Saturday, 4 June 2016
Shoes, Hats, Class
In moving to Scotland, I had three advantages over many other migrants: I had married a Scot (the reason I'm here); my mother's ethnic background is 75% Scots (and 25% English ); I inherited the blue eyes and red hair of my Scottish great-grandfather---and therefore don't look foreign.
Not looking foreign has advantages and disadvantages. When I first voiced concerns about the UK's class system, which by mutual consent still exists*, I was told that I was exempt from its strictures thanks to being foreign. This is not entirely true, in part because I don't look foreign. I sound foreign, but in a country where people judge your background not only by ear but by eye, I may be mistaken for a weirdly behaving Scot. In general, people are less tolerant of weird behaviour than they think they are, and in the UK they can be brutal about people they perceive as trying to ape the clothing, manners, accent and tastes of a class to which they do not belong, especially if that class is perceived as having more privilege.
Incidentally, it is considered bad form to talk openly about class, even though class is one of the deepest anxieties of British life. (You're not supposed to care, but you have to care. Thus, you just have to look like you don't care--all while avoiding the 'wrong' supermarkets, etc., etc.) If I weren't a writer, I wouldn't do it, and if I weren't a foreigner, I probably couldn't do it.
I joke about the Rough Bus all the time, but as a matter of fact I resent the fact that I have to worry about what I wear on it, lest I offend some chippy class warrior who associates--for example--a vintage hat with a class of women he despises or assumes despises him. This class of women do not, in the main, take the Rough Bus (such women are presumed to have cars), so the woman who takes the Rough Bus wearing such a hat is probably "above herself", "putting it on" and "deserves to be taken down a peg."
"It wasnae me wha' spat in yer hair....!"
I wish I were exaggerating---and I no longer wear vintage hats. I also no longer wear fur, another symbol of upper middle class women and--worse--women who wish to appear upper middle class, who--as vintage fur is a tad beaten up--I much more likely resembled.
I have not given up hats entirely, of course. When it is cold and windy, I wear a beret, and when I am going to be out in the sun for a long time, I wear my French Scout hat or (very daringly) an enormous green straw hat I bought from a street vendor in Rome. In the Scottish context, the Scout hat looks weird and most definitely foreign, but as such it has no class indications. The enormous green straw hat is trickier.
"Don't draw attention to yourself" is a stricture of Scottish life so ancient and durable that it survived my great-grandparents' migration to Canada, and my mother drummed it into my ears when we travelled by public transit together. Unfortunately, I couldn't help drawing attention to myself because I had (and have) bushy red hair and was dressed differently from my elementary school classmates. I gave up trying to be invisible or just unremarkable long ago. The laughter and jeers of boys ("Hey-you-need-a-haircut!") aged around ten seems to be my lot. I concentrate on wearing what I think looks good and protects me from the elements. This includes my green straw, which I wore to Tesco the other, very sunny, day with a tan linen shirt, spring green linen skirt, white ankle socks, sage green sneakers and a pair of sunglasses I bought at that self-same Tesco. Everything else but the hat and the socks came from charity shops. (Buying quality goods for as little money as possible is another East-Coast Scottish family value that survived migration to Canada.)
In the dairy aisle, a miniscule elderly lady caught my attention and told me how wonderful I looked. I thanked her. She continued. The hat, the skirt, the whole outfit, she enthused, was just so ... I forget what adjectives she used, but they were good. "How kind of you," I said. "Oh, how sweet."
But then, after I had left Tesco, had made a lightning visit to Iceland, and was crossing the latter's driveway, I heard loud, wild, ten-year-old-boy laughter, and a maternal voice shushing it. I turned to see a car, windows open, and the boy looking at his mother, who was now giving him a row. From long experience of this sort of thing, I assumed that he had been laughing at me. In his culture, large green straw hats do not belong in the vicinity of Iceland which, like all British supermarkets, has class associations.
It could be, however, that his mother liked my hat, and here is the really sad thing: even if she did, she might be too afraid to wear it. To wear it could be to court family displeasure, to cause comment at home, to become the butt of banter. To wear this hat, this harmless, simple, practical, inexpensive, straw hat. I love Scotland, but how stupid is that? And it doesn't stop at hats. You would think that the entire male population of Scotland would don tweed jackets, as they are warm, water-resistant, hard-wearing, good-quality and good-looking. But no. If you are to the tweed born, you could probably get away with wandering through Craigmillar (for example) while wearing one, but if you are Craigmillar born and bred--forget it.
I broke down and bought a new pair of shoes, by the way. They came from a shoe shop B.A. likes on Rose Street. My gift of love is now that I spent only £75, ignoring PPS's advice to buy from the small selection of women's shoes offered by top English men's shoemakers. I was feeling particularly embarrassed about the bony deformity and annoyed by banter about women who wear "comfortable shoes", so I bluntly told the saleswoman about it. (Very North American, reassuringly foreign.) The saleswoman brought me the feminine-shaped shoes I liked best and they fit, so I bought them. And on the walk home, I began to examine women's feet.
To my surprise, all the women walking near the Edinburgh Bridges were wearing comfortable shoes. Sneakers, ballerina flats, ankle boots, trainers. Not only were they not wearing high heels, hardly any of them were wearing low heels. A few pairs of boots had low, squarish heels. Of course, I was in the university neighbourhood, but as all the shoes looked relatively new, student poverty probably had little to do with it. Still, a university neighbourhood has a character of its own. "Perhaps in the New Town....?" I thought. But I couldn't recall. It struck me that I notice high heeled shoes, usually stilettos, only at night, only at the weekends.
Could it be that, far from being the anamoly, most women wear comfortable shoes?
Eventually a pair of heels did catch my eye. Their owner, aged about 60, was wearing a wiggle dress and an updo. A small voice in my head muttered, "Mutton dressed as lamb", but a louder one said, "Good for her! Let her wear what she likes. Attagirl!"
*I used to think that class was an illusion, akin to those in Plato's Cave, and--as I told my future M.P.-- if everyone in the UK would just wake up, they would see that, too. However, I now see that class is real,if only a social construct, as our characters are all made up of our decisions, tastes, values, and we pick our friends, spouses and as many associates as possible based on those decisions, tastes and values. That said, one of the great gifts of traditional religious faith is that adherents are expected to put class distinctions aside, at least for the length of public worship. There the only distinctions are spiritual, i.e. between clergy and laity, and biological, i.e. between men and women. The way one dresses for church reflects an honouring of these distinctions.
Note: Lest this put people off Scotland, I should mention that I am faced with these social difficulties primarily because of the neighbourhood in which I live. However, as an England-born neighbour is completely mystified by all the unpleasant social encounters I experience, I have to say that a strong second factor is that we do not have--as she has--a car. If you have a car, you never take the Rough Bus, and you always drive, never walk, past the 'wrong' supermarkets, whatever the 'wrong' supermarkets are for you.
Note 2: American university students in the UK, anxious to reap the benefits of the privileges they perceive among the soi-disant "upper classes", sometimes consciously attempt to develop an "upper class" accent. This is a serious social faux-pas, and everyone notices. Everyone who grows up in this system has an ear perfectly tuned to such fakery. If you are such a student who has stumbled upon this post, for the love of heaven, just be the best American you can be.
Note 3: I go to each and every supermarket I feel like going to, thanks very much.
UPDATE: I seem to have confused my North American readership, and no wonder. The British class system is intensely complicated and embarrassing to talk about. For the record, the entire island (plus Northern Ireland) did not give me a hard time for my feathery vintage hats and elderly fox fur stoles. I would have been quite all right in many a neighbourhood, even in Edinburgh, and perhaps particularly in some neighbourhoods in Edinburgh. The people I am complaining about are people whose great-grandfathers probably were of the same social class of my Scottish great-grandfather. All things considered, this particular (and local) culture is shared by a relatively small group of people. That said, it has much in common with other groups of Britons who lack, or whose ancestors lacked, social privilege.
For a lighthearted take on the different classes to be found in Edinburgh, and their various neuroses, I recommend the "44 Scotland Street" series by Edinburgh superstar Alexander McCall Smith. For the nightmare version of what Edinburgh was like (for some people) in the 1980s, try Irvine Welsh's Trainspotting.