Still in a class of their own: Modern informality seems to blur social distinctions, but the clues are as loud as ever, says Richard Hoggart

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The Independent Online
IS IT not true that, in spite of the differences in style between different types and classes of people, we are now becoming classless in several ways: in how and what we eat, in recreations and holidays, and, above all, in our clothing and general sense of ourselves and our place?

Clothing for all ages, both sexes and all social groups, is indeed more colourful and cheerful than one could have predicted 30 years ago; but that does not make it classless.

Whatever their clothing, teenage middle-class girls are almost always and immediately recognisable - by their current hairstyle most strikingly; a slightly off-centre parting, and a full soft wave on either side, with the larger wave falling towards one eye, usually the left. In the centre the hair is drawn back to show a surprising height of forehead; at the back, the hair is layered to the neck; a very attractive style which may eventually pass on to working-class girls, but probably will not. It has an assured casualness which is not often part of the 'feel' of life of working-class teenagers.

It is a hairstyle that goes with, at the least, Benetton, or even designer clothing, with private schools, with horses owned or more often hired; and with unquestioned young middle-class attitudes, about their own adolescence and aspirations - attitudes distinctly different from those of working-class teenagers, even of most of those who work in Boots. Miss Joan Hunter-Dunn lived in Aldershot; her descendants are all around us today; they rarely wear shell-suits.

Though they do not walk from the hips, boldly, in the way that Italian young women do, middle- class teenage girls in this country have a casualness in their stride that is rarely found in the working class; young working-class women tend to walk from the knees, trottily.

The English middle-class stride is also different from the American. Well-built American teenagers hold their breasts up and out, bouncily but not erotically, pleased and proud, as though they have just been presented with them after an evangelical fun-run. Early middle-aged American professional women stride, too, but in a purposeful, well-spread way that suggests space and wide-horizoned expectations, not alleys, snickets, ginnels, short side streets, physical and psychological.

Middle-class girls here are likely to become - 20 years on - like their mothers, who favour those Burberry hats in tartan check that are both a uniform and a signal.

But Barbour jackets, green wellies, flat racing-style clipped-neb caps, even cavalry twill trousers, are bought by people from all parts of society now; you cannot tell which part they come from, can you? Yes, you can, if you get to within a yard or even a little more from them.

I was hailed in the street one morning not long ago by an elderly man in a flat cap, wearing a waxed jacket, cavalry twill trousers, solid brown shoes and carrying a stick. From 10 yards, asked to guess, I would have said 'retired officer'. 'Remember me?' he asked, as we drew close. 'I used to be on the counter at so-and-so's'. (It was a shop that employed three or four staff.)

Close up, it was clear that the cap was from a chain store, the waxed jacket either from a Saturday market or through mail-order, the trouser material not heavy and close-woven (the mark of quality in cavalry twill) and, as with the shoes, from a department store. It was all a reaching towards, or purposeful disguise.

Our clothing is not making us classless; it is taking over class fashions or seeking class blurrings or even a sort-of classlessness which pleases a lot of people who aspire but do not wish to seem as though they are aspiring; it does not worry the secure middle class who can tell an expensive cloth and cut from much more than a yard off.

Farnham's golden girls and boys are secure, too; their schools, together with their family backgrounds, have seen to that. Their world is limited - to this bit of Surrey and their kind of people within that bit; to their favoured holiday haunts and discos and out- of-town inns; to the Conservative Club, to the right kind of tennis- club, perhaps to a drug-pusher whom the group all know, to the right kind of suburban district before and after marriage, to the right kind of car.

The cultural differences of these young men and women from people of their own age who are from a working-class or even a lower-middle class background almost amount to ethnic differences. Their expectations differ enormously from those of people they recognise immediately as being just below them. They expect a good salary and a good pension at the end, and much help from Daddy - especially from the girl's Daddy - with the first house and car. They are likely to live longer than people less plushily secure, and likely to be freer of ill-health, at least until a fairly advanced age. But this is partly because many working-class people tend to feed themselves unwisely, to smoke more and to take less exercise.

By their dress shall ye know and divide them. In the ways we present ourselves publicly, as well as in our vocabulary and accent, we can still be easily distinguished. True, young working-class men and women out on the town on Saturday nights are not quite so easily distinguishable as they used to be - clogs and shawls, we might say, are out. Working-class young people have spare money; they use a lot of it on, for example, expensive haircuts and, in this, they imitate not the middle class but popular idols. If they do branch out into styles favoured by the middle class, especially under the influence of television and other advertising, the difference is still recognisable, in the outfits themselves and in the way they are carried off.

* * * * * *

EVEN more sharply marked as a form of differentiation is that hoary old institution, the Sunday dinner, which still stands as an assertion of family stability and a reasonable degree of security and ability to manage. That applies just as much to the respectable working class as it does to the professional middle class - although the latter may be able to afford, without calculation, to go out to a pub for a few mid-morning drinks with acquaintances before enjoying a good Sunday dinner in the adjoining dining-room.

For families in difficulties, the collapse can be severe. A Church of England vicar talked about how greatly affected he now is by the ways of life of the less secure, poorer, families within his parish. Some battle on (as our own mother did in the Twenties, on pounds 1 a week plus some grocery coupons for the four of us), but it is not surprising if some are ground down. Forty or 50 years ago, the vicar went on, almost every family would have thought it important to aim at a Sunday dinner (Argentine beef at a shilling a pound, Yorkshire pudding, a lot of potatoes and carrots, plus rich gravy followed by rice pudding with jam or an apple pie); but some families nowadays - 40 per cent, he estimated, in the worst affected area - he found, rarely have a home-cooked meal at any time. In the kitchen there will be some commercially prepared food from the shop up the road, to eat while watching television with the others in your - it might be one-parent - family.

This is a pity, for more than nutritional reasons: Sunday dinner, the smell of it beforehand, the sitting down and feeling eager as the joint appears, the sense of an occasion, of the family together at a sort of celebration. All this can make one meal in the week more than an indulgent event; even in the most agnostic or atheistical of families, it has a touch of almost religious communality.

The presence or absence of a proper, home-cooked meal at Sunday midday or thereabouts marks, like the new division between home-owners and tenants, (though the overlap is not complete, of course), a change in the composition of working-class groups, especially on council estates, since the Second World War. Such districts in the Thirties had a few one-parent families, as well as some shiftless ones who would hardly ever cook a full meal. But the Nineties are different, the divisions sharper and the two kinds of people less unevenly balanced in numbers. The combination of ready-cooked meals and the constant attention to television have speeded up the process of change, but are not the main causes.

In Hunslet and such places before the war, if you walked round the streets on Sunday mornings, you met the smell of roast beef coming from almost every house. But now, when more homes have only one parent, that parent - and it is usually a woman - is likely to be tired almost all the time; so when the children clamour for TV meals, it is easier to make such meals and sit and watch television with them than to spend time in the kitchen preparing food.

When all these factors come together (and they are factors that influence other than one-parent families), then the smell of roast beef in the streets on Sundays, with all that can signify, becomes only intermittent.

Abridged excerpts from 'Townscape with Figures. Farnham, Portrait of an English Town', published next week by Chatto & Windus, pounds 16.99.

(Photographs omitted)