What, exactly, is social class?
That’s what I was thinking one morning not long ago as I was minding my own business in a dressing room at Macy’s. That’s when my sensibilities were assaulted by the sounds of three high school girls trying on prom dresses. As they grunted and tugged their way into various gowns using crude language laced with expletives, they discussed THEIR body parts, their boyfriends’ body parts, thongs, acne, and birth control. Then things got really crass.
Appalled and seeking escape, I skipped trying on half the garments I’d brought with me and was just leaving the dressing room when one of them mentioned a fellow classmate and one of the others snickered, “That girl has no class.”
No one will ever mistake these girls for blue bloods. Their manners and language will keep them far away from polite society, just as their cutting school to shop for formal wear without their mothers will guarantee that they’ll be inappropriately dressed come prom night. The signs are all there.
When I mentioned the episode to some of the other mothers as I picked up my son from preschool that day, it sparked an interesting debate. What, exactly, is “class” and at what income level do you “switch” classes?
If only it were that easy!
Once upon a time, it was. The old hereditary caste system divided people by rank and occupation, and typically, those with the highest incomes were also at the top of the social ladder. But times changed. Merchant princes were born. Dynasties were formed from cotton and steel. An aristocratic title was no longer a guarantee of vast wealth.
Today, the concept of class remains complicated, because money doesn’t necessarily equal class. There are lots of people with money and no class (see opening paragraphs, above), just as there are lots of people with class but no money. Not all rich people live grandly, not all poor people live modestly. It’s not just about the money.
What Is Social Class?
Social class a combination of things, the four most prominent factors being:
Let’s look at these a little closer:
Education – a good education has been an indicator of class for millennia, for only those with money could afford to hire instructors. Today, most people who complete high school are considered middle class; those who receive a college or post-graduate degree move into a higher class. A degree from a college with a long history and difficult entrance requirements, like Oxford, Harvard, or MIT, confers greater status than one with minimal entrance requirements, like the local community college.
Occupation – what you do for a living makes a difference. A doctor or a lawyer is perceived as being higher class than a plumber or a brick layer because one category requires brains, the other requires brawn. Whether you use your head or your hands to make a living puts you in different classes.
Income – in the United States, you’re considered to be low income if you make less than $30,000 a year, middle income if you make $30,000 to $60,000 a year, and high income if you make more than $60,000 a year. The ultra wealthy are described as those making more than $200,000 a year.
Wealth – how you hang on to and invest that income can put you in different classes. If everything you own, including your house, jewelry, retirement fund, etc., is less than $50,000, you’re considered low class. If it’s between $50,000 and $500,000, you’re middle class, and if it’s greater than $500,000, you’re in the upper class. Have assets of more than $50 million? You’re considered ultra-wealthy.
So what’s YOUR social class? Here’s an interesting calculator to help you scientifically determine where you sit in the grand scheme of things (click on the “Components of Class” tab and use the drop-down menus to build your profile):
What does all of this have to do with clothing and image?
In our society, we often say that “image is everything.” I don’t believe that. I think that how you look can get you in the door, but what you know will keep you in the room. This study of class confirms it.
Regardless, there are those who will try to fake their way into anything, including those class-questionable high school girls in the dressing room. Many think that money – or the appearance thereof – should grant them access to the highest echelons of society. But as we’ve just seen from the occupation/education/income/wealth variables, it just doesn’t work that way. There’s a lot more to it than the superficial.
How to Determine Social Class
So how can you determine someone’s probable class if you don’t know their background? It’s easier than you think. Don’t get distracted by the flashy exteriors some people hide behind. Here are the easy-to-identify indicators of your social class:
1. How You Speak
“An Englishman’s way of speaking absolutely classifies him,” sang Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady. “The moment he talks he makes some other Englishman despise him.”
It’s true. How you speak reveals SO much about you that you can talk to someone on the phone for just a minute and accurately pinpoint his background. Accent, grammar, vocabulary – everything you need to know to tell where he’s from and how much schooling he’s had. Double negatives, letter dropping, poor grammar, and unchecked expletives indicate a lower class; proper grammar, ease of pronunciation, and a large vocabulary indicate a good education and thus, a higher class.
2. How You Eat
Good table etiquette, including knowing how to hold your fork and chewing with your mouth closed, is just one way you show your class at the table; another is what you consume. While each class has its own definition of “good food,” the differences are significant and a direct reflection of the food budget. The higher classes tend to favor small portions of a wide variety of high quality ingredients while the lower classes tend to opt for large portions of a handful of low quality ingredients. Hence, a distinct class difference in waistlines.
The dining table is also one of the favorite testing grounds for potential employees and spouses, to see what they eat and how they manage their place settings. Many a promising candidate has been eliminated before dessert.
3. How You Dress
Clothing and accessories have been used as class indicators since ancient times, and they still are today. Modest, well-fitting, occasion-appropriate pieces in fine, natural fabrics are signs of an upper class; revealing, poor-fitting, occasion-inappropriate pieces in cheap, synthetic fabrics are signs of a lower class. In many cultures, wearing a lot of makeup or showing lots of skin (legs, arms, or cleavage), marks you as a prostitute (low-class).
4. Your Manners
How you treat others says a great deal about you. From simple courtesies like “please” and “thank you” to holding doors and keeping the radio volume low, when you show respect to others regardless of their position, it means that you are confident and comfortable with yourself — which is very classy. But when you’re oblivious to others or when you treat them poorly because you think you outrank them, it marks you as petty and low-class. Want to know what to expect of a potential employer, spouse, or in-law when they let their guard down? Watch how they treat waiters, doormen, and custodial personnel. It will tell you everything you need to know.
5. Your Personal Library
“You can tell a high-ranking man by the size of his library,” a mentor once told me, “and a low-ranking man by the size of his television.”
Worldly people tend to read, travel, and ask questions. Unworldly people tend to sit, watch, and accept. When the small Library of Congress went up in flames at the hands of the British army in 1814, Thomas Jefferson offered part of his own library in replacement – 6,487 volumes. This from a man who taught himself seven languages, proposed a new government, quadrupled the size of the country with the Louisiana purchase, and founded the University of Virginia — in addition to his tenures as Ambassador and President. See what you can get motivated to do when you turn off the television and crack a few books?
Here in the United States, we like to think of ourselves as equals, without rank or class distinction. But while we don’t have the formal aristocratic hierarchies of other countries, we’re often quick to describe ourselves as being middle or upper class, as having class, or to condemn others for NOT having class. It’s part of our culture.
So is aspiring to greater things. It’s part of the American dream.
So who’s “the real deal” and who’s “playing” you? Go back and re-read all the indicators of social class. Watch how people move. Listen to how they speak and what they say. In a very short time, you’ll be able to discern the classy from the classless, the carefully cultivated from the haphazardly thrown together. The signs are everywhere. Just follow the clues.
Diana Pemberton-Sikes is an image coach and author of Create Your Ideal Image. Ready to learn the secrets of style icons like Lupita Nyong’o and Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, so you can move to the front of the line? Create Your Ideal Image can help.