Class: A Guide Through the American Status System by Paul Fussell

Recommendation: read

When Fussell wrote in 1982 (and published in 1983), he said that acknowledging the class divisions that exist in America exist was poor form and that doing so would likely lead to argument. Florence King writes, “The subject skims across our minds like a hair blown across the face: a constant ticklish irritation, invisible but very much felt.” Class distinctions are as alive as ever and the subject is as taboo now as then—our fierce egalitarian heritage guarantees this—but a certain amount of fun can be had in their study.

We’ll look at changes in the specific indicators that Fussell chose to characterize his class taxonomy, in the fine distinctions between tiers, of which he found three:

Top Center Bottom
1. Top out-of-sight 4. Middle 8. Destitute
2. Upper 5. High Proletarian 9. Bottom out-of-sight
3. Upper Middle 6. Mid-Proletarian
7. Low Proletarian.

Class book cover

Those at the apex never earn their money, nor do inhabitants of the nadir. Both groups are rare and avoid public notice, and are thus difficult to study. Class is only weakly correlated with money. New money separates upper and upper middle from top out-of-sight. The truism “money can’t buy class” explains why high “proles” like actors and pop singers are barred from the upper classes despite their wealth.

Where you lived, in 1982, was a reliable indicator of class. New York City, Boston, San Francisco, Chicago, “upstate” New York, Connecticut implied a higher class than those who lived in Los Angeles, Tulsa, Oklahoma, Cheyenne, Wyoming, and “Parma, Ohio, a city of 100,000 without a newspaper, bus system, hotel, or map of itself.” These locations have not remained static, as the uppers have discovered the West, at least for their vacation residences.

Like it or not—and we have seen that most do not—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.

In 1982, there was a greater emphasis on the university one attended. Harvard, Yale, the other Ivies, and Stanford indicated top tier. Attendance there is no longer a perfectly reliable class marker as these schools have significantly expanded their student bodies. However, the choice of school still matters.

The assumption that “a college degree” means something without the college’s being specified is woven so deeply into the American myth that it dies very hard, even when confronted with the facts of the class system and its complicity with the hierarchies of higher learning.

In other words, Fussell says, graduating from Syracuse, Seton Hall, University of Wyoming, or Virginia Tech (“a good basketball school”) indicate middle-class. Those universities, which until recently were colleges, and before that were normal schools or teacher’s colleges, are attended by proles.

Finally, Fussell tires of the traditional segregations and hopes that more people will voluntarily join “class X”, a group which has changed more than any other, and which can best be described as those who live in Ithaca, New York, Ann Arbor, Michigan, Madison, Wisconsin, Boulder, CO, or Park Slope, Brooklyn. Creativity, intelligence, independence, pleasantness, and willingness to engage in “experiments in living” were and still are reliable markers of this group.

In 1982, these folk were not as political as today, where they now comprise the vocal left. An enjoyable test of X-hood is to say to your subject that you noticed something on FOX news. If your listener, who is ordinarily lucid and tolerant, begins an excited, extended rant about that network being “reactionary”, then she is likely an X. More evidence is if she wears a knit skull cap, dresses down, sports an Obama decoration, drives a hybrid, eschews makeup, or boasts of shopping at Whole Foods to buy “organic” food.

Fussell argued that Xers rightly did not give a damn about class distinction, and this is still true but in a different sense. Just as Uppers believe they culturally superior to the upper middles, who are sure of their ascendancy over the middle-class etc., Xers are convinced they are more enlightened than everybody else.

This, then, is the overt reading of Class: a hierarchical strata of semi-permeable class boundaries exists. Escape from a stratum is unlikely: though it is easier to descend than to climb or to become an X. The struggle to better or to differentiate oneself determines most behavior. Not all neatly fit into a slot: for example, engineers of every stripe and physicians exhibit significant cross-class deportment.

Covertly, the work can be called a guide to proper behavior and style. Fussell writes approvingly of top tier demeanor and acerbically of displays by the middle-class and proles. He laments prole drift, which is the (inexorable?) tendency of culture to devolve. He says, for example, 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.

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.

Fussell proudly accepts the damning insult of elitist. But he doesn’t want us to interpret the word pejoratively. There are aspects of culture that are better than others. One painting can be superior to another (compare any Caravaggio with your best reproduction of it). A novel by Twain rates higher than one typed by Nora Roberts. Our system of justice is sounder than China’s. What really distinguishes the classes, Fussell says, is the ability to know and acknowledge these distinctions and to aspire to what is better or best.


Update: I forgot to tip the hat to Arts & Letters Daily, which last week linked to this article reviewing Fussell’s book.


  1. stan

    In addition to the Xers, I’d like to propose a class of the Os — those who have their heads firmly planted up a certain Orifice.

  2. kuhnkat

    You call that music????

  3. Joy

    “While hungry people are concerned about survival, those who grow up in abundance will hunger for self expression.” And the lucky ones will find it.

    “metaphysically fearful…apocalyptic… haemorrhaging children….apocalypse…explode…chaotic anxiety…in actuality.” Actually would have been fine.)
    “Education is presumed to nurture an appreciation of diversity. The more schooling, the greater the respect for works of literature and art, different cultures and various types of music. Certainly, well-educated Americans see themselves as worldly, nuanced, and comfortable with difference. Education also should make us curious about- even eager to hear- different political points of view. But it doesn’t. The more educated Americans become- and the richer- the less likely they are to discuss politics with those who have different points of view.”

    Startled? Didn’t think so, only when your head dropped into your chest and woke you up.
    “disconcertingly white”, “bohemian”, “Fiscal damage”, “bourgeois”, “nuanced”, “fiduciary meritocratic yoke”and ”self actualiZed”,
    Anyone who uses that sort of language should not be trusted. It made my toes curl. Briggs, I’m glad you don’t write the way that article was written. It exuded all that it pretended to dislike.

    By far the easiest company is the upper class, this would be followed by the lowest class. Then the working class And on up to the labelled four wheeled drivers who live a throw away lifestyle,; buying in Christmas, like it were a take away, and buying tickets to Palaces for charity events where they must be seen paying silly money for items they don’t want.
    In fact, to be fair, the idea of class structure is a little over simplified, as I believe we all fall into groups defined by manner or values.
    Farmers, Vicars, local pillars of smaller communities generally mix well with lords and Ladies and are often friends. Birds of a feather flock together. It’s not about money. If it were,, we could draw a graph and be done, or someone could.

    Jaws software must be upper class, it reads ‘patina’ the ’American English’ way, unfortunately, it joins the ‘t’ and the ‘n’ as if there’s only half an ‘i’. It’s being it’s usual pretentious self.
    Maybe it’s self actualiZed.
    There’s no such word as actualiZed! Stop making up unnecessarialaciousitudes.

  4. jae

    Is this guy related to Miss Manners?

  5. Briggs


    Fussell talked about Miss Manners, Ann Landers and the like. He said that those that produced guides of proper behavior were a modern invention aimed that the middle-class in order to take the place of the known rules of class behaviors that are implicitly or openly known in other cultures, such as in England.


    I grew up in what Fussell would probably classify as a mid-prole “home” (not house; that, we now know, is reserved for the higher classes). I always felt we were a pretty friendly bunch.

  6. Andrew

    “Those at the apex never earn their money, nor do inhabitants of the nadir. Both groups are rare and avoid public notice, and are thus difficult to study.”

    So how do we know there really are invisible super rich who don’t earn their money? Is it the same way we “know” there are evil spirits who plague us with illnesses?

  7. Doug M

    The description of the “top tier” reminds me of all the bullshit in the from the “Official Preppy Handbook” published about the same time.

    All Americans think of themselves as middle class regardless of how much money they have, or the pigeon holes that others want to put them into. If you work for a living, you are middle class. The “out of sight” in America are never too far removed from some middle class fellow who built the family fortune. Children are never too far removed from the class associations of their parrents.

    That doesn’t mean that class distinctions don’t necessarily exist, but that people are willfully oblivious to them.

    Those at the apex usually do earn some of their money, frequenly running grandfather’s bank, but just as often using the freedom of wealth the create the business they would like to have.

    Purple is a very snotty color. The up-scale the man, the more color he will have in his wardrobe.

  8. JH

    Here are the opening scenes from the well-known PBS documentary People Like Us: Social Class in America.

    “It’s basically against the American principle to belong to a class. So naturally, Americans have a really hard time talking about the class system, because they really don’t want to admit that the class system exists.” ~R. Couri Hay, society columnist

    It exists, and we really don’t need any training to find evidence of it. We can choose to ignore it though.

    I have recently become interested in how the modernization and capitalism in China affect its social strata after reading an article about one of China’s richest families, Liu family. Now, I am wondering how the Chinese social system will be in, say, 10 years. How will it be compared to the one described in this book? Hmmm.

  9. jae

    One problem with all these analyses is that the CHILDREN of all the “classes” don’t fit in with their parents’ respective class. Kids all suffer from the desire to “puke in their hair to BE someone.” So, in America, you can easily have “bottom out-of-sight” interacting with “top out-of-site.” Which is healthy, no?

  10. Briggs


    Difficult, but not impossible, to study.


    Fussell claims that the Uppers run daddy’s bank, but that the Top out-of-sights do very little and aren’t much interested in work of any kind. There are occasional aberrations, like jae suggests: children who want celebrity, for example, or those that become political, but it is rare.




    Well, China has always had a hierarchy with the leaders and their ways being inscrutable. How does one become a top party member? Inheritance? Intrigue? The more capitalist, and free, China becomes, the more it appears like us.

  11. stan

    I would suggest that it’s really about breeding and manners. Those with manners teach their children that money and class are distractions for those with wisdom. They are also clued in enough to explain to their kids that not all people are so enlightened. So they make sure that their kids understand how to move freely and seamlessly among those who have their noses up their asses.

    I always thought that class was the ability to be genuinely comfortable whether playing hoops at the inner city rec center or attending an exclusive debutante ball. Whether lunching at the Ivy faculty club, the union hall, the american legion post, or a BBQ/soul food stand.

  12. Joy

    We were middle class. You were posh!
    I was sent away to a boarding school at eleven that was old style upper class in its approach. It was a privileged education. I loved it though it was hard to adjust from playing out on my bike on the street to having to behave like a lady ready for the garden party and being ‘shown’ to important people, as did happen, being a local ‘good cause’. “Our girls have such poise”

    No sliding down the temptingly long banisters,
    No ‘borrowing’ a tandem from the bike shed and taking a friend out for a ride,
    No riding in the trunk lift, or putting a friend in,
    No eating in the main dining room until one’s table manners are refined by the scary housemother.
    No quick trips to the sweet shop before prep before one has gained one’s first privileges, and then, only after lunch or at weekends, no matter that you know the way off by heart;
    or peering over the banisters to stare at the tall creatures invited to the ‘senior disco’ from carefully selected local public schools when one is supposed to be in bed at nine thirty.
    Nor anything that would not please my dear head mistress which, for a time, left me stumped for what to do, I never broke the same rule twice. That would have been naughty. (Except the banister.)

    How many sturgeons were killed in the making of that programme?

    All nations have different ideas of class, but it’s there.
    Purple suits not really associated with class.
    In Europe, purple was a very expensive dye, obtained from seashells and very rare, as was black. It was reserved, therefore, for rich people, men of the cloth and the Emperor. Imagine that, an Emperor in purple. This is how, I’m told, it acquired regal association, was used in velvets for cloaks and crowns. Maybe this is why it’s still seems odd for a man to wear it.

    The only two words that rhyme with purple in the English language are..

  13. ZK

    Describing the Xs with “More evidence is if she wears a knit skull cap, dresses down, sports an Obama decoration, drives a hybrid, eschews makeup, or boasts of shopping at Whole Foods to buy “organic” food.” ……

    You left off the latest pretentious characteristic— describes her pet as a “shelter dog”.

  14. Doug M

    On the idle rich — the days of the anti-bellum plantation, where the property produces sufficient income, are behind us. Club dues, boarding school tuition and philanthropic commitments add up. Someone has to pay for the maintenance of the apartment in the city and the house in the country. The rising cost of living well consistently outpaces the cost of living. With the estate tax, no one has the inheritance to live the lifestyle and leave enough behind that his children can do the same.

    I have known some “uppers” born to high-achievers, who rejected the achiever’s trip. They became poets, playwrights and academics. They wouldn’t consider themselves idle, but someone from achiever-land might. They have the manners, and the wardrobe. Despite being raised in the country club lifestyle, they are not interested in it for themselves. I don’t think they or anyone else would call them “top out of sight.” “Bohemian” better describes their class associations.

    Digression – bohemian – I associate the word with the most exclusive gentlemen’s club (not the kind with strippers) in California. Bohemia is alternately, a satanic cult, an arm of the Illuminati, the man-behind-the-man of the Republican Party, or a group of rich bastards that like to get drunk and go camping. Bohemians tend to be captains of industry, national politicians and musicians. Membership includes: George Shuts, George Bush the elder (I don’t know about Bushy), Henry Kissinger, Walter Cronkite and Bob Weir of the Grateful Dead. If you wonder what Papa Bush and Bob Weir talk about, I hear that magical mushrooms were a topic of conversation.

    Purple – New York and Palm Beach are more vibrant then other centres of snobbery. Bostonians will go for Nantucket red and madras plaid. The west coast is pretty sedate. There is less color then their used to be. Shep Miller closed his shop on the corner of Job’s lane and Main St. But, from the 40’s to the 80’s he set the standard of fashionable dress in “the Hamptons.” Shep sold every color of the easter-egg, including the shades between ultra-marine and lavender, but not missing Barney-the-dinosaur purple. Along with Shep, Lilly had a broad palette. My father wears a pair of Lilly trousers covered with of pink and purple tigers. He has a similar pair, but the tigers are yellow and orange, and the fabric is corduroy. I would date these slacks to some time in the late 1970’s. Lilly closed her line in the ‘80’s but has since revived it. Ms. Pultizer’s current color palette is not quite as outrageous as it used to be. While there may not be so much color for sale in these resort towns, plenty of vintage items are still about on this score.

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