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Apr 2, 2010

High Class and White Trash

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!)

Readers, your thoughts please!


  1. In my opinion, dressing stylishly has nothing do to with dressing rich. Dressing in costly garments does not automatically mean you look elegant. I know a wealthy woman who has a bucketload of money and only ever wears very expensive designer labels (She once paid almost $4000 for a handbag). Despite this, she never ever looks elegant, in fact, she manages to look more like a middle aged Brittany Spears. As for me, I don't care if I look wealthy or poor, I am much more interested in dressing appropriately for my age and for the occasion. Most of all I am interested in dressing like me.

  2. In my opinion, dressing elegantly has nothing to do with being wealthy. Yes, being wealthy means you have access to cash but being stylish/elegant is all about the woman wearing the clothes and someone who has the knack of looking stylish/elegant can do it with virtually no money.

  3. I should amend my comment above and say it also applies to men, sorry Peter. Take yourself for instance, you bought that well-loved sheet and made a chic shirt out of it. You could have bought an expensive one. Style is all about the person, not how much money they have.

  4. Erin Brokovich fits into that genre of movies with striving working-class heroines with working-class wardrobes. I think clothes still signify something. If you dress like Paris Hilton, you're showing that you like to have "fun." You know, none of that stuffy old(-money) polo playing. If your trashy Paris Hilton outfit is covered with designer logos, it means that the fun will be fueled by Cristal instead of Night Train.

    My great-grandmother, who worked as a housemaid, always looked elegant when she went out and passed on all sorts of style rules to her female progeny to make sure we looked "nice" too. I'm glad she did. Having lived in both Orange County, CA and Las Vegas, hotbeds of the nouveau riche, I'd rather have an ounce of Frances Davenport's elegance and style than all of Paris Hilton's millions.

    Well, okay, I might take the millions, but not if it meant I had to dress like Paris Hilton forever.

  5. No, I don't think that money buys style or elegance just because it can buy the clothing. The middle class has blown up since the 30s and 50s. It's common for people to save up and buy 'investment pieces' that maybe the rich can purchase a little easier, but it's a little more equal, and runway fashions trickle down to places like Forever21 so that everyone can participate in trends if they wish.

    I wouldn't care to "look rich" or really know how to dress if I did, except for what to avoid (Britney above). I don't remember going to school with any rich kids, though there was an especially preppy girl in my HS math class who had a string of pearls and a couple of ugly Vera Bradley bags.

  6. I had to run an errand in the most "old money" neighbourhood of Paris the other day, and looking at the women around me I noticed that many looked like they had had plastic surgery on their faces. The obvious kind. And I thought maybe that was the new "signe distinctif de richesse".
    To your Marylin Monroe, I would answer Coco Chanel. Many of the classiest women in France, in the 20th Century, were of peasant descent.

  7. Another interesting post. I think there's a big difference between expensive clothes and quality clothes. Expensive clothes are nothing but brand. They can cost a fortune, but they aren't necessarily well constructed, tasteful or elegant. They can actually make you look ridiculous or even slutty, but hey, you're wearing the brand, right? Quality garments, on the other hand, can be expensive, yes, but for all the right reasons. They're usually made out of exquisite fabrics, very well constructed, they flatter your figure and make you look your best. If you're good at sewing, you can make quality garments for yourself for less than what it would cost to buy any of those "expensive brand" outfits. I think that's the real definition of what looking rich should be. Wearing something nice, appropriate for the place and occassion, of fine quality, something that makes you look and feel good, regardless of how much you paid for it or if you bought it at this or that boutique or made it yourself.

  8. In China, rich women didn't need to walk. Bound feet demonstrated their luxury and privilege. Eventually, the poorest peasants were binding their daughter's feet. They were crippled, and in dreadful pain, but the signifier of wealth became an imperative for everyone. We need to be cautious not to stray down this path.

  9. An interesting aspect of this debate is the resurgence in home sewing. I remember from my childhood that the need to make your own clothes spoke of money being tight and that there was something slightly shameful about that. Now the world couldn't be more different and home sewing is celebrated as a craft. Why is that? What happened? Well, I guess the accessiblity of cheap shop bought clothing liberated the home sewer. Shop bought no longer means better. But a well-made item, be it couture or home-made, still sends out a discreet message: the devil is in the detail.

  10. Great comments, folks.

    I happen to think wearing home-sewn clothes is a symbol of having sufficient leisure time to make them.

    Today having free TIME has become one of the biggest status symbols.

  11. All the money in the world won't help if you have cheap taste. As Gabi said there is a difference between expensive and quality.

    Another fun Barbara Stanwyck movie of poor girl "working her way to the top" is "Babyface". It's precode with no class! I also get a laugh out of "Red Headed Woman" with Jean Harlow.

  12. In the past, expensive clothing was well made, perhaps even custom fitted to your body. Now? With the exception of couture, the difference is only in the label. I tried on a $200 dress yesterday that was as poorly constructed as any dress I've seen at Target (and believe me, I own many Target garments, but they aren't well made.)

    I come from a really poor background, but attended very wealthy schools - I learned to adapt and fit in, mostly by choosing to dress differently - I "dressed up" all the time, since I couldn't afford the designer jeans or bags, but I could find great quality second hand suits etc. They didn't think I was poor, they just thought I was odd, which was somehow preferable.

    Class is a touchy subject... and one which I don't think is discussed often enough in this country, where we choose to believe anyone can better themselves (ie: the American Dream,) when in fact it is very difficult. But I digress... great post!

  13. My brother said it all... "I saw the _________ family at church today. Their kids were all dressed in clothes that I know cost a bundle, but they looked like crappy homemade. Laura, you can make better stuff than that! In fact, you do for Evie!"

  14. Love your blog - another class and clothes movie is 1937 Easy Living - screwball comedy starring a delightful Jean Arthur.

  15. When I was younger I could tell who were the rich kids and they had a definite "rich kid" look. My family was on a road-trip one summer and we stopped in Vail, CO for lunch, and there was just something about the kids there - they had shiny smooth hair, perfect skin, beautiful clothes that looked new and clean. We were comfortably middle class but I just felt so incredibly cheap and messy in comparison. I feel like there is still a noticeable difference between how rich kids and poor kids dress. For example, an eight year-old in Ugg boots is almost certainly from a rich family, whereas an eight-year-old in a tight hot-pink t-shirt that says "Daddy's Little Princess" in rhinestones across the front is almost certainly not. Maybe this is just an argument for mandatory school uniforms, though.

    As for adults, I don't make a conscious effort to dress "rich", but there are things I would never wear because I think they look "trashy" and I suppose that means at least in part that I think they look "poor". For instance, baggy sweatshirts and jackets in a sports team's colors/logos, or worse yet, an actual jersey (assuming you're not on your way to a live game). Nevermind that I don't care for sports, I think this look just screams "white trash". So yeah, in general, I feel like there is a difference between how the rich and poor dress, albeit with a fair bit of overlap. And that certainly is not to say that someone without a lot of money can't "dress up", just that *on average* there are still noticeable differences.

  16. Good points made, dressing well is not the same as expensive, since many expensive things look trashy. Not all brands, of course, or couturiers, but many can. Another movie you forgot was "How to Marry a Millionaire" where the girls are tryng to marry up and selling everything along the way in the apartment to keep afloat, end up marrying lower earning men and happy with it. Marilyn Monroe, Lauren Bacall and Betty Grable, I think, were in it, been years since I saw it.

  17. Myra, How to marry a millionaire is one of my favorite movies! And great, classy clothes too! My dad used to make fun of me and tell me to pay close attention as i was watching it. I responded by telling him that no one could sell and buy back their (or other people's) furniture that many times!

    I agree with everyone else that class and wealth to not have to to come together. I think having class goes back to yesterday's conversation and knowing what is appropriate for you and your body. I am trying to think of if I know any wealthy people. There is one family i went to school with and I wouldn't say classy or trashy about them. they were just like the rest of us except they had a summer house and took lots of music lessons and the girl in my class was always buying new clothes. Not always expensive ones but she always had that skirt or shirt or whatever that I wanted.

  18. I am not wealthy, I'm quite poor (because I happen to not make much money) but my extended family are mostly middle to upper middle class... so you could say economically I'm lower class but culturally I'm upper middle class. Which I think is a definite distinction: the diference between true economic status and cultural economic status. And I think you see that difference in clothing as well. Money doesn't necessarily denote stylistic class. I'm poor, but I dress to my cultural affinity. I know quite a few REALLY rich people (there are some seriously rich people around here, what we call "real money", which usually implies assets in the tens or even hundreds of millions). Some of them dress quite elegantly and many of them dress quite inelegantly (we'll call it "trashy"). Their clothes may cost a lot of money, but they are not sophisticated or subtle in any way.

    To my mind, it's not how much the clothes cost, it's how the outfit is put together. It used to be that understated, elegant, subtle equated to more money. That's clearly changing since very wealthy people do obviously sometimes wear really loud unsubtle clothes. But I still hold on to that ideal.

  19. Peter, it's interesting that you say sewing has now become a sign of leisure time--I think you're mostly right, but it certainly hasn't been that way until recent decades! My grandmother (and later my mother) grew up poor and she and her sisters HAD to sew their own clothes because who could afford to buy them? But now it is often much cheaper to buy discount or second-hand clothing than even to make clothes with the cheapest of fabrics. For most, sewing has definitely become more hobby or passion than necessity.

    As for style... I've never really been attracted to those preppy/moneyed/Hamptons/Nantucket Ralph Lauren type of styles. I grew up in a city with a strong working-class history (Lowell--birthplace of the American Industrial Revolution) and there was definitely a small group of kids who wore those styles and went golfing and boating with their families on the weekends... and it was definitely intended and received as a class marker.

    But I went to public school and I didn't really encounter any real rich people en masse until I went to Harvard.

    I'm not sure where I'm going with my comments here... I do like to look put together and stylish and fun and colorful and sometimes even "elegant" or "sophisticated" and I don't like to think I'm wearing something that looks "cheap" or "trashy"... but I never think "oh, I want to look expensive" or "wealthy."

  20. Very interesting topic. I'm not sure I have any coherent ideas on it, but of course that never stopped me! In some ways, I think being rich is a necessary but not a sufficient condition to dressing with class/elegance/taste; all that's changed is the proportion of the wealthy who dress with class/elegance/taste (or maybe not--the ubiquity of media creates all kinds of perception distortions). Although for those of us who sew dressing "rich" with class/elegance/taste is more accessible--not that I avail myself of it!--for the masses, it is still mostly imitation without duplication.

  21. IMO, Audrey and Grace remain style icons in part because they were not sexualized the way Marilyn was. Marilyn certainly wore beautiful clothes and wore them beautifully (thinking of that red gown she wore singing Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friend), but the clothes emphasized her figure. I'd say the same about Jane Russell.

    Audrey and Grace wore clothes that de-emphasized their figures - I'd venture to say that they were supposed to look more virginal as well as sexually unavailable.

  22. I think I'd agree that in the movies at least, the expression (or suggestion) of overt female sexuality was the mark of a lower class woman -- and usually lampooned, as were Marilyn, Jayne Mansfield, Jane Russell, etc.

    Or their sexuality got them in trouble: that's what all those Joan Crawford and Lana Turner movies were often about.

    "Refined" upper-class women -- or the ones who played them on the screen, tended to be the cool, asexual types (I'm talking image here, not reality of course.)

  23. Very interesting post! I am certainly guilty of dressing with the aim of impressing but I don't think I'm aiming to look prosperous as much as stylish in that clothes that flatter me (whether I succeed or not is quite another matter!). Of course, here in the UK, class does not necessarily mean money or being well dressed - our 'upper classes' i.e. the titled aristocracy can be found living in crumbling old castles and they are known for wearing threadbare tweeds and the kind of clothes that us mere commoners wouldn't be seen walking the dog in!

  24. My salary and background place me firmly in the working class.

    But I went to school with people who were mostly wealthier than me-- say, upper middle class. And my college years were spent at a private school with a lot of truly wealthy kids.

    One thing I noticed was that the really really rich kids didn't wear designer logos. So yeah, when I'm shopping for clothes I avoid obvious designer logos for the fear that it will make me look almost-rich. I'd rather emulate the truly rich. Which is really silly, because I'm not even close to being "almost-rich"!

    As for actual style, sophistication, and culture, I don't think money can buy you that. But it can buy you the opportunity to develop those things. It takes money to get a good education, shop regularly at high-end stores (to become familiar with quality fabric and construction), to buy symphony/opera/museum tickets, etc.


  25. Coming from Denmark, I have a slightly different take on the subject of dressing 'rich' or 'poor'.

    We don't have large gaps between the richest and the poorest, the population is small and rather homogenous.

    No matter how rich you are, the most common style of dress is jeans-and-something. It's the 'something' that can set you out and place you in a specific work-environment - not a socio-economic group.

    What really define people is the fit of their clothes - only the royal family and the homesewers have clothes that really fit AND are beautifully made.

    Here, the home-sewers are split in two groups - those who are not so good at it, their projects often end up looking like something from home-ec. Those who sew a lot often have a stronger feel for current trends, subscribe to sewing magazines, and have a knack for choosing figure-appropriate clothing (We have Trinny and Susanna reruns - YAY).

    So to me dressing well means something that fits and flatters your figure. That sway back, the forward shoulders and the high round back are taken into account, so the clothes look good.

  26. Once again, an interesting topic. While it is true that class divides are more blurred today, once you scratch the surface they still exist. Money can open doors, as can a famous names and networks or going to a good school etcetera. However the difference now is that we all seem to have more choices not only in what we wear but how we conduct ourselves.
    In this sense class can be 'cultural' as described so well by Beangirl. Style can be handed down from generation to generation - or not.
    Cheap can be an attitude of not caring or it can be a joyful self expression.
    I'm just glad we can all choose how we want to look.

  27. I think part of the reason I've watched Rear Window so many times is to look at all of Grace Kelly's dresses.
    Of course they were gorgeous, and her comment on one of them was, "Hot off the plane from Paris and a steal at eleven hundred dollars." This was in the '50's, imagine what it would cost today.
    She was high society and it was expected of her to dress this way. Even if a middle class woman had enough money (and she wouldn't) to buy one of those dresses, where would she wear it?
    A lot of dresses were custom made back then too and while 'poorer' women could make a stunning dress for a wealthy woman, why didn't they make the same thing for themselves? Again it's, where would they wear them? But I know a lot of those seamstresses little girl's had fanatastic doll clothes made from the remnants of these outfits.
    I suppose the 'blur' came about when someone figured out that if you make clothing reasonably priced, and stress 'this is in!', then people will buy buy buy.
    But now we have the snob factor of (mostly kids) wearing clothing with 'Holister' or 'Abercrombie and Fitch' emblazoned across them. This proves that mom and dad spent a lot of money on a T-shirt that was made in a poor country.
    Maybe this is the 21'st century version of people with money wanting to stand out? All I know is; I find these same shirts at the Good Will and buy them for my daughter who's in college.
    I think that today, elegant doesn't necessarily mean wealth, but it does say classy, and you don't have to be rich to have class.
    So I think it's a bit easier these days to be middle class/poor and still look great.
    BTW, years ago Carol Burnett did an hysterical take off on Stella Dallas!

  28. Interesting post!

    Another thing to add to this is sumptuary laws throughout history, laws that prevented people of certain classes from buying expensive fabrics, leaving things only available to nobility. Wikipedia has a great article on this - really interesting food for thought!

  29. The Snob Cure

    In which an earnest young man learns a lesson

    By Sloan Wilson

    One bright summer morning 24 years ago, a mailman handed me an envelope bearing the austere letterhead of Harvard University. With trembling fingers I opened it and read the words: "The Admissions Committee is pleased..."

    I ran eagerly to my father. "I got into Harvard!" I said.

    "That's good," he said. "I hope they don't make a snob out of you."

    This surprised me. I had not noticed in myself any tendency to become a snob. It would indeed have been difficult for a child of my parents to remain a snob for long. My father had worked his way through the University of Virginia. A magazine editor and professor of journalism, he believed only in the aristocracy of personal accomplishment.

    "Let me tell you the derivation of the word `snob,'" he said. "In the old days in England, a man's rank was always put after his name. If he had no rank, the Latin words, Sine nobilitate were written. These were shortened to snob, and means quite clearly `without nobility.'"

    "Yes, Dad," I said. At times I felt that my father was almost unbearably academic.

    The following September, I went to Harvard, and I was scared to death. I knew no one in the Boston area, and the great brick dormitories seemed like tombs. If I expected the older students to go out of their way to relieve my loneliness I was speedily disenchanted.

    "Harvard indifference" was not a phrase coined by enemies of the institution, but a quality pursued as a virtue by a large part of the student body. I did not realize then that part of the genius of Harvard is to teach young men early that if they don't have enough drive to prove their own worth, no one in the great world is really very much interested in proving it for them.

    When I went down to get my mail, I discovered that most of the other young men in the dormitory were deluged with heavy, cream-colored envelopes containing invitations to coming-out parties given by Boston debutantes. I got nothing but bills, advertisements and invitations to YMCA dances. The problem, I suddenly felt, was not how to avoid becoming a snob, but how to survive in a world where everyone seemed to be an aristocrat except me. "Without nobility," that's what I was, and, like many of my peasant fore-fathers who left Europe for a new country, I didn't like it. I wanted up.

    And, like so many people without nobility, I discovered all the wrong methods. I found the right tailor and got a new wardrobe.

    I met a few boys of ancient Boston lineage and went out of my way to become their friend.

    Most assiduously, I sought to acquire what I thought to be the habits and knowledge of a gentleman.

    By the time I got home for Christmas vacation, I was transformed. Careless clothes had been supplanted by elegant tweeds and flannels. A slight Boston accent had slurred the almost regionless diction I had acquired from my parents. "You've changed," my father said quietly.

    "Even in a democracy there's nothing wrong with being a gentleman," I replied, echoing an elegant senior I had met.

    "How do you define a gentleman?" my father asked.

    "I think that, first of all, a gentleman must understand good cigars, good wines and good women," I said, echoing that senior again.

    "Tell me about the cigars first," my father replied.

    "You can tell a good cigar by the texture, the aroma, and by the fact that the ash doesn't drop off easily," I said.

    "What's your favorite brand?" he asked, and when I mentioned the name of a 50-cent cigar he said, "That's a good cigar, all right."

    That Christmas I received a box of the expensive cigars. During the remainder of my vacation I smoked one after every meal. "Is the aroma the way you want it to be?" my father often asked.

    (To be continued)

  30. (Part 2 of comment made above)

    "Oh, yes," I said, sniffing the cigar. "Excellent."

    "The texture?"


    "Does the ash hang on long enough?"

    "Of course."

    Shortly before I was to take the train back to college, my father called me into his study and, shoving a box toward me, said, "Here, I want you to have your 50-cent cigars."

    "But I smoked them!" I said.

    "Those were nickel cigars that I rewrapped," he said. "I'm glad you enjoyed them. I hope you enjoy the real thing as much."

    All I could think of was my father sitting alone in his study, carefully rewrapping 50 cigars and exchanging the bands, all for the sake of giving me a much-needed lesson. "I've made a fool of myself," I said.

    "Better early than late," he said, and he gave me the first hug I had received since returning home. "Anyway," he concluded, "I've just taught you half a lesson. Distrust the wrappings, but don't think that such a thing as real quality doesn't exist. These things really are good cigars," and he lit one of the long monsters he had stripped of cellophane.

    "They really are excellent."


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