We're all middle class - but some of us are more middle class than others. HESTER LACEY uncovers the new elite
How wonderful it is that in "classless" Britain we can all aspire to be top consumers. We fly regularly, take holidays abroad, buy designer clothes, eat in restaurants that get reviewed in national papers. Banks toss out gold cards like confetti. Airlines woo us with loyalty benefits. We are rich beyond the wildest dreams of a few decades ago.

But this upshifting doesn't make the more affluent in society very happy. They can see their territory usurped by middle managers, PAs and people who work for the local council. It doesn't please them one bit to meet a sales assistant from Milton Keynes shopping in Harvey Nichols or a computer programmer from Uxbridge relaxing on the beach in Bali. So the elite are concentrating on keeping one step ahead - or indeed, several Manolo-Blahniked strides in advance.

Take money. According to research commissioned by American Express, owning a gold card is perceived as on a par with driving a sports car. There are a lots of proud people out there flashing gold cards - but they are from the high-street banks, and are handed out to almost anyone earning pounds 20,000 a year.

However, try to join a bank like Coutts and you won't get a card of any colour at all unless you're on a salary of at least pounds 100,000 a year. A platinum American Express card remains the preserve of high spenders like Meg Mathews - and Prince William, who was given one for his 14th birthday.

As for travel, your frequent flier card may get you a few perks - air miles, and so on. But don't expect to be rubbing shoulders with the truly rich, who will already have been whisked away somewhere far more luxurious. Those in the know are already wistfully visualising the day when whole flights will be business-class, with not an oik in sight.

Already, Virgin Atlantic Upper Class and Gold ticket-holders are picked up by a chauffeur-driven Range Rover with a mobile check-in desk, and can book their in-flight masseur at the same time. Speaking of Range Rovers, they are the car of choice among the elite of Wall Street, over and above the BMW and Porsche. Which makes the optional electric sunroof on your Megane or Clio look extremely paltry.

And on the town, the trick isn't simply to ensconce yourself into a booth at the Met Bar - it's hanging on to it, because when Martine McCutcheon trips through the door, you'll be shifted, pronto. Having a VIP area at a party or launch has long been standard practice, but now there is the VIP-VIP enclave, to weed out hangers-on - presumably, in the VIP-VIP enclosure Nicole Kidman stands and talks to herself. As for making a reservation at an exclusive restaurant, you can't just ring and say, "Tuesday at eight, please". A manager at The Ivy explains its policy in The Restaurant and Its Recipes, which, at pounds 14.99, is the closest many will get to its Fillet of Haddock with Crab Tabbouleh: "You have to look after regulars. I've just had a man on the phone, he said he's a regular. He comes once every six months. But we mean three or four times a week. People, companies whose names we know."

These days your average housewife doesn't shop at Marks & Spencer's, she goes to Whistles. Anyone can prance into Harvey Nichols and buy whatever they want, if they have the money. And designers are encouraging the proles, by introducing "diffusion ranges" - cheaper lines such as Miu Miu from Prada that are more within reach of the nouveau rich-ish. But while one might be tempted to splash out the odd pounds 100 on a designer T-shirt, to spend real money, one could try boutiques like Voyage, where a frock could be pounds 7,000. Except it's members only. Nicole Kidman, Yasmin le Bon and Goldie Hawn can get its locked doors opened, but Madonna was refused. Securing the hair do to go with the clothes isn't easy either. For a first appointment with Nicky Clarke, you pay pounds 300 - which could rise to pounds 600 if you need extensive work. If you can get that far: the waiting list runs into weeks.

A relaxing holiday at the K-Club on the island of Barbuda in the Caribbean will cost pounds 1,000 a night. Princess Diana used to stay there, but these days you're as likely to meet Robert Kilroy-Silk. The truly aspirational break involves an invitation to a private home. Victoria Adams recently took baby Brooklyn off for a break at Elton John's pounds 2m San Tropez gaff, where Geri Halliwell and George Michael have also been welcomed, on vacations that money can't buy.

As the elite soar into the stratosphere, even supermarkets are rushing to go posh, with ranges like Tesco's "Best". These "gourmet lines" offer ready-stuffed ducks and prepared lobsters.

However, there are signs that the sensible are starting to drop out of the aspirational rat race, according to Melanie Howard of the Future Foundation. This has identified a group of affluent, youngish entrepreneurial types which it calls I-Society - I stands for independence - that accounts for 10 per cent of the population. Howard believes nearly one-third will follow suit over the next decade. I-Society has money but isn't obsessed with status. Just as well, because when everyone is a VIP, at the same time no one is - and the VIPs that already exist are unlikely to give in to a loss of status without a fight.

Travel: pops regularly to Deauville (the 21st arondissement of Paris), preferably in a private jet. Looking forward to exclusive Business Class flights. Concorde is always handy for shopping weekends in New York.

Hair/makeup: hair by Nicky Clarke - she doesn't have to wait weeks for an appointment because she's been going to him for, ooh, ages. And she's slathered from head to foot in Aveda products.

Accessories: her Lulu Guinness handbag holds her wallet complete with platinum Amex card, keys to her Notting Hill flat and a copy of new magazine Players Journal for her footballer boyfriend.

Transport: longs for the day cabs introduce loyalty cards (as rumoured) which you can wave to make taxis pick you up before others. She hankers too after a Piaggio scooter to complement her Range Rover.

Outfit/shoes: anything from members-only boutique Voyage or Browns Focus. A pair of diamond-trimmed strappy sandals by Gina (pounds 18,000).