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Category: Culture

The best that has been thought and written and why these ideals are difficult to meet.

April 21, 2009 | 16 Comments

Class: A Guide Through the American Status System by Paul Fussell

Recommendation: read

When Fussell wrote in 1982 (and published in 1983), he said that acknowledging the class divisions that exist in America exist was poor form and that doing so would likely lead to argument. Florence King writes, “The subject skims across our minds like a hair blown across the face: a constant ticklish irritation, invisible but very much felt.” Class distinctions are as alive as ever and the subject is as taboo now as then—our fierce egalitarian heritage guarantees this—but a certain amount of fun can be had in their study.

We’ll look at changes in the specific indicators that Fussell chose to characterize his class taxonomy, in the fine distinctions between tiers, of which he found three:

Top Center Bottom
1. Top out-of-sight 4. Middle 8. Destitute
2. Upper 5. High Proletarian 9. Bottom out-of-sight
3. Upper Middle 6. Mid-Proletarian
7. Low Proletarian.


Class book cover

Those at the apex never earn their money, nor do inhabitants of the nadir. Both groups are rare and avoid public notice, and are thus difficult to study. Class is only weakly correlated with money. New money separates upper and upper middle from top out-of-sight. The truism “money can’t buy class” explains why high “proles” like actors and pop singers are barred from the upper classes despite their wealth.

Where you lived, in 1982, was a reliable indicator of class. New York City, Boston, San Francisco, Chicago, “upstate” New York, Connecticut implied a higher class than those who lived in Los Angeles, Tulsa, Oklahoma, Cheyenne, Wyoming, and “Parma, Ohio, a city of 100,000 without a newspaper, bus system, hotel, or map of itself.” These locations have not remained static, as the uppers have discovered the West, at least for their vacation residences.

Like it or not—and we have seen that most do not—Fussell insists appearance matters. The top and bottom tiers are skinnier than those in the middle. The lower the rank, the less likely a man is to wear a jacket. The top tier layers its clothes: shirts over shirts, shirts under or over sweaters, and of course jackets. Softer, earthier or pastel “preppy” colors are preferred, and the clothes, while elegant, are lived in and constructed of natural fibers.

A definitive marker is a purple garment: only proles wear them. Jeans and black outerwear begin at the middle-class, as does the use of polyester (it was Dacron in 1982). Fascinatingly, there is a sociological term called legible clothing; that is, clothes and accessories displaying words or logos. Proles don sweaters that plead, “Ask me about my grandchildren”, or hats and t-shirts carrying advertising for automotive products or sports franchises. The middle-class, anxious to separate itself from those below and desiring to emphasize their aspirations to climb higher, carries tote bags from NPR with Beethoven’s image, t-shirts with university names or logos, and bags touting expensive shops. This hasn’t changed. I regularly see female commuters use Victoria Secret bags as supplementary purses.

Language use, particularly pronunciation, is a firm separator. Fussell enjoys the example patina: those in the top tier emphasize the first syllable; the others stress the second. I imagine straining to hear this word while you are out class watching guarantees a lengthy wait.

Better is the demarcation made by those who use house (top tier) and its alternative home. Proles will say limo, middles limousine, while uppers use car as in, “We’ll need the car at 10, please, Jones.” I think that limo is now the most common usage. Middles talk about traveling and uppers discuss summering.

If a woman does a lot of knitting for family and friends [indicating copious leisure time], chances are she’s upper-middle-class. But if when she finishes a sweater she sews in a little label reading

     Handmade by Gertrude Willis

she’s middle-class. If the label reads

     Hand-crafted by Gertrude Willis

she’s high-prole.

Proles and below drop gs. Upper middles and above avoid euphemism and curse as freely, but more creatively, than proles. It’s the middle-class that is most anxious to appear sophisticated and so routinely “complexifies” and softens its language. They prefer utilize to use and would rather utilize the bathroom than the toilet. A man is an alcoholic or has problems with alcohol and is not a drunk. The more syllables packed into a phrase, the better.

In 1982, there was a greater emphasis on the university one attended. Harvard, Yale, the other Ivies, and Stanford indicated top tier. Attendance there is no longer a perfectly reliable class marker as these schools have significantly expanded their student bodies. However, the choice of school still matters.

The assumption that “a college degree” means something without the college’s being specified is woven so deeply into the American myth that it dies very hard, even when confronted with the facts of the class system and its complicity with the hierarchies of higher learning.

In other words, Fussell says, graduating from Syracuse, Seton Hall, University of Wyoming, or Virginia Tech (“a good basketball school”) indicate middle-class. Those universities, which until recently were colleges, and before that were normal schools or teacher’s colleges, are attended by proles.

Finally, Fussell tires of the traditional segregations and hopes that more people will voluntarily join “class X”, a group which has changed more than any other, and which can best be described as those who live in Ithaca, New York, Ann Arbor, Michigan, Madison, Wisconsin, Boulder, CO, or Park Slope, Brooklyn. Creativity, intelligence, independence, pleasantness, and willingness to engage in “experiments in living” were and still are reliable markers of this group.

In 1982, these folk were not as political as today, where they now comprise the vocal left. An enjoyable test of X-hood is to say to your subject that you noticed something on FOX news. If your listener, who is ordinarily lucid and tolerant, begins an excited, extended rant about that network being “reactionary”, then she is likely an X. More evidence is if she wears a knit skull cap, dresses down, sports an Obama decoration, drives a hybrid, eschews makeup, or boasts of shopping at Whole Foods to buy “organic” food.

Fussell argued that Xers rightly did not give a damn about class distinction, and this is still true but in a different sense. Just as Uppers believe they culturally superior to the upper middles, who are sure of their ascendancy over the middle-class etc., Xers are convinced they are more enlightened than everybody else.

This, then, is the overt reading of Class: a hierarchical strata of semi-permeable class boundaries exists. Escape from a stratum is unlikely: though it is easier to descend than to climb or to become an X. The struggle to better or to differentiate oneself determines most behavior. Not all neatly fit into a slot: for example, engineers of every stripe and physicians exhibit significant cross-class deportment.

Covertly, the work can be called a guide to proper behavior and style. Fussell writes approvingly of top tier demeanor and acerbically of displays by the middle-class and proles. He laments prole drift, which is the (inexorable?) tendency of culture to devolve. He says, for example, Princeton

used to be a great center of wit, but now it’s subject to prole drift…Everything in the modern world drifts prole-ward all the time. Even the better classes have to wait in long lines, the quality of food degenerates, airline seating grows more cramped.

Whether or not cultural decay is true in all areas, as Fussell maintains, prole drift has had vicious consequences in music. You cannot go anywhere today without being aurally assaulted by vile, vesicated music.

Fussell proudly accepts the damning insult of elitist. But he doesn’t want us to interpret the word pejoratively. There are aspects of culture that are better than others. One painting can be superior to another (compare any Caravaggio with your best reproduction of it). A novel by Twain rates higher than one typed by Nora Roberts. Our system of justice is sounder than China’s. What really distinguishes the classes, Fussell says, is the ability to know and acknowledge these distinctions and to aspire to what is better or best.

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Update: I forgot to tip the hat to Arts & Letters Daily, which last week linked to this article reviewing Fussell’s book.

April 16, 2009 | 10 Comments

Title IX in Science and Engineering

Your university’s science and engineering programs might be “Titled nined” if Those That Care have their way.

Title IX, or the “Patsy T. Mink Equal Opportunity in Education Act”, is one of those government programs that sounds like a good idea to busybodies: mandate diversity in college sports so that just as many females as males play.

It turns out, in our horrible past, some universities that received federal funding had more males engaged in sports than females. This led to ill feelings on the part of some females who wanted to join intermural competition but found that football was closed to them.

So was born the enlightened legislation Title IX, which more or less says that athletic opportunities by sex must be substantially proportionate to the student enrollment.

All evidence of Title IX “discrimination”, or disproportionality, is statistical. Count up the enrolled males and females, take that ratio, which must equal the ratio of male to female athletes. If these ratios don’t match, the university is guilty of discrimination, and a lawyer somewhere smiles.

Let’s be clear. If disproportionality exists (in favor of males of course), there are two ways to fix it.

  1. Increase the number of females engaged in athletics
  2. Decrease the number of males engaged in athletics

Large, wealthy schools, with fairness in mind, have a go at (1) first. But after a while they, and at a start the smaller schools, opt for (2), because it’s cheaper and easy. (Cut the men’s table tennis funding, for example.) Well, losing a program or two is OK, because universities probably spend too much on athletics anyway.

Now it’s obvious to everybody that more males than females opt for science and engineering degrees—for whatever reason. But it will not be easy to attain proportionality in these fields as it was in sports.

For sports, a college could create a new program, say volleyball for females, where none existed before, thus boosting the number of females in line with option (1).

But this ploy can’t be done in science and engineering because there is no way to create a new chemistry. Unless, for example—and I hesitate to prophecy—“feminist chemistry” is defined to be “science”. (Postmodernist humanities programs had a go at these kinds of redefinitions, but their investigations appear to be on the wane.)

You can’t force matriculating females to select science and engineering as a major. But you can limit the enrollment of males.

Most universities probably—but only probably—won’t be as daring as to say “No more males in mathematics!” But they will be able to, for example, cut the meteorology program, or limit enrollment of males in electrical engineering.

I’d prefer that, if forced to by law, universities opt for method (1) and redefine science and engineering. Call English “the systematic and scientific study of literature.” Such a move would probably not only balance the proportion of males to females in “science”, but even boost it in females’ favor.

Who cares what is called “science”? It’s just a label, and often a misleading one. You often read “the science shows this” and “the science shows that.” “Science” doesn’t show anything, and can’t. A physicist might create a useful, predictive model, or a mathematician might prove a theorem, or a biologist might show what happens when organism A meets chemical B.

But those are just facts of a similar nature gathered under a description. Odd thing is that the description gets the credit, “science” is what is said to cause the results. Far better to let the facts and the people that discovered them get the credit.

So call the study of how to shelve and catalog books “science” and Those That Care can go on to care about something else.

April 15, 2009 | 2 Comments

Go, Bird, go!

Mark Fidrych You’ve all heard it by now. Mark “The Bird” Fidrych is dead. He was 54.

There are plenty of places to read about The Bird, like here and especially here.

I remember watching him when I was a kid, in that glorious bicentennial summer of 1976, back in old Tiger Stadium—at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull (which, incidentally, used to be called Briggs Stadium; family lore has it that the namesake was a relative gone bad).

Bird was the Young Phenom whose career ended like most other Phenoms: too early. Anyway, Fidrych was paid a whopping $16,500 in his all-star year. Not bad back then, but not great either.

My mother used to see him at an annual Winter Special Olympics fundraiser (she retired from Michigan SO). The Wertz Warriors (named for another all-star Tiger) gather in Traverse City and have a snowmobile parade to kick off the winter events. Fidrych was always invited and would show up in, according to my dad, a “silvery colored, flimsy, cruddy old snowmobile suit.” The Warriors felt bad for Fidrych and chipped in and bought him a new one.

Fidrych, who lived in The People’s Republic of Massachusetts, was never away from Detroit for long. Every now and then he’d pop up in the Tiger’s announcer’s booth wearing a Hawaiian shirt and say a few words. He was always grateful to be there, still amazed that the fans loved him.

We’ll miss you, Bird.

April 13, 2009 | 64 Comments

Top 10 Men’s fashion rules

It’s Spring, so it’s high time we talked about men’s fashion. Best Dressed Man

Update: George Will and Daniel Akst from the Wall Street Journal have weighed in.

We’ll do women at another time, but for those who can’t wait, here’s a teaser: no wide-rimmed dark sunglasses. Although they are very popular, they add at at least five years to your looks. Understand me, lady: you look old wearing these.

The following rules have been derived and investigated over the course of a rough and storied life. They are not my rules: they have been handed down through the ages. Complicated statistical models have been employed. Mathematics that rival the most perplexing string theory have been used. Experts have been consulted. Rigorous experiments have been carried out.

These basic rules are therefore infallible, inviolable, inarguable.

Rule 1 Dress for the job! All other rules flow from this one. It’s the most obvious, but also the most abused.

The corollaries—or practical implementations—to this rule are many and varied. We won’t, therefore, have time to cover more than the most common settings.

a. If you are mucking about in the sewers, the fields, or you are a plumber or carpenter, if you fix cars or you are a cog on an assembly line, jeans are just the thing. Canvas, or fire hose-style rough cotton pants are preferred substitutes. Khaki, dark blue, white, or black are de rigueur. Other colors, such as purple, orange, red—any primary color, really—are unacceptable. Jeans should be worn at the hip and not lower. Leave decorations on pants to the kids.

If you are not in a profession where you are required to bend, twist, drag, drop, or drudge, then you must not wear jeans!

If you work in any office, even one in which you are the manager of people who do honest labor, jeans are still forbidden.

No, no—I anticipate your complaints. “But I spent $300 on these jeans. They’re expensive!” Yes, I agree: they are expensive. They are also jeans. Jeans are wore by laborers—an honest and worthy band of men—but if you are not a laborer, you do not wear jeans.

b. There is no such thing as “Dress-down Friday.” Ignore this rule completely. It is a setup for suckers, a device to see who would slack if given the opportunity. The people who dress down are always the first to go—and rightly—when times get tough.

c. Another exception for jeans, and other rough clothing like shorts, is the company jamboree, church picnic, or similar outing. Acceptable clothing includes knit pullovers with the company or organization logo. Even t-shirts may be worn, provided that they are not in public view on the way to and from the place of activity.

Rule 2 Always wear t-shirts. Undershirts, that is. They soak up sweat and extend the life of your shirts.

With two exceptions, never wear a t-shirt as your outer garment.

This includes those t-shirts on which is printed an aphorism that you find hilarious, or that mention a destination at which you once appeared and are anxious to advertise. Wearing t-shirts as a primary garment make you look like somebody who cannot be trusted with responsibility. Furthermore, the kind of person who believes a philosophy can be succinctly splayed across their chest is not somebody decision makers want to associate with.

It is never so hot out that you can get away with a t-shirt. Wear a loose linen shirt in the heat.

The first exception to the rule is, of course, sports. If you are playing a sport, a t-shirt is fine, even necessary. But if you are only watching, it is not. The second is labor; but if you indulge, at least wear a pocket t-shirt, they are handy for your pencil.

Rule 3 Wear a suit most of the time.

If you do not regularly wear a suit, think of it this way. Each day you wear a pair of pants and a shirt, correct? A suit is just that: a pair of pants and a shirt, together with a jacket that you slip on. A jacket fills you out, corrects your proportions, and makes you appear dressed.

Nothing could be easier than wearing a suit. It is a uniform. No thinking has to be done in the morning deciding on what to wear: just put on the next suit in line. Over the internet, custom-made suits can be had for about two to three hundred bucks.

Do not try getting by with a pair of slacks and boldly colored shirt. If you do not wear a jacket, your shirt has to fit perfectly, or else you risk looking unkempt. Most men wear shirts that have too much room in the waist, the material billowing from the belt like a pot boiling over. Sleeves are too wide, especially near the underarm. The trend—due to the absence of a jacket—has been toward expensive cloth and excessive color and pattern. Put on a jacket and the shirt becomes a mere detail.

Suit colors in the fall and winter should be dark. In the spring and summer, they should be light. Too many men continue to wear navy blue all through the hottest months. An off-white suit looks spectacular in August, and it is cooler because it is made of lighter-weight material.

To head off the most common objection: Suits are too comfortable! If yours is not, it is because it is ill fitting. The problem is with what you bought, it is not because your garment is a suit.

Rule 5 Ties are not necessary. A tie, or cravat if you are elderly, adds the necessary balance to your neckline when your shirt is buttoned and you are wearing a jacket. If you leave your shirt unbuttoned (wearing a jacket), an acceptable stylistic choice, no tie is necessary. A tie without a jacket is incomplete.

Unless it is Halloween, under no circumstances should you wear a novelty tie. If you do tie one on, you may as well wear a lampshade for a hat, for you have crossed the line that separates civilized man from the barbarian.

Unless your fashion eye is fully developed, then opt for simple colors and patterns.

Rule 6 Shoes should have leather soles at work.

Tennis shoes, sneakers, and so forth, are acceptable only on the tennis or basketball court, etc. They should never be worn elsewhere. If you are a laborer, wear boots or heavy shoes. They are more manly.

Leather-soled shoes used to be more expensive than rubber-soled ones, but given the price of logo-encrusted “designer” tennis shoes, this is no longer the case. Properly cared for, leather shoes will last forever. Nothing is more disconcerting than seeing a man wearing a proper suit who is also wearing a pair of cheap, rubber-soled shoes. It ruins the entire outfit and makes the man appear clumsy and amateurish.

It is a lie that rubber-soled shoes are more comfortable. Do not scrimp on footwear: discount shoes are no bargain. Buy fewer pairs of leather shoes and take the time to care for them. This includes regular polishing, which must be done at least every third wearing.

Leather-soled shoes also lets your underlings hear your approaching footsteps. Creeping along with rubber soles breaks the tacit adversarial agreement bosses have with employees. If your employees don’t know where you are, they become skittish and unnecessarily furtive.

Rule 7 Try a hat.

Hats keep your head warm in the winter, cool in the summer; they shade your eyes, and keep the rain from your face. They give a sense of fuller proportionality when wearing a suit.

The more clothes you have on, the wider the brim of the hat. Wear a suit, then wear a fedora, or homburg, pork pie, or if you are feeling frisky, a boater. Men who wear hats deservedly get more respect than those without. Besides the obvious savior faire, hats indicate intelligence and fine temperament. Everybody wants to spend time with the man in the hat.

Hats also let you spend less time with your hair. One of the more depressing trends has been the increase in men “teasing” their hair with goo, attempting to make it look spiky, and tousled, like they don’t care. Men who do this are desirous of “sending a signal”, which they are. It is: I am vain.

Golf caps can be acceptable, obviously when you are engaged in sports, but keep their use to a minimum. Also see Rule 9.

Rule 8 Hair length should be proportional to the amount left.

In other words, if you are going bald, your hair must be kept short. Comb-overs never, not once in the history of the world, have fooled anybody. Sporting one suggests your furtiveness is habitual: you will not be trusted, nor should you be.

Never dye. Gray gracefully. Blow-dried helmet-hair, like that worn by newsreaders or politicians, makes those in your presence wary. People will instinctively check for their wallet after talking to you.

If your hair is recalcitrant, grease may be used to tame it, as long as the amount used cannot readily be discerned.

Unless you sport a beard or a moustache—which you should trim assiduously—shave! Stubble indicates laziness. It is not manly: you never saw John Wayne unshaven. Yes, he got away with a rug—you will not—because he was in the movies and you are not.

Rule 9 With very few exceptions, NEVER wear a visible logo.

The sole exceptions are the jamboree or picnic mentioned above. Sports logos can be done, but should be restricted to the ballpark.

Wearing a logo—e.g., a pocket crest, a jacket’s manufacturer, especially the “designer” of a shoe—indicates a certain femininity, and suggests you want too much to be liked. It tells the world you are easily led, that you prefer the commercials to the Super Bowl.

A visible mark from a manufacturer or “designer” is an attempt to fool people into thinking it’s wearer is fashionable. True fashion is anonymous, it speaks for itself.

Rule 10 If you are going to take your jacket off, wear a vest, or waistcoat. This minor tip is brilliant, because it allows your shirt or belt or suspenders to be of inferior quality. And when you take your jacket off, you still look dressed. You can skimp on the ironing because the wrinkles in your shirt won’t be as noticeable.

Vests also cover the bottom of ties, so that you can concentrate on the knot, the most important part. This is beneficial because older ties, antique ones, were not made as long as today’s ties—because men wore waistcoats. When you come across a beautiful old tie, you will now be able to buy it.

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Naturally, I don’t claim to follow all the rules; they are ideals. For me, a good day is one where I remember to zip my fly, or to match my shoes.

Due to the sensitive nature of this subject, some will like to respond by email. Do so. All questions will be answered in subsequent posts. matt@wmbriggs.com