on classy, tacky, and other failed performances
Woody Allen would never join a club that would allow him to be a member. He wants to belong to one like the one my parents do, a Waspy enclave in the San Francisco Bay Area that only recently began admitting Jewish and Asian members, usually the wives of true blue bloods, though this alone isn’t enough. These outliers are never actually outlying, but have assimilated into the fringes of this culture, often through a precise performance of the in-culture’s aesthetics and customs, precise enough that their difference is ignored or, even better, reframed within narratives of testament that, also in keeping with Wasp code, rarely leave the tight lips of a bridge table. We are only ever members of the clubs we belong to, though some of us will go to great lengths to transform into an idealized image, one distorted by our own anxieties about our status.
As my mom explained to my brothers and me, some words are tacky. They’re not drapes, they’re curtains. My yeah gets corrected to a yes, hey to hello, what? to excuse me? Don’t say mansion, say big house, or better yet, say house or nothing at all. Act like you’ve been there before, like this is all natural. You don’t want to come across as stiff or stuffy, but there are certain standards to uphold. Grammar and pronunciation are also important, but she has a tendency to overcorrect. She insists she’s feeling badly about something, when she means bad, so used to adding -ly’s to her adverbs. She softens her vowels, calling produce prahduce, invoking the Romanized a’s of Prada or the Transatlantic dahling. Call it the Transpacific accent, affecting old money East Coast in the organic aisle of a California grocery store. The accent of fiscal conservative, social liberal. Rebelling by transferring to Berkeley but joining a sorority and not just any sorority—the best. The Kappa house was designed by the same architect who did Hearst Castle, their website is proud to note. It is a handsome colonial painted not beige but taupe, the unspoken leader of so many neutral palettes. Our favorite scene from our favorite movie is the business card scene in American Psycho. Good coloring. That’s bone. And the lettering is something called Silian Rail. Eggshell with Romalian Type. Raised lettering, pale nimbus. You don’t want to be white, a term too broad, too inclusive. You are one of the more refined shades.
In the absence of this differentiation, you are at risk of becoming like my dad’s side of the family. Well-off but downwardly mobile back in Fairfield County, the crucible of this social milieu, they cling to skunked signifiers, hypercorrecting through a conspicuous überprep of popped polos, madras pants, and boat shoes that have never known a sock. They are in continual debt keeping their fashion unseasonable, their Audis leased, club dues and bar chits paid, which has only accelerated their backslide, demanding yet more incredible performances. My cousin has impressed upon me the importance of authentic badger hair in a shaving brush. Though he appreciates the shine wax can give a pair of loafers, it can dry out the leather, so he treats his with cream, a ritual he attends to with a dedication that verges on the religious. The loafers—Ferragamos only—and their accoutrements each have their own reliquaries, the loafers fitted with shoe trees and slipped into monogrammed cloth pouches, which I’m told are called dust bags, a strangely coarse, common phrase for such finery, though this can be its own kind of performance.
Among all the words my mom loathes—we never say hate; hate is too extreme and ugly an emotion—it might be the word classy, antonym of tacky. Saying classy is déclassé, gauche, a faux pas—words once adopted to appease related anxieties, the British wishing they could be as regal as the French. To talk of class is a sign that you have none, or really, are a member of the wrong one. Woody Allen might want his birthday party to seem classier to impress the friends of whatever underaged Shiksa goddess he’s dating. Let’s class up the joint, the mob boss will snap when his goons are acting the part, making him aware of the hierarchies hidden within whiteness. There is white and then there is off white. Even the appeal to dignity of losing with class draws attention to the idea that there are different groups split along primarily ethnoeconomic lines and that resources are unfairly—tragically, you might say—distributed among these groups.
You’d think the truly classy thing to do would be to invite everyone to your club, to make an unshowy show of your wealth, but then there would be no more club. For elites to remain so, they must obfuscate their wealth. There are words you can and can’t say, the distinctions invisible to anyone not in the know. Wealth must be kept behind gates and box hedges and long, gravel driveways. In equity, derivatives, LLCs, hedgefunds, trusts, and the equally complex law that regulates these financial instruments, the byzantine information technologies that undergird their establishment and exchange. To preserve class distinctions, wealth must be privatized in all senses. Otherwise it’s right there for the taking.
This clandestine hoarding breeds a paranoia, demanding elites obfuscate their obfuscations until they work themselves into a corner, all the zigs and zags twisting into something pathological. They make outrageous demonstrations of frugality, pinching pennies while passive wealth compounds. My dad would make an omelet at home before going out to dinner so he could order the cheapest appetizer as his entrée. For dessert he would scrape our plates clean and go through the check item by item to make sure we weren’t charged for the extra bread we requested. His favorite pastime is to buy electronics at Costco only so he can return them the following Saturday, claiming some software incompatibility or lack of audio fidelity so he can have his deal and refund it too. I think of the afternoons spent shuttling between school, sports practices, music lessons, youth group, and other extracurriculars—another kind of investment in future capital—in the reverse-facing backseat of a Volvo station wagon. There was a brinkmanship at play among the soccer moms: how long could you drive a car—a notoriously bad investment—until you finally traded it in for another, itself used, though gently. If your odometer didn’t make it well into six digits, you were considered nouveau, but even austerity can be excessive, so there is a line to walk. You don’t want your estate to become a greying garden, overbred dogshit turning hard and white on a priceless Persian rug. This is how classy comes to be tacky and vice versa. Fixate on anything in this way and it will develop into a perversion, something you hate to love and love to hate.
This contradiction is one of many inherent to class in our supposed liberal democracy, exposing not a hollow shell of meaning, but a system of signification that turns us all on our lumpen heads. To be a rich dad you must act like a poor one. Fake it ‘til you make it. The tackiness of classy and the classiness of tacky are embodiments of this doublethink, one that is increasingly untenable as wealth continues to stratify and new technologies carve out familiar paths to the top. Since the global market collapse of 2008, it has become fashionable to decry the iniquity of the 1%, even among the 1%. The wealthy feed on a fad diet of slow money, social entrepreneurism, green capitalism, microinvesting, effective altruism, minority-owned businesses, stakeholder capital, and other euphemisms, purguing any language that has been flagged as toxic. Tech companies are busy renaming master-slave terminology in their code while still outsourcing customer support to Utah or Nashville or abroad, data labeling to the Philippines and Central America, engineering to India, Moldova, Brazil, or attempting to do away with place altogether by abstracting it to the crowd.
Lost in the excitement over this rebranding exercise, it has become classist to use the word tacky sincerely, though you’ll see it all the time in its gentrified form, kitsch. Kitsch gives downward mobility a shabby chic, transforming serious material concerns into a friendly, fun aesthetic. There is no real upward complement, just newly-targeted demographics invited to see themselves as bourgeois. Don’t be ashamed of where you come from, kitsch says, bring it with you into this imaginary middle, and in doing so, upgrade it from trash to treasure. Secondhand clothing alone is a multibillion dollar market and growing rapidly, powered by the wealthiest nations and their oldfound appreciation for vintage, a simultaneous romance with and erasure of the lower class. How much streetwear and workwear is purchased by generational wealth? Carhartt, Bass Pro Shops, and other brands of Bush’s America are enjoying a pseudoironic revival, just as classy has fallen out of favor, replaced by the pseudoironic bougie and tempered by social postures like the ones curated by @middleclassyfancy and @foosgonewild. Instead of hiding what we’ve been told is lesser, we can now embrace it, turning this performance into social capital and maybe even more traditional forms of capital, the aesthetic feeding back into the material. Middle Class Fancy sells a dedicated 3XL clothing line and collectible figurines of their most memed characters, Rand and Nance. $187 will buy you a Jokers Gone Wild baseball jersey or a Lil Mr. E figurine at the Foos Gone Wild webstore.
This roundtrip is the exception, though, not the rule. For the vast majority, celebrating oneself lumps and all is a consolation prize for losing the socioeconomic lottery, one that comes with plenty of hidden costs. But when there is always a cut above, a club we’d rather be a member of, we must find ways to love the one we belong to, even if that love can’t be direct and fullthroated. Even if that love has been perverted to hate. Don’t make a scene, I’ve been told through clenched teeth and pursed lips, the sentence punctuated by a kick under the table or nails digging into my forearm, though this hush up usually has the opposite effect. It breeds suspicion among onlookers and resentment within me, which builds until I can’t help but act out, airing the private in the public. By that point, it’s not a question of being classy or tacky or whatever we’re calling it now, but an existential one. No matter how thoughtfully and truthfully I express myself, it will always be a betrayal of a code, one that has been mapping and failing to map my pathways for decades now, generations. I no longer see myself as an exception, but neither am I able to accept being lesser without hearing that voice, feeling those nails digging in. I wish I could be a member of no club, instead I’m stuck right here. Right where I’ve always been, wrapped in these ridiculous words.
clubs, contradiction, elitism, embodiment, hierarchy, legacy, Luminous Vessels, obfuscation, performance, perversion, privacy, semantics, signaling theory, status anxiety, Wasps, wealth
- Rachel Kushner. The Flamethrowers. Stanley Kastle’s riff on real estate (p. 163-164)
- Garielle Lutz. “The Sentence Is a Lonely Place”
- Suspended Reason. “Oscillation / Fashion”
- Usage: cants, contranyms, skunked words, shibboleths, U and non-U