Women and Social Class: Good taste?

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Antique hair and clothes brushes for men


This is the 50th anniversary of my college graduation and sadly I’ll be missing the reunion of my friends, known as The Ravers. Not sure why we were called that… But because I did more raving than studying in college, my memories of the books I read back then are hazy at best. I decided to reread a classic of American Literature, House of Mirth, by Edith Wharton, and I have found a treasure trove of richness there that I probably missed when I was younger.

Wharton was a member of the elite of the Northeast and wrote about women and social class. House of Mirth is set in and around New York City and concerns Lily Bart, a young woman whose fortunes dissolve when her father finds that he is “ruined” and loses his money. Her mother identifies herself as a reflection of her possessions, and  she falls apart when the family is plunged into poverty. Lily adopts her mother’s superficial values, and even though she finds the rich upper class, among whom she is a hanger-on, as tedious, she yearns to marry rich in order to show them how much better her taste is than theirs. 

As I read, I thought about the question of taste. I believe that I have good taste, and I look down my nose at those who like different things than I do. I am thinking about someone I knew years ago who had much money to spend, but chose the ugliest things to wear and decorate her house with. Her furniture was French Provincial reproduction, and the side tables and coffee table were made out of highly polished driftwood.  A showcase in the entry displayed her collection of Franklin Mint collectibles. Her clothes were polyester pull-ons, but she always paired these with a real diamond tiara. Her bed was heart-shape and at the head was a Lava Lamp. She was very proud of her belongings and thought she looked great at the supermarket in her tiara. She believed she had excellent taste.

Like Lily Bart, I learned my taste from my mother. She always dressed my sister and me in beautiful clothes from Saks Fifth Avenue, even though we had little money. Our tiny home was decorated elegantly. I still remember fondly a dark green velvet comfy sofa we had in the living room. She taught me the importance of good antique furniture and jewelry, and we would scour antique shops and flea markets for bargains.

When I first got married we lived in Army housing, and I resisted the temptation to buy lots of furniture. I hand-picked good antique pieces and let the Army pay to build crates for them when we moved. In Newport News our next door neighbors were a large family of poor people from West Virginia. The husband was drafted and the very young wife and children came along. They had zero furniture and she asked me if I would take her around to get some furnishings. I told her I would and mentioned that there were some great second hand shops in town and we could go there. She was offended that I would suggest used furniture, and she insisted that we go to a local furniture store in a strip mall. As I watched, she selected whole suites of living room, dining room and bedroom furniture. The pieces were poorly made and ornate, and the salesman was salivating as he totaled up the cost. The price was astronomical, but when broken down into monthly payments for the next five years, it seemed almost affordable. Of course, there was no way that furniture would still be standing in five years, but she would still be obliged to pay. The kicker came after the total was discussed. The salesman explained that because the total was sizable, I would need to co-sign for her. It’s true that I am a pushover, so it’s a miracle I didn’t agree to co-sign. I just couldn’t facilitate anyone buying such ugly junk. She was very annoyed and didn’t speak to me again.

I often wonder who decides what is fashionable and trendy, what is beautiful and what is tacky. Why would anyone prefer flimsy stuff made of particle board over solid oak pieces made by hand? Malcolm Gladwell wrote a book called The Tipping Point about how fads get started and spread, and he attempts to make sense of these things. He talks about how overnight hipsters started wearing Hush Puppies and hats with small brims, styles associated with old fogies. I cannot believe that people would buy something they thought was unattractive, though, so my question is, does everyone believe they have good taste? Do people who have different taste from mine believe they have better taste than I do?