British Upper Class and Middle Class Dress Codes
I keep reading about politicians and social workers who love to talk about how Britain is now a classless society. This point has been belaboured so stringently that I often wonder if they do protest and clamour too much.
It seems to me that if you attend a wedding or a social function, or even just walk down the street in any part of Britain today, if you pay careful attention, you can spot a person's class without too much difficulty. And normally, if you put appearance together with the way people speak, you will get a fairly clear idea of their position in society, and thus, their attitudes, politics, and even possibly their buying patterns.
So why do politicians want to promote the idea of a classless society? Is it that they are afraid to admit that after all this time, the social institutions and practices have not done much to change the deep-rooted patterns of society? If that is so, then surely calling a spade a spade would not go amiss.
Class is a fact of life in Britain. We may not divide ourselves because of it, but I think it is very much alive. Of course, it is a social dinosaur. And before you think it matters, it doesn't. Peter Philips, the eldest grandson of the Queen, married Amber Kelly, a former model and the daughter of a Canadian electricity company executive.
But just because class is not a consideration today when making friends or finding partners does not mean that class is not obvious. So here are some ways in which a keen traveller or social anthropology enthusiast can spot the different classes of Britain through dress.
The following of trends seems to be done much more slavishly and extremely by the lower classes. For this exercise, let us name our working-class young man Kevin. If Kevin cut his hair short and gelled it in spikes, it is to the extreme that he would probably have had his hair almost entirely shaved off, leaving just a few millimetres of fuzz. Upper-middle-class Jamie, with his possible public school background, may have it short and gelled, but nowhere near the extreme of Kevin.
Similarly, although both working-class Tracey and middle-class Fiona have piercings, working-class Tracey is likely to have multiple piercings in her ears, belly button, eyebrows, nose, tongue, and possibly even nipples. Fiona, on the other hand, might have multiple ear piercings, even her belly button done if she is very adventurous, but no more.
Going back to our fine young men, both Kevin and Jamie might wear loose "gangsta"-inspired baggy jeans, but Kevin's will most likely be a few sizes bigger and looser than Jamie's. He is more likely to start wearing this fashion at a much younger age than Jamie, too.
As a rule, middle-class children's and teenagers' dress tends to be more restrained and somewhat more natural-looking than working-class attire. If you see a pre-pubescent girl dressed up in sexy teenage fashions and make-up for everyday wear, she is almost certainly not middle class.
Both classes of youth, meaning upper and non-upper, might shop at the same high-street outlet. They might both buy the same denim jacket. But the way in which they wear it will vary distinctly. Working-class Tracey might wear it with tight shiny tights, high-heeled shoes and possibly a very short skirt.
Middle-class Fiona, on the other hand, might wear it with cords, something working-class people just don't seem to wear much of, boots and a big, soft scarf wrapped several times around her neck. Indeed, among females, the very nature of dress being flashy and overly elaborate is a sign of being lower class. The upper echelons still manage to 'dress up' without looking fussy and overdone.
Indeed, it can be said that the upper classes, as a rule, tend to wear more layers than the working classes. If you're out on freezing January nights, the working classes are more likely to be out in just a t-shirt under a leather jacket (Kevin) or a mini-skirt with thin, shiny tights.
This is most common in the north of England where I live. This is not because of cost; indeed, most Kevins and Traceys spend as much, sometimes more, on 'designer' labels. But if Fiona and Jamie have spent a lot of money buying designer labels, they will make sure they have discreet logos. If Kevin and Tracey buy designer wear, they will have flashy, obvious, ostentatious labelling to make sure everyone knows they are wearing designer clothes.
The middle and upper classes are more inclined to wear scarves than the lower classes and generally more willing to wrap up warmly in cold weather. So when you're out in the town this winter, see if you can spot people's classes by observing their layers. And the fun part is, can you spot those trying to pass as something other?
Hair is one of the most obvious ways of marking the difference between public and private school children. All upper-class public schoolboys seem to have a similar floppy haircut.
Upper-class public schoolgirls share this trend. They will have straight, shiny-clean, floppy hair, falling loose so that they can be constantly pushing it back, running their fingers through it, flipping and tossing it, tucking behind their ears, pulling it into a rough twist or ponytail then letting it fall back again, in a sequence of apparently casual, unconscious gestures. This public-schoolgirl floppy-hair display is highly distinctive and rarely seen among working-class females.
Indeed, even adult hair of upper-middle and upper-class women shares this trait. It is more likely to be casually 'unstyled', but it will not be greasy or display several inches of dark roots. Upper-class hair is generally less fussy. Over-coiffed hair, with more dye, gel and all in all appearance of it being a style, will mark the hair as obviously lower class.
The class rule on legs is rather less clear-cut, as there are two factors to consider, namely fashion and the quality of the legs in question. Lower class females and nouveaux-riches of working-class origins tend to wear short skirts when they are in fashion and often when they are not, regardless of whether they have good legs or not.
'Respectable' upper working, lower-middle and middle-middle women do not display much leg, even when both fashion and leg-quality would allow it. Among the higher social classes, the more youthful and fashionable women may wear shorter hemlines, but only if they have very good legs.
The upper-middle and upper classes regard thick legs, and in particular thick ankles, not only as unattractive but also as working-class. I have heard them being referred to as milk-maid legs or farm-girl legs.
So if you see an English woman with thick ankles and legs in a short skirt, she is probably working class, but a woman with elegant legs in a short skirt could be from either the bottom or the top of the social scale. In this case, you will have to look at the hair, the amount of cleavage on display, make-up, matching, shininess, fussiness, jewellery, shoes and visible bulge to decide on the social standing.
If a deep, over-baked tan is on show, the person is probably lower class. Moreover, the amount of skin on display can definitely indicate class. For example, the amount of cleavage on display is inversely correlated with position on the social scale - the more cleavage revealed by a garment, the lower the social class of its wearer (a daytime garment that is - party dresses and ball gowns can be more revealing). For the middle-aged and over, the same rule applies to the upper arms.
Skimpy, skin-tight clothes clinging to bulges of fat are also lower class. The higher classes have bulges too; they just hide them under looser or more substantial clothing.
If wearing t-shirts, it is hard to judge, but the upper classes tend to prefer polo shirts or t-shirts with rich cotton content as opposed to more synthetic fabrics. However, there is the same inverse correlation between amounts of visible flesh and the social class of the person.
Shirts unbuttoned to display an expanse of chest are lower-class - the more buttons undone, the lower the class of the wearer (and if a chain or medallion around the neck is also revealed, take off another ten class points). Even amounts of arm on display are significant.
Among older males, the higher classes tend to prefer shirts to t-shirts and would never go out in just a vest or singlet, however hot the weather. These are strictly working-class garments; bare chests, anywhere other than on the beach or swimming pool, are lower working class.
If wearing a shirt, the divide seems to be at the elbow. On a warm day, lower classmen will roll their shirt-sleeves up to above the elbow, while the higher ranks will roll them to just below the elbow, unless they are engaged in some significant physical activity, such as gardening.
The visible flesh rule also applies to shorts. Upper-middle and upper-class adult men are rarely seen in shorts unless they are playing sports, hill walking or perhaps gardening at home. Middle-middles and lower-middles might wear shorts on holiday abroad, but only working-class males exhibit their legs in public in their hometown.
Matching of Accessories
As with furniture and home décor, too much twee or laboured matching of clothes or accessories is also a lower-class marker, particularly if the scheme involves a bright colour, say a navy dress with red trim, red belt, red shoes, a red 'handbag' and a red hat. Take off two points if any of these items are shiny as well.
This kind of overdressing is often seen at working-class weddings or other special occasions. The same over-careful matching but with a more muted 'accent' colour such as cream would be lower middle class. Reducing the number of matched accessories to just two or three might raise the whole outfit to middle-middle status. However, it would still be an 'outfit', still too fussy and Sunday-best, still too obviously dressed-up for the upper classes.
Jewellery, especially too much jewellery, particularly gold necklaces spelling out one's name or initials, is a sign of the lower classes. If worn with too much make-up, it is clearly working class.
For men, size is important. Large, bulky, ostentatious metal watches, especially gold ones, are lower class - even if they are very expensive Rolexes. Upper-middles and above tend to wear more discreet watches, usually with a simple leather strap. A similar principle applies to cuff links. Big, flashy, show-off cuff links are lower class; small, simple, unobtrusive ones are higher. Again, the cost of the items is irrelevant.
Rings, other than plain wedding rings, indicate that the wearer is probably no higher than middle-middle. Some upper-middle and upper-class males might wear a signet ring, engraved with their family crest, on the little finger of their left hand, but these are also often sported by pretentious middle-middles, so they are not a reliable guide. A signet ring with initials on it rather than a crest, and worn on any other finger, is lower middle.
The higher and the more uncomfortable the shoes appear, the more likely the woman who is wearing them is lower class, especially if they are being worn for more casual occasions. Shiny tights with high heels are a very definite lower-class marker. If they are shiny, stretchy boots being worn by a mature woman, they are probably lower-middle or lower.
Fabric, Colour and Pattern
The more matte the fabric, the more likely it is to be worn by someone from the middle classes or above. The working classes prefer the more shiny, synthetic fabrics and weaves. The upper classes tend to prefer natural fibres like cotton, silk and cashmere.
The colour, fabric and pattern of ties are also a clue when it comes to men. Very brash, garish colours and loud patterns (especially cartoony/jokey ones) are lower class. Ties in a single, solid colour (particularly if pale, bright and/or shiny) are no higher than middle-middle. The upper-middles and above wear ties in relatively subdued, usually dark colours, with small, discreet patterns.
As a rule, the upper classes tend to wear tweedy greens and browns in the country, sombre greys and dark blue pinstripes in town. Wearing inappropriate 'city' clothes in the country, for both males and females, is a serious breach. In some very old and grand upper-class country circles, this taboo extends to the wearing of anything even remotely fashionable: the more frumpy and out of date you look, the higher your social rank.
You can also spot a working-class man on a bus or train simply by the way he sits. Only working-class men tend to sit with their legs wide apart.
What Do You Think?
Did you spot yourself in this analysis? Where do you fall? Given that most of us in Britain have post-war crossed the class divide because of upward mobility, we may find ourselves somewhere in the middle. If so, how does that affect the way you dress? Are you changing because of your work, and then, do you go back to your roots for play? Let me know.
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JoMomby on April 11, 2020:
I'm not sure how applicable this is to younger generations. I think the classes do still dress differently, but that the styles that pick them out have moved on a bit and that they are becoming more subtle as younger people seem to be deliberatly trying to look more homogenized and classless in an overly conscious way. I also think there are different tribes of each class. In the working class you might imagine those who wear athleisure or the latest topshop trends versus those who buy from charity shops and home school. Imagine two sisters both educated at leading universities, professionals, married well what have you, perhaps state educated in leafy catchments. They are probably middle-middle class, perhaps born into a lower middle class family that was financially very successful. One lives on a small holding and likes making her own jam, loves the natural school of dressing, floral summer dresses not too short, walking boots and sensible jackets, maybe a barbour, might own a labrador, one or two rings or necklaces that she wears habitually and despises Adidas as casual wear or anything to do with celeb culture. The other sister worships american culture and celebrity, dresses like a hollywood a-lister, designer labels everywhere, sky high shoes, black black black, lots of makeup, blonde hair, but classy, quality fabrics, silk, cashmere, own a french bulldog etc and lives with her wealthy husband in Cheshire's golden triangle, or perhaps surrey. Is she any less middle class? Not really, just two tribes of the middle class. A lot of young people want to dress like Americans or the wives of russian Oligarchs regardless of their social background. Clearly americans have class divides but I do not think they are as obvious, it is a lot more about what you can afford, except in the upper classes which dress similarly to the british upper classes. I will still say that despite the athleisure trend, sports clothes as normal clothes scream working class to me, or at best lower middle class...especially if worn as a matching set from the same brand...the same with garish gold buckles and studs and pvc that clearly look like they came from primark, as do certain 'alternative' looks i.e lots of tattoos and multi coloured hair although again that is becoming more acceptable since professional jobs began relaxing dress codes!
Jonas Rodrigo on July 08, 2015:
I think clothes really do reflect social classes of the people who wear them. We're not exactly homogeneous right now. I mean, they are still marked differences between people that indicate where they come from.
Really on May 03, 2014:
What is the point of your being on this site?
John on April 29, 2014:
Great stuff - missed the peculiarly British influence of the military on the mainstream - which can be one of those odd, almost feudal links between upper/working classes
alma matter on February 22, 2014:
This is obviously from Kate Fox's book Watching the English!
anon on January 16, 2014:
You have plagiarised Kate Fox.
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Anon. on February 27, 2013:
This is blatant plagiarism of Kate Fox's Observing the British. You need to either attribute it to her, or remove it.
Thea on August 04, 2012:
You really should cite the book that this info is from ("Observing the British", I think it is). Changing the name of the upper middle class girl from "Saskia" to "Fiona" and leaving all the other info intact is still more or less plagarism :(
Janakie on March 26, 2012:
Very true. I agree with every word. More than anything else even the quality is linked to the body display and anatomy. I have done a study linking quality & attitudes and results came out positive in all instances.
home witch (author) from Manchester on September 14, 2011:
Thank you Charlie. Glad you think so.
charlie on September 14, 2011:
reasonably good summary