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You Don’t Need To Be Posh to Have Taste
The simmering rage I attempt to temper with all manner of high street narcotics (cans of TRIP, vino, Mint Munchies) recently boiled beyond my jawline. I do my very best to remain sanguine in this era of outrage, but this really pushed my buttons. What could have so stoked my ire, I hear you ask? In this instance, it was a response from a potential publisher about a book proposal I’d been working on. The subject was somewhat related to my regular Instagram diet of DIY and sprucing my rental, to give you the context. Now, I love feedback (outside of trolling or QAnon-level influencer conspiracy theories), because often it bursts the self-sustaining bubbles we all inevitably live in. But this particular reaction made me want to burn something like an unhinged pyromaniac. The general gist of the opinion was that as my style is ‘high end’, there was a disconnect between my aesthetic (posh) and the projected reader (tenants, presumably common). The argument was that the two could never possibly dovetail, because people who like chic décor can obviously afford to pay someone to hang their wallpaper. Aka less well-paid people, from less privileged backgrounds who can’t afford a deposit for a family home or labour to decorate couldn’t possibly be interested in recreating fashionable interiors.
Now. We also know there’s a solid section of society who believe this kind of sentiment – blaming my generation’s avocado consumption or something about us being furniture buying yobs for our inability to join the upper set. But I was still so affronted because a) wake up, 350% more 34–45-year-olds rent now than in 1993, which means even posh people have landlords these days and b) both my parents grew up in council houses and have taste. My boyfriend grew up in a shelter and has impeccable taste. So many of our friends in fashion or design come from totally humble backgrounds and many–due to the punitive wages in many areas of the creative industries—are still skint. But they don’t just have elevated taste, they define what elevated taste is as a living. They create exquisite homes through artistic gumption rather than having the money to outsource it. Class membership and creativity just don’t have a proportional relationship and it certainly isn’t a simple case of ‘to the manner born.’ Artistic vision, which is the basis of all beautiful homes, doesn’t discriminate against bloodlines.
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We love to pretend that social media and universities and inheritance tax has levelled the playing field in this country, but as the academic Richard Hoggart astutely wrote in his 1989 introduction to George Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier, “Class distinctions do not die; they merely learn new ways of expressing themselves…—Each decade, we shiftily declare we have buried class; each decade the coffin stays empty.”
As a student of taste (I have a master’s degree in Fashion History and Theory), I have long understood its power to blur class lines. Taste can convey an identity divorced from your background and was something I was raised to appreciate not just for its inherent value in adding richness to my life, but also because my parents believed it was important for my future opportunities. All education can open doors, arguably none more so than an aesthetic one. Introducing the idea of cultural capital, French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s seminal text, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste (1979) had a profound impact on my understanding of how chicness can key you into certain social strata. He described cultural capital as, ‘the cultural knowledge that serves as currency that helps us navigate culture and alters our experiences and the opportunities available to us.’ While things may have moved on and you no longer need to recognise which symphony three bars of Bach come from to join ‘the club’, his theories remain relevant today: how you live, what you wear and what you talk about determines where people believe you belong.
What the social media arena has served to do is supercharge the power of taste to distinguish one’s place, as we share infinitely so much more of it publicly online. That has come with both good—the opportunity to express ourselves and self-define our identities—and bad—the homogenisation and cannibalisation of original creativity under the banner of ‘insta-chic’. However you feel about this shift, there’s no doubt that your taste has become an even greater marker, and often—at least from my personal experience—more important in how you are perceived on a superficial level. Online, I am seen to be middle class because I have a good grasp of the colour wheel. It doesn’t matter that my grandparents worked in factories or that my dad sounds like Michael Caine in the Italian Job. It doesn’t matter that I grew up saying toilet and serviette and can’t play tennis or ski. Because my style tallies with what Kant described as a sensus communis (a consensus of taste), I am offered upscale brand partnerships and invited to swanky, aspirational events. I am, it seems, how I decorate.
In so many ways, this is wonderful for me. I know my grandparents would be dancing in the clouds to think that I had moved up a notch because that was all they ever wanted. Of course, they’d presumed I needed a law/medical/accountancy degree to get here, little did they know, it was throw cushions all along! Less facetiously, the dangerous thing about this superficial version of class distinction is that it can mask the true structural disparities which govern our individual security. Over the years, things have changed for me, and I can now afford to rent a significantly bigger home than the one I grew up in. But the reason that I’m doing DIY on my rental home as I reach the middle of my life, after 24 years of stumping up my PAYE, is because up to the age of 30 I was deep in debt. And because of the frankly psychotic English housing market. And yes, of course also partly because I decided to be a journalist, now colloquially known as the sexiest way to be poor. But mostly it’s because systemically, the doors to true social advancement remain so closely guarded, good taste or bad.
I don’t like to get too political, even here, because I believe in bringing people together rather than stoking more division. I’m not trying to subliminally drip feed you Keynesianism with a side of Prada shoes and parental empathy. But, with the party of property ownership in power for nearly 13 years on these shores, it’s little wonder that class distinctions remain so entrenched, that these attitudes continue to prevail and why people working as cultural gatekeepers still believe renters wouldn’t appreciate chi chi decor. It’s probs also why I’m OD’ing on cans of fizzy CBD.
In conclusion, anyone, from anywhere can have taste, end of story. But also, having upmarket tastes and a beautifully curated home on Instagram doesn’t mean you have secure and equitable access to resources. That remains education, network, wealth and property. We would be wise to keep our eye on the real prize.