If you're a fan of old Hollywood movies, you may not think of them as anything more than highly entertaining comedies, dramas, and musicals full of glamorous old stars.
But a large number of those films, especially the ones made for female audiences, dealt very directly with issues of class: stories of women either magically transcending their social rank or failing to do so. Off the top of my head I think of Katherine Hepburn in "Alice Adams," Joan Crawford in "Mildred Pierce," or Ginger Rogers in "Kitty Foyle," to name only a few classics. Much more than today, there was a huge cultural gulf between rich and poor and much less social mobility than exists today (yes, even today).
In the movies, social class was always expressed through clothes. The worst way a woman could look was cheap and/or vulgar -- a dead giveaway that you were from the "wrong" side of the tracks.
My all-time favorite movie about class is "Stella Dallas," starring Barbara Stanwyck.
Stella is a poor mill girl who marries her boss but is unable to fit into his high society world. Her husband divorces her and Stella tries hard to raise their daughter, Laurel, on her own. But Stella's common ways -- her vulgar taste in clothes in particular (too many ruffles, too many feathers) -- are such a humiliation and potential social hindrance to sweet Laurel that -- realizing she can never give her daughter the life she deserves -- Stella hands Laurel over to her ex-husband and his wealthy new wife and erases herself from Laurel's life forever more -- all for Laurel's own good, of course!
Emotionally excruciating and over-the-top manipulative, it's my all-time favorite weepie, too.
Back then (the nineteen thirties), it was a given that the rich were well-bred, and anyone who aspired to appear elegant would hold the rich up as their role models.
To a large extent, that no longer holds true today (Paris Hilton, hello?). Certainly, too many clangy bracelets and loud prints no longer signifies hardscrabble roots.
What was/is the preppy look all about if not a way to look old-money? Same goes for the Ralph Lauren "Polo" label (who plays polo, after all?). Why do we buy designer knockoffs or "accessible" luxury brands like Coach? What is the "status" that the status symbol refers to?
Conversely, how often do we refer to something as being "trailer park," "red neck," or "trashy" when we're not talking about the contents of a Hefty bag?
I remember reading that even in Renaissance Florence, peasants would aspire to dress like the nobles they'd see. Doesn't a fairy tale like "Cinderella" tell us that if you look like a princess, you can be a princess (same with "My Fair Lady")?
Doesn't it just seem right that regal Audrey Hepburn was descended from dutch aristocracy? And then there's lovely Grace Kelly who actually became a princess. These two women are still style icons today; former foster child Marilyn Monroe, not so much, imo.
Little girls still play princess, and all those old Disney movies are full of them.
Is the princess fantasy about being powerful, living in a castle, or just getting to wear fancy gowns?
Wise readers, I ask you: Is looking elegant today the same as looking wealthy? Have trashy (whoops, there I go!) "celebutantes" like Paris Hilton helped make dressing "rich" more attainable?
Do the rich really dress differently today than the rest of us? (If you're rich yourself, maybe you could share the inside scoop.) How about when you were growing up, did the "rich" kids dress differently than everybody else?
Do you ever dress to impress by consciously trying to look prosperous? (I do!)
I'm a native New Yorker and sewing fanatic! I started sewing in 2009 and today make all my own clothes using vintage sewing machines and vintage patterns. I also sew for private clients. Welcome to the warm and whimsical world of Male Pattern Boldness, where the conversation is sewing, style, fashion, fabric, and more!