Not so long ago fashion was how society distinguished the rich from the poor, the urban from the rural. Now Mimi Spenceranalyses the modern trend in which those with new money feverishly buy couture and the well-heeled simply try to blend in with the rest of us.
Each time you get dressed - reaching for a jacket, rifling through the wardrobe for a pair of cigarette pants, wondering whether the white shirt has been pressed - you're making split-second, and quite profound, decisions about who you are. How you'll be seen. Your identity.
Years ago, people knew their place. They dressed their age, their class, their caste, kowtowing to subtle rules set in stone; the dress of the grand dames of court differed from the outfits of the wenches serving ale in the taverns. There was an at-a-glance recognition of status, right there, sewn into the seams of their petticoats.
Not any more. What's happened more recently in fashion has turned the age-old shibboleths of style and status on their heads. You're as likely to glimpse the scions of wealthy families wearing threadbare hand-me-downs as richly embroidered gowns, and further down-market? Chanel and Burberry sell to the masses, hooked now on conspicuous consumption and apeing the accoutrements of the elitist rich. What we've ended up with is an almighty stew, a topsy-turvy landscape of garbled messages. Getting dressed these days, it turns out, is harder than it looks.
The fact is, we've all of us shuffled into a lazy middle ground. Even the British prime minister - an old Etonian married to the daughter of a baronet - describes himself as a member of the "sharp-elbowed" middle class, and dresses accordingly, in off-duty Converse; he even threatened to wear a lounge suit to last year's Royal Wedding (incidentally, my builder got married last month and his entire family wore tails).
Meanwhile, his wife, Sam Cam, resolutely wears those L K Bennett shoes, the most middling of middle-market brands - even to meet the president of the United States for a state banquet, her classless shoes, devoid of personality, somehow reaching out to the newspaper-reading public and saying, in a reassuring twang: "S'OK, I'm one of you." She's not, of course; but that's not the point. She needs to look the part.
We're all classless now, you see. Everyone's got a cafetière. Everyone, upstairs and down, watches Downton Abbey. Technologies such as Twitter have brought the haves, the have-nots and the have-yachts into close contact in a way unthinkable only five years ago. I have Bill Gates, Richard Branson, the planet's super rich, plus a handful of toffs and nobs (and Stephen Fry) to wake me up with a Tweet each morning. I sometimes find out what they had for breakfast. No wonder we've convinced ourselves that we inhabit the same social space. No wonder there's a classless homogeneity, too, in the way we dress.
We may all have congregated in the amorphous middle, but, interestingly, society in Britain is emphatically not more egalitarian than it once was, despite the fact that the class debate has all but fizzled out; it remains the third least equal society in the developed world. Yet still, according to a recent survey, 71 per cent of people in the UK consider themselves middle class, up from 25 per cent a generation ago. Though some still admit to being working class, none claim to be upper class, not even the daughters of baronets. Which is just as well, since back in Blighty, we can't really afford our high-end statements of style any more. If anything, that joy belongs to another group entirely, fresh-faced newcomers in a class of their own.
In the flagship stores of Bond Street and Sloane Street, it is now spanking new money that is propping up the venerable old houses and their expensive array of hand-tooled leather goods. Much of it is first-generation wealth, money so new that is still has the wrapper on, money from people who, a mere generation ago, were working the fields back home. Now, these Chinese high-rollers sweep into town to blow £3,000 (Dh17,453) a day on their luxury-goods habit, welcomed by Mandarin-speaking staff and the rustle of renminbi in the till. UK sales to the Chinese soared by 89 per cent last year, according to the financial services company Global Blue UK. And what these welcome newcomers want is class. British class. Mulberry. Burberry. Aquascutum (just as they want Vuitton and Chanel in Paris, or Prada and Fendi in Milan). They are seduced by precisely the snob appeal that was once the preserve and the appearance of the landed gentry; they come for labels that breathe a subtle, heady cocktail of craftsmanship, history and patronage, the signifiers of wealth, a formula that has generated stellar returns for the country's classic fashion marques. Something similar is happening over at Land Rover, that cliché drive of British old money, its wheels spattered with mud from the family estate, its back seat thick with spaniel hair.
The Chinese are buying bling, too, shopping at Harrods for Swarovski-encrusted Louboutins, picking up a couple of Chanel GST bags for £1,500 a pop and throwing in a Burberry trench, bought on a whim with the change. As Linxin, a committed shopper from Fujian explained in an interview recently: "We spend one day in Selfridges, and the next at Harrods and Sloane Street... We have dinner out each night wearing our new purchases."
Adds the serious shopper Dana Howng from Taiwan: "I think nothing of spending £800 on a pair of shoes."
These women, with their finely attuned, internet-honed style antennae, want the latest limited-edition and exclusive products. They want the finest and the best, just as Russians, the Saudis and the big guns of hip-hop have in the past, plundering the insignia of old wealth - the diamonds, the vintage champagne, the butler and the Bentley - and making them their own, embracing the elitism that once belonged to our now-defunct upper class.
On the flip side, in suburban night spots and Manchester club queues, Saturday night usually sees a similar explosive, cash-splashing style; the laydeez wearing false eyelashes and YSL Tribute shoes, accessorised with It-bags and boob jobs and a familiar slavering label mania. What's fascinating is that the new Asian rich and the British "working classes" aspire to the same style: it's Essex, it's Towie, down to the lascivious lick of red on the soles of their shoes and the rhinestone bling on their smartphones.
So what about old money in this brash new world? Interestingly, these days, debs dress like plebs. The public-school accents surfing in Cornwall and drinking in Mahiki are now pure Mockney. Listen to Prince William. As Ben Trawick-Smith says on his blog: "When you hear William and Kate speak, her accent is (to my ears) more 'aristocratic sounding' than his... William's accent has quite a bit of Estuary English. If in a few decades we'll see a king who doesn't speak the Queen's English, then how much longer can this accent survive?"
How much longer for classic upper-crust style, too? While Prince Harry wears mass-market Jack Wills, Abercrombie or Hollister, while the Duchess of Cambridge opts for second-hand clothes, trawls the rails at Bicester Village and gets stuck in, like the rest of us, to internet flash sales, my babysitter turns up to work in her quilted navy Barbour jacket (worn with Ugg boots and ironed hair). She's saving for a Mulberry Alexa bag, and with £400 in the bank she's halfway there. Her chosen look is not a million miles from Pippa Middleton's, in her white jeans and fake tan. Nor, indeed, from the dress code for the wife of an Azerbaijani oligarch, house-hunting in the Cotswolds... How curious. How difficult to judge a book by its cover, and how challenging to dress appropriately yourself.
It's a long way, of course, from the days of the true Sloane. When the Official Sloane Handbook came out 30 years ago, you could spot money from a furlong: it came comfortably housed in tweed, with a reliable waxed jacket and a black Labrador. Girls wore pearls, box pleats, cardis and that odd shiny hosiery that gave them glossy fetlocks, the legs of a thoroughbred mare, though their fingernails generally had traces of lunch or horse-box beneath. One's reminded of the Camilla Parker Bowles story - apocryphal perhaps - that she would return from a day's hack and go straight to a ball without bothering to shower in between; back then, the upper-crust, unfazed by fashion, dressed in hand-me-down jerseys, moth-ridden cashmere and fray-collared (though monogrammed) shirts, worn with keen uninterest in the shambolic disarray of their draughty homes.
It was, of course, a look cultivated expressly to distinguish themselves from foreigners and parvenus. Funnily enough, this is precisely the lifestyle that the new rich of the world now aspire to. As one commentator puts it: "Russian oligarchs pay £60 an hour for Latin tutors, American bankers book shooting boxes in Wiltshire for £10,000 to stand in the rain". The irony is that proper old Sloanes can't afford their own way of life any more. Their stately piles - those draughty halls - are selling to the international jet-set, who install endless en suites with gilt taps and Jacuzzi tubs, digging out the hallowed foundations to make room for a shiny gym, a spa and a 52-seat cinema complex. And a walk-in wardrobe full of couture.
While there are still Grey Gardens eccentrics among the peers and titles of the land (I refer you to the 7th Marquess of Bath), their offspring are more likely to wear Nike than ancient cords and heirloom cravats. Today's Sloanes, if they exist at all, tend towards "Chessex style" - half Chelsea, half Essex, very Wag; look, for example, at Princesses Eugenie and Beatrice, in their clunking patent platforms, slightly too-short skirts and those ubiquitous fascinators. They look precisely, uncannily, like the hordes of women who descend on Ascot for Ladies Day each year, arriving on the train from the outer suburbs to drink champagne through straws and lose a shoe in the Royal Enclosure.
Remarkably, heiresses, hoorays and wannabes all wear the same uniform these days.
Take Paris Hilton: worth a fortune and dresses like an Ohio cheerleader. It started, one suspects, with Zara Phillips's tongue stud all those years ago, a simple silver shard that reached across the British class divide and sewed us all together, cheek to cheek. It left us perplexed, with no obvious uniform to express our culture or our class, high or low.
What we've ended up with, instead, is a style soup, murky and indistinct, a global gumbo. It raises the question of how any of us should best dress to express our experiences, our background, our social status - or if any of that really matters any more in our hyper-democratic, Twitter-fed, anything-goes world.
The rules of distinction have certainly changed. And getting dressed isn't any easier than it ever was, even if the white shirt is pressed, perfect and ready-to-go.
Top 10 modern subcultures
EMO While goths hate everyone and everything, the emo focuses on self-hatred. Over-emotional guitar rifts, scrawling "poetry" and wallowing in the modern world's barbarity are favoured
GOTH Finding beauty in the dark side of life, the gothic rock scene erupted in the 1980s. Commonly, an interest in 19th-century Gothic literature, horror films and often occultist themes are explored
FAUXHEMIAN Those who try to live the life of an individualist while maintaining a certain level of comfort
HIPSTER Everything is carefully selected in order to appear cool without any consideration for taste or enjoyment. Hipsters hate mainstream, yet are often surrounded by Apple products
JOCK The jock rides on his new-found popularity and enviable triceps while the real athlete doesn't notice. Most learn a lesson after school when they realise that the girls who used to adore them like successful types more
RAVER It was in the late 1950s in London that the term "rave" was used to describe the parties thrown by the Soho beatnik set. The term was popularised in the Eighties by the club scene culture
SLOANE Tend to spend much of their existence meandering around the King's Road - or better still, Sloane Square, an affluent part of London - dreaming of meeting a like-minded soul with a double-barrelled surname and foppish hair
TOWNIE Used in England as urban slang to describe a person who never leaves the town he is from. Townies travel in packs, often with monosyllabic names such as Kev or Baz
TRUSTAFARIAN Combines "trust fund" with "Rastafarian" to describe children of wealthy stock who try their hand at hippiedom as momentary escapism from their privileged upbringing
YUPPIE Informal for Young Urban Professional, coined in the 1980s during the financial boom to describe vain high-flyers with names that could be surnames, such as Spencer, Taylor or Hayden