Americans like to believe that they don't have a class system. Or, at least, not a class-system like that in moth-eaten "Old Europe". Or like us Brits, in particular. There's a glorious meritocracy that hugely rewards the talented - great entrepreneurs, Silicon Valley smarties, clever bankers, premier-league professionals - but no system of rank, family and inherited unfairness. And certainly no primogeniture.
They like to say these things when they're abroad. At home it's different. America's obviously a very unequal place - the wealth gap between the top 5 per cent and the bottom 10 per cent is wider than anywhere in Europe and it's been getting wider. The Gini scale, which measures all this on an international comparative basis, is pretty convincing (it suggests the UK's going that way too).
But there's more than just the hard contrasts of wealth, race and region. Americans really love their version of a bit of posh. The Social Register of OK People in any biggish town, the country-club system, the John Smith III naming device and the references to "fine old families from Tennessee" is persistent and unembarrassed. By British standards it's all a bit gauche, suburban and old-fashioned, a bit department-store.
Tom Wolfe described the reality of American class as it works on the East Coast/Shallow South axis of America's oldest, smartest money in his "Honks and Wonks" essay back in the 1970s. The class accents of the Upper East Side - Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis's breathy little Vassar voice - were compared with the persistent Judy Holliday vowels of Brooklyn. He named the whole system that gave top Americans a first-class ticket for life.
But by the time he was writing The Bonfire of the Vanities in the 1980s, he was beginning to doubt it. Sherman McCoy, the Wasp establishment bond-dealer in Bonfire, is starting to think his people aren't running the show any more. Brash new money and pushy ethnic pressure groups are making Old-Shoe people just another minority. But there's one perpetually reinvented upper class - a first-class ticket group that can always name its price. People chase beauty. Beautiful girls find things come to them so often it's hard to maintain any curiosity. Beautiful boys are better liked, score more highly in interviews and get the best No 2 and No 3 jobs (desperate trolls often make No 1). All this has been documented for years.
So why witter on about it being what's inside that matters, or suggest that gorgeous means dumb or leads to misery, when all the research suggests the opposite. As Adrian Gill wrote recently, the drive to beauty is central to being human - wanting to be it or own it animates the whole show. Men will give up anything for gorgeous - the first wife and the family, and a lorry-load of money. Rod Stewart forever chasing this year's blonde - he's doing it for us. When people say the Stewart girls are all clones, boringly Malibu peach-perfect - that's the point, dummy.
The wonderful new Jaguar commercial takes the urge to beauty straight on. Beauty is central to the Jaguar brand; Jaguars' curviness, their distinctly female kind of beauty is often borderline vulgar, borderline overblown. But always distinctive. Even the poor little Ford-engineered Mondeo Jaguar, the X-type, couldn't help having a bit of it. It's so obvious that a lot of Jaguar advertising has played against it and tried to reassure us that Jaguars are socially OK, safe and durable, technically innovative or hold their price. Anything but lipsmacking car porn.
But the launch ads for the new XK-type - which is generally reckoned to be a beautiful car - revels in it. The Jaguar is gorgeous, you can't deny it anything. It's like a beautiful girl, even like a world of utterly Beautiful People. Not self-denying nerds, not moth-eaten Brits, or Bling vulgarians, but utterly gorgeous Eurotrash. So we drive along a smart French road to a party at a chateau lit with flaming torches, past the fountain to the courtyard. "Gorgeous makes effort look effortless," says the American, more romantic, PJ O'Rourke kind of voice. "Gorgeous can't be ordinary - even if it tries."
Don't be frightened of the obvious elements, the borderline corny message. Don't be frightened of elegance. Beautiful girls, chateaux, salons can look smart and new if they're beautifully shot in dappled black and white to look marvellously louche. It's a bit Honky Chateau, a bit Hotel du Cap and it all looks like a wet dream. "Gorgeous," says the voice-over, "is... worth it."
That's just so long as you don't see, just down the end of that mirrored gilded enfilache, the only-too-real figure of modern meritocracy, Mick Hucknall.Reuse content