Spending this last week in Denver has been a crash course in what I no longer know about American culture. It has moved fast in the 5 years I have been away, seemingly faster than in any 5 years of my adult life. I started this post a month ago but it seems even more appropriate now.
Matchbox miniature class
It was my favorite toy car – Platinum Grey (grey with an “e,” like the earl) and a daring classic red interior.
It was a boxy, frumpy little thing, but to 7-year-old me it just said “class” in every contour.
It seems to me now that “class” is a word which automatically locates the speaker below the object being spoken of, in terms of said class, and it’s true that even as a child, I already knew with reasonable certainty that I would never have a real Rolls-Royce. But as a wise friend once paraphrased Thorsten Veblen: “If the masses can’t play polo, you can always sell them Polo shirts.”
My Phanton IV was my little piece of Conspicuous-Consumption. An upgrade in the toy box.
The thing is, class may seem “classic” but in fact is highly mutable over time. I speak not just of my own ideals of class and good taste over time, but the dominant available tastes themselves. Usually they are not replaced outright so much as co-opted, migrated.
I don’t think any child now would be attracted to my little gray Matchbox car any more than a wealthy adult for reasons of comfort or respect would want to shell out hundreds of thousands for a 40-year old Rolls. People do that, but it’s for different reasons. Times have changed. A kid now would be more likely to cotton to a copy of Cars-2 Movie Game, or whatnot I do not presume to guess.
The currency of beauty, and of classiness, has changed in my native culture, but even moreso in the cultures abroad which have adopted and adapted the trappings and status symbols of my culture as their own financial fortunes rise.
The definition of “the best,” that is, has been pulled out from under us. We are not just old-fashioned but outdated.
Have you seen the New Rolls-Royce Phantom called “Serenity”? It is hard to miss – baby blue (the intention was celadon, I expect) and printed with what can only be described as a spray of tattoo-art cherry blossoms on the doors and ceiling.
There is also a new Rolls called the “Maharaja.” Another, the “Metropolitan,” features Burj-like skyscraper cityscape murals in rich wood inlay. The “Al-Adiyat” series is made to seduce the Persian-Gulf market. It says so on the label.
You get the trend. I might call it tacky, but it caters to a very specific new uber-wealthy class.
Add to this that almost every haute-couture brand in France has been bought out by foreign Eastern interests, and headlines like “Asia is Tiffany’s brightest diamond,” and it is apparent that we are entering a world where the symbols of wealth and status are not only appropriated by cultures which did not invent them, but they are being redefined by those cultures.
We in the West are not the center of taste, nor even the tastemakers, any more. Like Lady Grantham in Downton Abbey, no one cares what we think is cool or tacky anymore. The chateau has been sold. We are not where the money is.
An old story
Of course we didn’t invent the function of markers of status and wealth, and certainly not the function of class distinctions. We inherited those in the first place from Ancien-Régime old-boy types somewhere in other empires back in the past.
Imagine how the English felt about “tacky” American ascendancy a century ago, buying up all their fine woolens and berths on the QE2 and golf balls and Scotch and luxury cars. The crass Americans. And now look at us! Proper gentlemen in our day.
On second thought, maybe we are the worst example not of the rise of other cultures to new heights but of the dragging down of inherited haute-couture to our low level, not in a democratization, but in an degraded ersatz of the distinctions.
I am curious to see where the new Eastward-blowing trends lead.
It turns out that my Rolls-Royce Phantom VI was manufactured by a Japanese company called Tomica in 1976. I just looked it up. It was a brand imitating the success of British brand Matchbox and American Hot Wheels, but trying to outflank them by reproducing luxury brands of a “higher class.” (They also tried heavy industrial machinery to capture the other extreme end of the market, apparently.)
My Phantom IV was already an ersatz of an ersatz of mid-century success when I came to this conversation. There is the point right there, writ large on a toy car. The markers are not only temporary, but always in flux. By the time they trickle down, the top has already shifted. By the time the masses wear Polo shirts, polo has ceased to be a leisure-class activity.
Also, if we do experience the most radical redefinitions of class and haute-couture in periods of the greatest wealth disparity, such as the Roman Empire or the Mughals or l’Ancien Régime or the British Empire, then we may be on the cusp of a true aesthetic revolution that will long outlast our day. Sadly that redefinition by nature tends to come a very long time before any other type of revolution.
I wonder if the people buying the Cherry Blossom “Serenity” arrived as fans of Rolls-Royce through Tomica, just as I did. It would explain much about the way things are going to look. But if this is classy, what is going to be tacky?
Photos of Rolls-Royce Serenity: http://www.evo.co.uk/