Upper class taste & Grayson Perry

Going off piste for a frolic I want to mention Grayson Perry‘s recent three-part series ‘In the Best Possible Taste’, where he investigates British taste and style: working class, middle class and upper class taste.

Like Grayson, I am fascinated by how people dress themselves and their homes; the houses in which people choose to live and how they live in them.  My ideal job would be Quentin Tarrantino‘s casting agent and set sourcer because I love a stereotype.

While visiting historic houses we of course encounter (sometimes) their owners and always the owner’s (or their ancestors’) style.

Let’s assume that most of those who live in the type of historic house I visit have upper class taste or, at the very least, are custodians of a house dripping with upper class style.

Like Grayson, I have noticed that living in an historic house often means adopting the taste of your ancestors.  While earlier generations (particularly those who had Grand Tourists) seemed to have spent their lives buying objects and filling houses with a whole manner of ‘stuff’, more recent generations seem to spend their time preserving these collections and at most adding an oil of themselves.   Is this because they don’t want to be seen spending on themselves instead of maintaining the fabric of their grand homes that many of the proper upper class can no longer afford to live in?

Grayson found people who admit to wearing their ancestors’ clothes too, but I’m not sure how much truth there is in this across the board.  Some, like Lord Bath, have fought against the idea of preservation and redecorated their stately home with their own taste; but even Lord Bath’s heir has threatened he might redecorate in a more appropriate taste (to the Elizabethan mansion that is Longleat) when he inherits.

D revels in the Volvo estate.  I would rather a Mercedes E Class estate (and objected strongly to a BMW, which apparently was in the running, as being too chav).  The poshest person I know drives a battered old Land Rover (strictly for the country) and his wife forbids him from driving from London to the country in their ‘town’ car because ‘he stops concentrating’.  As lovely (and a little ‘in his head’) and well mannered he is, few would guess quite how rich (or how posh) he is.  That’s the thing about the poshest people; they don’t try too hard, just are.  Are they trying hard not to appear too grand?

It’s the middle classes it seems you have to watch out for – they will care if there is a hole in the sleeve of your shirt, the lawn edge isn’t exactly crisp, or an ornament is too tacky rather than just being kitch (in a Cath Kidston sort of way).  Grayson concludes that middle class taste involves people who are desperate to be individual, seeking to show that they are a good person (possibly via their trips to the organic farmer’s market), who see taste in moral terms.  They sometimes turn to known brands because they can convey clarity when seeking to get taste right and provide subtle signals to their tribe that they share a certain type of taste – a clean and tidy, carefully constructed haphazard sort of individuality that involves ideas such as William Morris wallpaper and a Range Rover parked in the driveway of a not too matchy matchy house on a relatively new housing estate in a suburban setting where a 4×4 isn’t really required.

The upper classes accept a bit of fray, put netting over their silk curtains to stop them falling (completely) to bits, are probably driving the oldest/smallest car in car park  and accept the odd cobweb.  However, they also like(d) bling – think the gilt frames at Chatsworth – but because they are/were titled with Lady, Lord and Sir our society doesn’t deem such taste tacky; if a middling sort painted their window frames with gold leaf The Daily Mail would probably say such taste is vulgar.

Grayson asks why so many of us try to emulate the shabby chic of the upper class.  Nancy Lancaster created a whole business out of bringing the ‘Country House’ style into our homes.

I’m always looking for red or mustard cord trousers as a sign of either Eton or the military.   Many a homeowner could be confused for the gardener.  Hunter wellingtons were definitely upper class until they started being promoted to the masses and now they’re a little bit middle class, part of a uniform.  I remember Daphne Guiness talking about haute couture and how when she sees something on a celebrity she doesn’t want it any more.  I hate a label – I wouldn’t have anything with Louis Vuitton monogram because I like discretion.  I can only hazard a guess at what this means about me.

Grayson notes the nostalgia that the upper classes have for their taste.  For the large part they do not ‘create’ a strong taste like their 17th and 18th, even possibly 19th century, upper class ancestors did.

All these observations raise interesting questions about taste.

Grayson concludes that upper class style is all about appropriateness.  It’s about not offending your host’s taste rather than expressing your personality, schooling and knowledge-driven personal taste, which is what the middle classes prefer to do.  The working class like to dress like peacocks, gilding their cages and lowering the suspension on their Ford Fiesta/Renault Clio before blacking out the windows.  The right royal upper classes were, as at Chatsworth, also rather fond of a bit of bling in the past but now it seems that bling has faded so upper class taste has, through time, become more scruffy, dishevelled, faded and softened.

On a recent trip to the Government Art Collection I was looking at a Grayson Perry picture of modern society and its stereotypes that usually hangs on George Osbourne’s office wall (apparently he and David C like modern art).  It is back in the GAC at the moment because it was pulled for a series of exhibitions they are doing at the Whitechapel Gallery and which will later move (in its entirety) to Birmingham.  I’ve decided that I actually really like what Grayson produces and I look forward to seeing the tapestries he produces as a result of the series he has now completed.  Increasingly I also like a bit of interior porn, looking at blogs full of fabulous interiors, such as this one and this one.  If you like upper class taste you might like Tweedland.

While ‘In the Best Possible Taste’ is still available on the internet (click here) it is well worth watching.

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4 thoughts on “Upper class taste & Grayson Perry

  1. The story about some people wearing their ancestors’ clothes turns out to be true: A colleague of mine told me he occasionally wears his grandfather’s dinner jacket. A fascinating mixture of sartorial history and sociology 🙂

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