Grayson Perry: decoding the British class system

“Nothing has as strong an influence on our aesthetic taste as the social class in which we grow up.” 


Transvestite potter Grayson Perry is one of Channel Four’s most recent signings. His first series All in the best possible taste saw Perry going on safari with families in Sunderland, Tunbridge Wells and the Cotswolds to explore working, middle and upper class culture.

Perry focused on taste through the lens of consumer choice, specifically “what they are trying to say about themselves when they make these choices”. Enigmatic but approachable, he resists any urge to pass judgement helping his participants open up. A by-product of his ethnography was a series of six tapestries, recently displayed at the Miro gallery near Angel.

Class is an incredibly nuanced and dynamic topic to take on. Many of Perry’s everyday observations were spot on (see bottom), but the broader generalisations he tried to impose fell flat. It’s facile reducing identity to simple rules of thumb (e.g. working class taste is about being part of the tribe, middle class taste is all about differentiation). Motivations vary from person to person.

Kate Fox – author of the superb Watching the English – popped up for a short interview, anchoring the proceedings. “We intuit it – a class GPS is inherited.” In her view “…class is not defined by income or occupation, but by how we speak, our manner, our taste, our lifestyle choices, our kid’s names”.

More could have been made of her talents, but this was Perry’s show.

Ultimately he was more successful in his examination of the lowers and middles than the uppers. The blessed middles merited a series of their own. The divide between the ostentatious residents of the King’s Hill estate (Beamers and Beyoncé) and the upper middle Tunbridge Wells types (Organic Veg Boxes and the Guardian) was aptly described as “the Berlin Wall of British taste.” (see pic).

The series is available on 4OD. I’d urge you to seek it out. The most telling observations are listed below.

Perry’s observations: the working classes

Tattoos can be seen as a cue for men to talk about their personalities, the opportunity to broach a subject e.g. my son’s birth, my mother’s death, the day I joined the army etc.

A young man spending £900 on a full-sleeve tattoo is spending a higher proportion of their income on ‘art’ than a banker does splashing their bonus on a Damian Hirst

Male display is often always accompanied by the excuse/disguise of function e.g. the hours and pounds I spend working on my car are excused by talk of craftsmanship/performance.

Female display, getting dressed up on a Friday night, is described as a transformation to the weekend dream persona – the chance to see the dream you, taking pride in the fantasy present.

Display is as much for ourselves as for the opposite sex.

The pride and community values of working class jobs (formerly in the factory or pit) have fewer outlets, and are now most commonly expressed in support for football. The heraldry of football is an identity to grasp in a changing world with fewer traditional roles for men.

Perry’s observations: the middle classes of the King’s Hill estate

Their taste is about aspiration, proving what you can afford, the choices open to you. The desperation to be individual is doomed to failure.

A known brand can provide affirmation, security – the message that ‘you’ve got it right’.

These choices can be exhausting. One way of getting it right is by buying the showhome on the King’s Hill estate thereby not having to make any choices at all: “A new home is a blank canvass – it’s quite scary – you don’t want to get it wrong.”

Perry’s observations: the middle classes of Tunbridge Wells

Their taste is a tug of war between displaying discernment and individuality WITHOUT being showy or being seen to try too hard. Many people agonise over taste decisions “scrutinising them with an internal CCTV.” The ideal choice is that of a knowledgeable individualist – “my sofa is from a vintage fair – not DFS”.

The trend for modern retro vintage & the knowing juxtaposition of quirky objects is all about discernment. Not shopping but curating – alighting on things & bestowing meaning on them.

Their choices are consumerist, but the badges are hidden. They take pride not to being brand consumers, they are trying to do something knowledge-driven. They feel the anxiety of consumption keenly – but this is related to cultural capital.

Confidence can be expressed by proudly noting how you have dipped into the mainstream (bought a trinket at TK Max for £7.50). The implied message is “I know my choices and I sure of them.”

Food is a battle ground – tribal groups are teased apart and defined by food. Many declare themselves intolerant to proletarian staples like bread and milk. It is a visible differentiator, an identity marker. People are saying things about themselves in their food decisions.  In this light Jamie Oliver is “the god of class mobility” (!)

Taste for this group is about the vanity of small differences. Perry’s view is that underpinning all of their choices is a moral subtext “I am a good person / a respectable person / I know the rules.”

Perry’s observations: the upper classes

Understatement, quality and not having to try is central to upper class choices.

Appropriate dress is about making others feel comfortable. Fitting in, selecting the right uniform, signalling subtly to others.

Shabby chic – frayed cuffs etc – conveys that don’t have to try too hard. The subtle inverted snobbery here is that by wearing your father’s clothes you are saying they were made so well they have lasted a generation.

The historic affiliation of objects is key differentiator from other classes: the continuity of taste. To a certain extent upper class taste is about not having taste at all, but keeping traditions alive.


Addendum – June 10th 2013

Suzanne Moore and Grayson Perry have written a book to accompany the exhibition:

Suzanne Moore’s accompanying Guardian piece can be found here:

About Simon Shaw

I'm a Director at an insight consultancy. I'm interested in marketing, market research & consumer psychology. The views expressed are not necessarily those of my employer.
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2 Responses to Grayson Perry: decoding the British class system

  1. Simon Riley says:

    I’ll have to watch this – enjoyed your review (and enjoy Grayson Perry usually). All true.
    I’d add to that that bringing sound into the equation as well as visuals can be very revealing. Lost count of the number of middle class homes I’ve been in where great care is taken to exude taste visually, then you check out the CD collection (or iPod downloads) … Not that you can tell that much about class from music necessarily, but you get a lot about personality. Books are also really useful in this respect (as Jerry Seinfeld put it, they are “trophies”). Sam Gosling’s book ‘Snoop’ is worth a read (subtitle: ‘What Your Stuff Says About You’). Includes a matrix of the big 5 personality traits against domains like bedroom, office or Facebook. He reckons you can spot someone’s levels of neuroticism, for example, quite easily through the look of their bedroom, but not their office. And agreeableness as a trait is generally hard to spot through someone’s objects, while openness on the contrary tends to leave lots of clues.

  2. Simon Shaw says:

    Cheers Simon, will check it out

    I’m a sucker for bookshelves for sure, though it’s hard not to just seek evidence confirming what you already thought! I’m sure this class business was easier in the 50s where a person’s dress would get you 90% of the way there…

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