I’ve got bad news. A seismic cultural shift has occurred, and it’s going to affect a lot of people–especially you. Brace yourself, because … being common isn’t hip anymore!
There, I’ve said it. Everywhere I look, common girls are foundering. The death knell sounded in early June, when the Spice Girls shut down their official fan Web site and Baby Spice (my fave) was, for the first time, the recipient of loud booing. Slowly but surely, Zeitgeist -y media chicks are covering their metaphorical pierced navels and tentatively changing their looks, with mixed results: When Angelina Jolie showed up at the London premiere of Lara Croft: Tomb Raider , she was so conservatively dressed I thought she might be wearing Eileen Fisher. Alcott & Andrews-y arch conservatism may not be the answer, but one thing’s for sure: You simply can’t go on flaunting your crass, blowzy, tattooed self. Your schtick has not only lost its resonance, it’s been proven to be dangerous. Do the words “Lizzie Grubman” mean anything to you? But let’s not go off on a tangent.
Ding dong, common girls are out–and not before their time. Aping the riffraff first became à la mode in the 1960’s, when Elvis, Twiggy, David Bailey and the Kray brothers were our (at least my) role models. Now, 40 years later, could it be that it’s time for the toffs (toffee-nosed gits, i.e., aristocrats) to take back the night? Madonna, the all-knowing one, has been cultivating a posh English accent for a while now. Should you be aspiring up instead of down? Can you fake poshness, or is it an issue of breeding? I decided to launch one of my in-depth probes, starting with the people who know–the aristocrats themselves.
I zeroed in on Lady Victoria Hervey, the 24-year-old daughter of the late Marquess of Bristol, who was featured in a raunchy pose on the cover of the August issue of British Maxim , and who’s been dubbed the “Foot-in-Mouth It Girl” on British Vogue ‘s Web site for an interview she gave to The Sunday Mirror . “Someone like Posh Spice is very wealthy, but she hasn’t got the breeding I’ve got,” says Lady Victoria, a 6-foot-1 leggy blonde (and half-sister of the aristocrat who once shot at a dinghy full of nuns on a lake near the family house) who bears more than a passing resemblance to our U.S. aristocracy, the Hilton sisters. “It’s the people who haven’t grown up with it who are the worst.”
Lady V.’s no slouch. She was a Christian Dior runway model and now writes a column for the Sunday Times Style magazine (though many dispute that she actually pens it herself) and “fronts” a boutique on Motcomb Street in Knightsbridge called Akademi. She gets plenty of tabloid ink, for two reasons: 1) She’s delightfully snobby, completely uncensored and totally un-PC. She’s complained loudly about paying taxes to support dole-spongers, “hates” working-class Britons, and once told Mirror gossip columnist Ian Hyland, “I do know how the other half live, you know. Have you ever seen Nil by Mouth , the Gary Oldman film? Wasn’t that depressing?” 2) Lady V.’s third career is pornography. Yes, she’s the tabloid tramp whose knockers are always falling out of her frock. She carouses publicly in pasties (her recent birthday) or a kinky nurse’s uniform (a fancy party). The Maxim cover story is a totally horny spread and was preceded by a très kinky nursery-school-inspired topless spread in British GQ . (The topless picture also ran on page 3 of The Sun .) She has clearly added some extra yards of very confusing knicker elastic to the concept of good breeding.
I resolved to interview the girl one tabloid dubbed “Top Toff Totty” (translation: high-class piece of ass). My intention: to return to the States with some transformative tips for you. But Lady Victoria proved elusive. I even made a pilgrimage to Akademi, bringing with me a picture of my Norwich terrier, Liberace. Lady V. has a Norfolk terrier called Zulu, and I was hoping, since we have absolutely nothing else in common, to use my pooch to generate some entente cordiale . I was also praying that she wouldn’t notice his floppy ears, the result of bad breeding. All my subterfuges were for naught: By the time I turned the corner into snotty Motcomb Street, Akademi had gone into receivership. I arrived just in time to watch the liquidators rolling the merch out of the store. Akademi was bankrupt, and Lady V., though splashed all over the tabs again, was nowhere to be seen.
In desperation, I called Meredith Etherington-Smith author, bon viveuse , sage and Christie’s honcho–a real crossover gal who covers both ends of the class rainbow. She immediately warmed to the subject. “It’s simple. Good breeding is not giving a shit. Why? Because your great-great-grandmother, or whatever, did it with Charles II. It’s as simple as that.” With a flick of her cell phone, Ms. Etherington-Smith corralled two gorgeous and bona fide toffs, Lucy Viscountess Gormanston (“Lady G.” to her chums) and her half-sister, actress Emilia (Millie) Fox–both daughters of actor Edward Fox. The fascinating wine-and-babble-fueled repast at Joe’s (126 Draycott Avenue) that ensued shed oodles of light on the whole concept of breeding … sort of. Here are the results of my exhaustive–and exhausting–lunchtime probings.
1) Accents no longer signify. Posh people have, because of the fetishization of the working classes, spent years disguising, dumbing-down and moderating their speech. The more extreme and hilarious upper-class accents of yore are now, unfortunately, a rarity. The insertion of I’s before A’s, as in “He’s not a miarrying kind of mian ,” has all but disappeared. Ditto the transformation of ow into iy , as in ” thiysands of Boy Sciyts running riynd the hiyse .” Posh people now sound like the rest of us. Quel driag ! I was outraged: Back in the 1950’s, I was given speech therapy–not just (don’t mock!) because I had a lisp, but also because I was dropping my H’s and throwing glottal stops around like confetti. This was done so I could claw my way into the middle class; I had no idea I would meet all the Binkies, Clarindas, Arabellas and Sebastians coming in the other direction! Why did I bother?
2) Words: In 1955, Nancy Mitford wrote her essay on the English aristocracy (see her fantastically elitist collection, A Talent to Annoy ; average price $20 on Alibris.com), in which she contends that since the upper classes “are
neither cleaner, richer, nor better educated than anybody else,” it is only through usage that they distinguish themselves. People are therefore divisible into “U” (upper-class) speakers and “non-U” speakers. She includes a list of examples: e.g., “mental” is non-U, whereas “mad” is so U; “home,” as in “they have a lovely home,” is horribly non-U, while “house” is fabulously U.
When I tested these 50-year-old edicts on Lady G. and Ms. Etherington-Smith (Millie had left for Pilates class–rather non-U?), I found an amazing number still hold true. “‘Toilet paper’! Oh, God! Totally non-U. The word ‘toilet’ is unacceptable. It’s ‘loo, loo, loo’ and ‘loo paper’!” screams Lady G., to the consternation of adjacent diners.
“‘Serviette’?” I proffer. “No–dead common. We say ‘napkin’ just like the Yanks,” says Meredith.
“Never say ‘Pardon'; it’s ‘I beg your pardon,'” says Lady G., with growing indignation.
I ask the girls about various other words that, to my mind, epitomize Evelyn Waugh-ish U-speak: e.g., “frightfully” (as in “How frightfully ripping!”), “awfully,” “huntin’,” “shootin’,” calling one’s parents “mater” and “pater,” referring to your pals as “one’s chums,” etc.
“You’ve been in the States too long,” replies Meredith, lighting another Silk Cut and rolling her eyeballs. “Those words are very 1920’s. Maybe they still use them in India.” Eeek!
3) Vulgarity: “Very important–prudery is horribly middle-class,” purrs Meredith. Lady G. agrees wholeheartedly. “We love a ribald sense of humor!” Posh words for private parts? “U and non-U are the same–the rougher, the better. I love the word ‘minge’!” contends Meredith, enthusing about one of my fave working-class words for female genitalia.
” Neey-yaah , dahling,” demurs Lady G. “I’m sorry; I simply can’t go around saying the word ‘minge.'”
4. Posh things to do: Polo? “Love it!–as long as it’s not a branded event, which so many polo matches are these days,” groans Lady G. “Who in their right mind would be caught dead in a hospitality marquee”–English for “buffet tent”–”at a branded event, for God’s sake?” adds Meredith.
“Very non-U,” agrees John Rendall, social editor of Hello! magazine (my kind of royalty!), who joined us as the cackling and fag-smoking reaches a crescendo.
“The West End sucks. Young aristos don’t go there; they want authenticity,” says Lady G.
” Soo-oo true,” adds Meredith. “And the best place to go in London is Anna’s Pool Hall, which is in a converted gents’ lav in Shepherd’s Bush.”
I ask John if food-throwing–a time-honored tradition among the upper classes –still occurs. “Less so,” he replies thoughtfully, “because people have fewer servants to clear up the mess. But it’s not uncommon for the bread rolls to fly.”
Thank God some traditions are sacred.
4) Decadence: Drugs are now, after years of wild U popularity, incredibly non-U. Lady Victoria reveals why in her Maxim interview: “It’s been drummed into me that if I ever touch drugs, I will be disinherited.” Furious drug intake may no longer be synonymous with good breeding, but, according to Ms. Etherington-Smith, “absinthe is very happening, and gin is also having an ironic comeback–as in gin and ironic … ha! ha!” she quips.
Smoking is très U. “Last night, I went to a fund-raiser at the Roundhouse”–I could have sworn that Meredith pronounced it “Rindhiyse”–”and every single person was smoking. Fabulous!”
5. Buying new furniture and wearing new clothes is, according to Mr. Rendall, utterly non-U. “Just carry your mother’s Hermès bag, for God’s sake,” exhorted Meredith.
6. Being stupid is very U, as in (presumably) “So what if I’m a bit stupid? My great-great-grandpapa did it with the Duchess of Doody.” For example, Lady Victoria–like so many posh girls who weren’t concentrating at school–is definitely not the smartest gal at the gymkhana (a très U Anglo-Indian word for “horse-trial”). According to Peoplenews.com, Her Ladyship had this to say about Gianni Versace: “I’ve got a [Versace] twin-set that I’ve had for years and wear a lot. That’s why I was so devastated by his death.”
Says Meredith: “It’s the same in America–dumb WASP’s go to cotillions, while clever middle-class people go to Harvard and Yale.”
7. Random U-signifying edicts are still observed by people who purport to have good breeding. “No brown in town–NEVER!” hectors Meredith, referring to the wearing of brown shoes by men in the City or West End. Custom suits are back, but not from Savile Row. “It’s authenticity again: They must be cobbled together by some Greek bloke in an alley of Berwick Street. Fortnum & Mason and all those pseudo-upper-class stores are just for tourists …. “
“And idiots,” interjects Lady G., adding, “We love Selfridge’s new food hall!”–referring to the fabu new Oxford Street (near Marble Arch) mega-grocery store and deli.
8. Therapy, counseling or any kind of self-examination is currently the most non-U thing on Earth. “It’s the old Vreeland adage,” says Meredith. “‘Never complain, never explain’–she had it pinned to her office wall.”
Lunch concluded without any bun fights, but my mind was reeling. I walked through Knightsbridge, zombie-like (in brown shoes), desperately trying to make sense of it all … for you. Here are my tentative conclusions:
The upper classes have been reviled and pilloried for so long they have, whether inside or outside a hospitality marquee, diluted their own brand. If you start aspiring up (as opposed to down), you may end up in a stylistic Bermuda Triangle (maybe even in Bermuda shorts–very non-U). Only a few signifying attributes remain. But these may be sufficient for the likes of you. Let’s do an experiment. Try the following exercises over the upcoming week and get back to me: Don’t wear brown shoes, say the word “minge” whenever possible and stop doing drugs. If this doesn’t work, just try saying over and over, “I have good breeding.”
The dominant signifier of good breeding would appear to be a cast-iron belief that you’ve got it, regardless of all contravening, pasty-twirling evidence. This is what enables Lady V. ( a branded event herself) to do non-U things like enter the entertainment world. She just did a cameo on the upcoming Ab Fab series and confesses to Maxim , “I’d love to be a James Bond girl, but I can’t make up my mind whether to be a bad girl or a good girl”–or, one is tempted to add, Ginger Spice.
P.S.: Buried in Nancy Mitford’s fantastic book of snooty essays is an interesting thought: Her comparison of English, French and American chic, published in The Atlantic Monthly in 1951, may point the way to your style future. “English men and small children,” contends the arch Ms. Mitford, “are universally admitted to be the model of good dressing: our Queen and Princess Margaret set the fashion for the world until they were 10.”
If the upward-aspiration, good-breeding thing doesn’t pan out, maybe you could try regressing. Does the phrase “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?” mean anything to you?