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June 24, 2006


Hey, thanks!

I read that book. What a great book. Blew the scales off my eyes. A bit uncomfy because I dropped a class from where I thought I was, but hey, welcome to the desert of the real.

They should have the guy write a new edition (it's 20 years old, so some of the lower-level status markers are a bit dated), which should be distributed to every high school class in America. Which would never happen.

Some things have changed: the pseudo-upper-middle class (common upper-middle, Fussellian middle) has ballooned. (A classic example is the lawyer at a big NY firm he mentions who says her favorite TV is shakespeare on WNET.) The high proles are almost gone, swept into the low proles along with lots of middle-proles, which I think is very, very sad. On the other hand, there may be fewer destitutes running around now that they've all had to get jobs.

I'm happy that someone noticed by careful attempt to show that Fussell's middle class overlaps the common definition of upper middle class!

The way I see it, a lawyer at a big NY firm marks the very definition of the beginning of the upper middle class, which is why I used that example.

I'm not really sure why Fussell broke out the proles into three subclasses yet didn't subdivide the middle class, because throughout most of his book, when he talks about the middle class he means the top half of the middle class.

The school teacher is very much a typically middle class job, but it's low middle class. Engineers are high middle class. As are non-BIGLAW lawyers.

You know, I was wondering if the way you placed those lines was intentional...

Let me guess why he didn't separate it out. Fussell's book is really aimed at the status-seeking high middle class (not upper middle class) to show them where they have gone wrong and pull the wool off their eyes. The upper-middle-class already knows this. The proles don't care. The low middle class isn't fooled. So to further rub it in, he lumps the high middle and low middle classes together. Also recall that Fussell is upper-middle-class, so as far as he's concerned these people are all the same; you always pick up the finest divisions within your own class, because it's most familiar to you.

What Fussell should have done, IMHO, is call his 'upper middle class' the 'lower upper class' and divide his middle class into upper and lower, so it meshes better with the popular definition. Remember that we're talking about social classes here--a series of ranks which go from high to low. You could call them 'A', 'B', 'C', etc., or even 'blue', 'green', and 'purple', so you might as well use terms people will recognize. Fussell's 'upper middle class', after all, has inherited money, which fits the traditional definition of upper class.

Also, is there really a sharp division between BIGLAW and the rest of law? I mean, obviously a partner at Cravath, Swaine, and Moore is different from the Queens DA but there are lots of things in between at almost every level. Do you think there are any really sharp dividing lines, or does one thing sort of fade into the other with it being difficult to move too far up or down? I.E., is class in America a layer cake or a Jello mold?

"On the other hand there’s no easy way to join the upper middle class. A few gifted middle class students do so well academically that they can graduate from the elite undergraduate and graduate schools and get a job at BIGLAW or in investment banking, but that’s not how most of the upper middle class get there. "

Nice. And you have to do well enough socially to pass all those interviews, so you have to maintain good grades without being a grind.

So, yes, anyone can make it in America! If you're charming AND brilliant AND willing to go into hock...

See how the American dream is a load of s***?

There is something missing from this post. It failed to address the real source of status, power. What makes upperclass upper is the amount of control over society at large. You can start as a aviation mechanic and still be a upper class if you are in control of the state apparatus (police, military, etc).

What BIGLAW sells is not necessarily superior lawyering, but the connection to the powers to be. That is why people are willing to pay top dollar for their service. Another example. A minister might make very little money, but he (or she) is higher in status because this person can mobilize the public and cause trouble.

HS pointed out in this blog that the upperclass man is his own master. Quite true, given the fact that he can probably write his ticket to the "career" of his choice. The rest of peons have no such luxury. They have job where they serve at the pleasure of their masters.

Without a source of power (income, influence, etc), one can not maintain his/her status in the rank. For those of you wishing to move up in rank, you simply need to pursue power.

Mark 8:36 For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?

I'm perfectly happy right where I am. Class shall pass away...

The term "bottom out-of-sight" is obsolete; except for the ones locked away in prisons, many of them are all TOO visible.

Great analysis. I agree, Fussell should update that book. One thing people need to understand, though, is what's so bad about being middle class today. Without that, we just look like we're whining because we can't afford pricey antiques and our own private islands. It's not about "gaining the whole world," Don.

One big problem is that it's really hard to get to be around *other* middle-class people, at least in certain states. A merely middle-class person likely lives surrounded by proles nowadays -- regardless of how many books one chooses to buy. I suspect this was not the case 30 years ago. Higher housing costs are no doubt a big factor.

It also means we're effectively shut out of certain educational and professional opportunities, which I don't think was the case 30 years ago. For instance, I know a few people from middle-class families who went to Ivy League law schools in the 60s and 70s. (They're not BIGLAW partners, but still seem to have done well.) I also know of reporters who went to state schools in the 60s or 70s, and ended up in big media. That doesn't seem to happen nowadays, either.

It seems to me that the upper classes by Fussell's definition are much smaller than the 8% half-sigma claims.
Also, it should be noted that there are lots of RICH high proles.

OTOH, Fussell seems to suggest that doctors are upper middle class, which seems odd to me, and didn't talk in a coherent manner about academics, who I would consider to be parallel to lawyers, with a sharp split between middle and upper middle class, but made even more painful by the fact that the ones on the top actually get to do the work that they chose their career with the intention of doing.

I wish Charles Murray co-authored a new edition of Class in America with Fussell.

"On the other hand there’s no easy way to join the upper middle class. "
Perhaps on the individual level, but not so in the aggregate. Consider the Ashkenazi Jews, many of whom entered the country as sweatshop workers, but now supply much of the say, Forbes 500 (and the philanthropists and BIGLAW). This seems to reflect the merit of class in America, at least until it is calcified by overactive government, which made Carlos Slim the third richest man in the World. Although East Asians, for now at least, seem exclusively middle class. Perhaps it's because their verbal ability is far inferior to their visuo-spatial ability (Ashkenazis are the opposite). Or they have just not had ample time.

PS: If you want dress upper class, dress Trad - American traditional, ie. Brooks Brothers and others. Check askandyaboutclothes.com trad forum. Many there for example, disdain logos, synthetic fibers, and third-world goods among other habits. Oxford shirts, cuffed plain front khakis, and navy sport coat is the norm for casual.

I agree that I may have made the upper middle class too big--perhaps it should have been only 5%?

I agree that the higher the class the higher the average IQ of the class members, up to upper middle class. Beyond upper middle class, average IQ drops.

The correlation between IQ and class would be greater than the correlation between IQ and income, because where two jobs have the same income but one has higher class, the members of the classier profession will have the higher average IQ.

And I think that IQ would be even more correlated with class if you add personal habits into the equation. Of course it helps to be born into a higher class so you can learn classier behavior from your parents, those with higher IQs are better at figuring out the behaviors of the higher classes and preferring them over the behaviors of the lower classes.

"PS: If you want dress upper class, dress Trad - American traditional, ie. Brooks Brothers and others. Check askandyaboutclothes.com trad forum. Many there for example, disdain logos, synthetic fibers, and third-world goods among other habits. Oxford shirts, cuffed plain front khakis, and navy sport coat is the norm for casual."

Good advice, but won't this last only until they ask you where you went to college?

"Beyond upper middle class, average IQ drops."
I retreat, as this may be a tautology - because upper class status is acquired through ancient wealth. By then, regression to the mean has worked its magic.

I suppose Scifigeek, but I've got that covered, by going to a (lower) Ivy but -gasp- for engineering. I'm hopelessly middle class for intending to major in something so fiscally sensible.

Trad aka Ivy League style is refined, subtle and relaxed, and nearly always in good taste (except for the odd pair of patch madras pants). I've rapidly switched to wearing trad. Many people have actually attributed this switch to being accepted to an Ivy League. I suppose a conservative disposition and natural aversion to denim helps. And God, how I superior I feel to every slovenly fool moping along Main street. (No, I never actually voice such, but delight in internal elitism. Please do not mark me for a schmuck.)

It seems that proper behavior is more natural to the more intelligent - the boors I've known are often stupid. Class codifies and reinforces these distinctions. Schools would do well to actually teach students manners.

"Schools would do well to actually teach students manners."

A surprisingly profound statement I appreciate more and more as I get older. The 'let it all hang out' 60s did more damage than anyone thought.

If you want to dress upper class, Nordstrom is the safest place to shop. You want to avoid Neiman Marcus which carries overpriced noveau-riche brands.

Good point, SFG. For instance, every law firm job I ever had, some partners took me out to lunch the first day and grilled me about what city & neighborhood I grew up in (down to the flipping area code & zip code, with one guy!), where I went to high school, why I chose my college, was I in a sorority, why I chose my law school, what my parents did for a living & where, whether I had an SO and if so, what he did for a living & where. Other associates re-grilled later in case anything was missed or evaded. No label or fiber can deflect that kind of scrutiny. Behaving above one's class is simply an invitation to get one's ass kicked for being a poser.

If you want a store where you could shop blind and still look decent, (if confined to known chains) I'd recommend Brooks Brothers, Land's End and L.L. Bean and Jos. A Bank. J. Press and Ben Silver are better but less known and more expensive. There are others, listed on the trad forum at askandyaboutclothes.com Nordstrom's has way too much terrible clothing to shop with confidence. Ebay, after a bit of acquaintance with trad style, is a (cheap) Godsend. It's my main source.

I aim not to be upper class but to be a gentleman in all respects.

Where does Old Navy fit into this? I hope you guys are just talking about business, not casual. Maybe things are just different out here on the Left Coast. Or perhaps this is part of my problem.

I'm sorry to inform you that I live on the West Coast, specifically Southern California. Yes, most of the attire here is deplorable. It's a bit depressing to see a horde of youth all wearing jeans. My casual, daily, wear is comprised of Oxford button-down collar shirts, khakis (supposedly flat front with cuffs are best) and lace-up moccasins, at times with a pima cotton v-neck, navy or butter yellow. As for Old Navy, most of it isn't trad, but a rare fraction of it could pass, like a white or navy blue polo.

I don't know about trad for women. I suppose no jeans, no navel baring, no tatoos or piercings besides the ear, natural fabrics, nothing sleazy or too revealing, pastel shades, matching. Perhaps look at the Brooks Brothers or Lands End sites.


I have always found Brooks Brothers to be the most overrated store (no service, high prices) but I agree on Needless-Markup who seems to sell to foreign tourist (the same for SAKS. However, Nordstrom is a good place for a suit.

Of course, the elite get custom tailored suites (Look at Donald Rumsfeld, those at $5k suits from London).

I've never actually bought anything from Brooks. Even with their 40% off sale going on now, I don't. I use Ebay almost exclusively with the occasional Land's End or LL Bean purchase. I thrift shopped for all of a week but it was lacking, at least here in Southern California (for trad clothing at least). Check Ebay before buying retail. Brooks service varies.

Nordstrom's, relative to Brooks, is fine for some things. Ties are not among them. Stick to repp, club, and dot ties. (a note: Trads deem black suits appropiate only for corpses and their funerals. Navy and charcoal are prefrred. Check the picture here of Bush and Bolton for a comparison of the shoulders of trad and untrad suits, natural v. padded shoulders, - http://www.askandyaboutclothes.com/forum/showthread.php?t=53829&highlight=Bolton. The shoulder of the last picture is a great one, honest and stark.)

Not to beat a dead horse, but I just re-read "Class." I now realize I either forgot most of it, or never really read it but confused it with "Bad." When people talk about this book, no one ever mentions the last chapter of admiring claptrap re the so-called "Class X," those liberal, artistic, ironic, independent folk who eschew class worries and do their own funky intellectual thing. Supposedly, this non-class is open to any visionary who chooses it. What bunk! Was the economy for liberal arts types radically different in 1983? Or, did Fussell just not notice the huge oversupply of creative/intellectual wannabes living either in socially dysfunctional, marginal poverty, or off their class-conscious parents' handouts? I now realize I spent my 20s aspiring to Class X, and let me tell you, it's an ugly life unless you're an upper-class dropout.

I certainly agree with Fussell's breakdown of the classes. I do think that the bottom part of your chart is fairly accurate. The middle part gets a bit dicey. I also seem to remember him making cracks against engineers, but no mention of those who taught except for Professors. Perhaps he could write a long essay reflecting on the passing scene which would clear this up?

With respect to clothes, Ralph Lauren copied the upper class look of the English and American WASP; but how authentic that is now, with most of his clothes being made in China and elsewhere is another question. When M Magazine was in publication and featured the Christmas gifts section, Lauren was still having clothes made in the UK at mills that had been in production since the late 19TH century. They were authentic, but that is not the case now.

True. If you're being interviewed for a top-flight law firm, you may be grilled.

But a lot of social climbing/posturing is really about how you appear to people who don't know you. If you're in a small town and everyone knows you and knows your dad is hobo drunk, your seersucker pants fool no one. But if you move to Chicago, they might.

One is afforded better treatment in general if one acts the part. That includes knowing when to use "one" in conversation.

Another good book for this:
John T Molloy's Live For Success. Somewhat outdated, but have a look.

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