon. "Who does she think she is?" is a pretty universal personality flaw, although in my context it could be written off as eccentricity after a while and no one threw rocks at me.

"anyone on a bus cannot be authentically posh" -- well, that is a fact. Buses are gruesome.

Did you ever read the "Kingdom of Style" blog? I think it is still around. The writers were two middle aged women in Edinburgh (or near there) with a love for strange, arty, avant fashion. Their outfits were pretty wild and they would comment sometimes about the stares and comments they got.

Nzie said...

Law school: we've all seen each other in suits at one time or another. But we've also seen each other during finals. I tend to go dressy casual or casual professional, and there are plenty of people around who do that. Most people wear nice casual. I'm also in a tiny town, however, and the law school bubble. I wish I could look forward to better fashion out of law school, but instead of continuing to develop along the lines of the beautiful suits of the '40s, the legal profession seems content to try to force us into feminized men's clothes. ... but that's another beef.

Julia said...

Ah, 'Keeping Up Appearances'. Good show.