CLASS: A Guide Through the American Status System By Paul Fussell

The New York Times had an essay today on this 1983 book.

Sandra Tsingh Loh discussed it in a 2009 Atlantic article.

Here are 88 pages of the book:


Fussell writes:

…you reveal a great deal about your social class by the amount of annoyance or fury you feel when the subject is brought up. A tendency to get very anxious suggests that you are middle-class and nervous about slipping down a rung or two. On the other hand, upper-class people love the topic… Proletarians generally don’t mind discussions of the subject because they know they can do little to alter their class identity…

At the bottom, people tend to believe that class is defined by the amount of money you have. In the middle, people think…that education and the work you do are almost equally important. Nearer the top, people perceive that taste, values, ideas, style and behavior are indispensable criteria of class…

The paying of compliments is a middle-class convention, for this class needs the assurance that compliments provide…

Upper middles like to show off their costly educations…

The prole either has his jaw set in bitterness and defiance or his mouth open in doltish wonder. The upper-middle-class male, on the other hand, has his mouth closed but not too firmly set, and his shoulders avoid the hangdog, whip-me-again-master slouch…characteristic of the unsuccessful… “Upper-middle-class people tend to have controlled precise movements. The way they use their arms and where their feet fall is dramatically different from lower-middle-class people, who tend to swing their arms out rather than hold them in closer to their bodies.”

It’s all a game to the upper-middle-class…

The middle class, always anxious about offending…

“Status panic” is the affliction of the middle class…

Terrified about losing their jobs, these people grow passive…

Because he is essentially a salesman, the middle-class man develops a salesman’s style…. He will laugh at his own jokes.

The wider the difference between one’s working clothes and one’s “best,” the lower the class.

Good looking people marry up, insecure and ugly people marry down.

Smiling is a class indicator. Lower do it more than middles who do more than uppers.

Classy people are seldom short and squat.

Having an ass that protrudes is low class. [A la Kardashians.] …as is having little neck.

The elites are thin. The fatties are low.

Princeton used to be a great center of wit, but now it’s subject to prole drift…Everything in the modern world drifts prole-ward all the time. Even the better classes have to wait in long lines, the quality of food degenerates, airline seating grows more cramped.

William Briggs writes:

Fussell insists appearance matters. The top and bottom tiers are skinnier than those in the middle. The lower the rank, the less likely a man is to wear a jacket. The top tier layers its clothes: shirts over shirts, shirts under or over sweaters, and of course jackets. Softer, earthier or pastel “preppy” colors are preferred, and the clothes, while elegant, are lived in and constructed of natural fibers.

A definitive marker is a purple garment: only proles wear them. Jeans and black outerwear begin at the middle-class, as does the use of polyester (it was Dacron in 1982). Fascinatingly, there is a sociological term called legible clothing; that is, clothes and accessories displaying words or logos. Proles don sweaters that plead, “Ask me about my grandchildren”, or hats and t-shirts carrying advertising for automotive products or sports franchises. The middle-class, anxious to separate itself from those below and desiring to emphasize their aspirations to climb higher, carries tote bags from NPR with Beethoven’s image, t-shirts with university names or logos, and bags touting expensive shops. This hasn’t changed. I regularly see female commuters use Victoria Secret bags as supplementary purses.

Language use, particularly pronunciation, is a firm separator. Fussell enjoys the example patina: those in the top tier emphasize the first syllable; the others stress the second. I imagine straining to hear this word while you are out class watching guarantees a lengthy wait.

Better is the demarcation made by those who use house (top tier) and its alternative home. Proles will say limo, middles limousine, while uppers use car as in, “We’ll need the car at 10, please, Jones.” I think that limo is now the most common usage. Middles talk about traveling and uppers discuss summering.

If a woman does a lot of knitting for family and friends [indicating copious leisure time], chances are she’s upper-middle-class. But if when she finishes a sweater she sews in a little label reading

Handmade by Gertrude Willis

she’s middle-class. If the label reads

Hand-crafted by Gertrude Willis

she’s high-prole.

Proles and below drop gs. Upper middles and above avoid euphemism and curse as freely, but more creatively, than proles. It’s the middle-class that is most anxious to appear sophisticated and so routinely “complexifies” and softens its language. They prefer utilize to use and would rather utilize the bathroom than the toilet. A man is an alcoholic or has problems with alcohol and is not a drunk. The more syllables packed into a phrase, the better…

Whether or not cultural decay is true in all areas, as Fussell maintains, prole drift has had vicious consequences in music. You cannot go anywhere today without being aurally assaulted by vile, vesicated music.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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