Monday, August 27, 2007 • 7:49 AM Comments (18)

When a bedskirt is more than just a bedskirt: Thoughts on class, marital discord, and the fear of falling

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For the last six months or so my wife and I have been having a low-level argument about whether or not we should put a bedskirt on the bed in our guest room (pictured above). My wife’s argument can be summarized thusly:

The metal bed frame is cheap, and the box spring is pretty tattered looking, and if you don’t mask the cheapness and tattered-ness of the frame and box spring with a skirt, then we look cheap and tattered.
My argument can be summarized as follows:
Bedskirts look cheesy. They’re a lot of unstructured fabric, and they’re ruffly, and I’d rather have the clean uncluttered shabby chic of the frame and box spring visible than look like the kind of people who use bedskirts.
We could, of course, just buy the kind of bed frame that envelops the box spring in its frame-ness and therefore mitigates the need for a bedskirt altogether—which is the set-up we have in our bedroom—but that’s expensive, and both of us are just cheap enough that we’d rather fight it out over the bedskirt than just pay for a new bed.

The bedskirt, of course, is more than just a bedskirt. It’s a site of the clash between our different class anxieties. It’s one of the ways that we negotiate the different places we come from and the different class values and aesthetics we’ve inherited.

I was raised in a home that straddled the line between middle and upper-middle class. We had the income of the middle class, but many of the status markers of the upper middle: mysterious assets, expensive educations, Jewish minimalist taste, lefty-intellectual cred, etc. A cheap metal bed frame and visible box spring remind me of my dorm rooms at Yale, of my parents’ house, of what it looks like when people with class and money haven’t quite gotten around to fixing the place up yet. I don’t even consider that someone might think it looks low class, because how could anyone possibly mistake me for low class?

The bedskirt, however, stokes my deepest class anxiety—that I might be perceived as too middle-middleclass, too bourgeois, too middle America, too middle.*

My wife was raised in a middle (gradually ascending toward upper-middle) class home that had some lingering attachments to the lower-middle and working classes. For her it’s the shabbiness of the uncovered bed frame and box spring—the possible symptoms of trashiness—that push the class insecurity buttons.

Class is a difficult subject to talk about for many reasons. We flatter ourselves that we’re a classless society, or at least that class is just one, relatively insignificant tile in the glorious mosaic of characteristics, loyalties and categories out of which we constitute our identities. Yet in part because of our (arguably egalitarian) desire not to focus too much attention on class, we don’t know how to talk about it bluntly without accidentally saying the wrong thing and offending someone’s sensibilities. Further compounding the difficulty is that class anthropology, in America, can be pretty complicated; I’m certainly classier than Donald Trump, for example, but it wouldn’t make any sense to say that I’m more upper class than he is.

Arguing over a bedskirt might seem trivial, but it’s part of a larger conflict that’s one of the substantial conflicts of my marriage, and, I would argue, of most marriages – how are we going to present ourselves, as a family, to the world? What cars will we buy? What prints will we frame and put on the walls of our home? What linens will we choose? How will we dress our daughter (exclusively in Baby Gap, natch). What wine should we bring to a dinner party? What records will we play for our kids. What bumper stickers will we put on our car.

My wife and I—who first met at prep school—are in fact much closer to each other on a lot of these issues than it often seems to us from inside the marriage. We’d never put our daughter in a shirt that says “Mommy’s Little Princess.” Our next car will be a Honda, or a Subaru, or a Volkswagen. We buy lots of organic produce at Whole Foods. We live in Austin, Texas, which has one of the highest hipster quotients in the continental US. We’re Bobos— bourgeois bohemians—as David Brooks called us in his book Bobos in Paradise.

And all these choices of taste, all of these primarily consumer decisions, are ways that we signal to the world that we want to be recognized, and treated, in a certain way, and that we absolutely don’t want to be treated in certain other ways (like the middle-middle class, like white trash, like the working class). They’re ways of contending with our insecurity, our “fear of falling,” as Barbara Ehrenreich puts it in her book Fear of Falling: The Inner Life of the Middle Class.

It’s sad, perhaps, that we feel the need to worry so much about establishing our bona fides out of the stuff of consumerism, but I’d also suggest that such anxiety is an almost unavoidable condition in a culture like ours, which is so dynamic, consumeristic, insecure, democratic and alienated.

We’re not doomed, however, to be un-self-aware about it. We’re not doomed to let politicians and demagogues manipulate us with subtle exploitation of our class insecurities. And we’re not doomed to be embarrassed talking about it.

*I realize, by the way, that I might be totally cracked in my perception of the class connotations of the bedskirt (my wife thinks as much); the point is that I perceive it as déclassé, and that I view the world through a class lens alert to the dangers of being associated too closely with such an aesthetic.

--Daniel Oppenheimer, Writer and co-founder of Masculinity and its Discontents.

Comments (18)
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Dan, you found the exact photo I was going to use you had you not managed to do it yourself. I applaud you.

Obligatory class-disclosure: I am from a working class family (mother an elementary school teacher, step-father had a string of unfulfilling non-professional jobs until he secured a mid-management position in a local, high-tech manufacturing company) that struggled with money throughout my childhood. My family background is firmly rooted in New England hickdom. I'm guessing this background is not obvious to people I meet today, but I may flatter myself in this regard. I have little insecurity about my class presentation; I am confident that I won't be sneered at because I speak well and know how to be polite, and I wear the pan-class casual uniform of the Valley.

Something I've been thinking about for awhile, that you mention above, is the idea that class-identification tells us how to treat each other. A friend of mine once said, "We always want to know how much money others have so that we'll know how to treat them." I pondered this and couldn't quite believe that I would treat people with less money differently than people with more. But I admit, while I don't feel that I am rude to people who show markers of having little means, I certainly give deference (displayed by a certain reticence and quietness) to those whom I assume have a lot of money. I also resent them and assume that they have all sorts of arrogant blind spots that I lack.

I'm married to someone who is my class superior, but he grew up feeling anxieties and pressures about not having what his peers had. It took him awhile to cop to the fact that because he got a significant amount of financial support from his parents to attend college, he was privileged. I remember well our "I grew up poorer and in more of a crappy house than you" arguments. But this difference doesn't seem to manifest itself now . . . we don't have arguments about decor or style (because he defers to me in this area?).

It seems a bit feeble to respond at length with nothing but a personal statement about my own comprehension of my status, but it also seems like the only way to grapple with class issues. Maybe there should be different 12-step programs for people from various classes, just so they have the opportunity to self-identify and confess their own difficult to control tendencies in regard to spending habits and behavior. Like, "I'm Hayley, and I'm from a lower-middle class family but striving to pass as an upper-middle class adult. I found myself buying $200 shoes I can't afford today in an effort to secure my adult class status."
Posted by Hayley on 8.27.07 at 6:44
I haven't quite thought this all through, but I think what I meant, when I talked about how we'd like to be treated, isn't so much that I expect a certain deference, but rather that I want to be recognized as coming from a certain class background. I want people to be comfortable talking about their fancy educations because they recognize, when talking to me, that I have one too. I want them to be able to talk about the loveliness of hardwood floors because they recognize that I presumably appreciate hardwood floors. I want them to recognize my good taste, my intellectual bona fides, my aspirations to more than just a materially satisfying life, etc.

Regarding something else you said, Hayley, about your "pan-class casual uniform of the Valley," I have to interject a note of skepticism. I think the Valley flatters itself that there's a pan-class uniform that obscures all class distinctions. I can often tell the difference between the casualness of the Smith professor who livs in NoHo and the casualness of the social worker who lives in Greenfield. What is true, I think, is that the upper-middle-class Valley uniform is pretty easy to master, if you're interested in mastering it and willing to shell out for the better class of natural fibers.
Posted by Dan on 8.27.07 at 7:11
OK, I knew I was a bit vulnerable for the "pan-class casual" clothing reference. People in Northampton generally avoid a corporate crispness (only the lawyers seem to wear shirts pressed at the dry-cleaner's), and linen tends to dominate. Of course that linen costs good money, as do the Dansko clogs (I'm wearing a linen skirt and Dansko sandals as I write), and the affluent-casual people of Northampton look different from the less-affluent casual people in nearby communities, as you suggest. They are not trying to eradicate class distinctions, but to exercise and demonstrate freedom from other constraining uniforms.
Posted by Hayley on 8.27.07 at 7:50
it's definitely all about the linen
Posted by Dan on 8.27.07 at 8:21
I had to take off my shirt just now to verify that it is, indeed, linen. But then, I don't live in Northampton.

IKEA is a wonderful neutralizer for my own domestic bedskirt-like kerfuffles. In my case, there is less friction on decorative taste being upscale or downscale and more friction surrounding whether renovation projects should remain perpetually incomplete, or whether we might actually want to finish them off. I've often attributed that difference of comfort level more to Myers Briggs personality type and sheer time constraints than to class background, but it's all connected.

I also think there is something here about creative people and the making of statements in the home of one kind or another - whether about one's uniqueness, one's slackertude, or one's proper maintenance of things, fitting in somehow. My husband, a graphic designer and web programmer, is obsessed with "clean lines" and taking things apart to put them back together again, creating beautiful messes. He seems to love the nature of the incomplete. My daughter claims to "love clutter" because it makes her feel at home (maybe because her mother is constantly trying to purge clutter everywhere else). I claim to purge clutter but when I look around, and really think about it, clutter reminds my distracted brain what it should be doing or thinking about; it keeps me feeling creative, whereas emptiness helps me feel at peace. A mass-produced bedskirt on my bed would probably make me feel stuffily proper and conformist; my custom-made platform bed (which won't accept a bedskirt - we tried once, when one came with a comforter cover we bought) crafted by my father-in-law makes me feel proud to be part of such an artistic and capable-with-its-hands kind of family. That's where I find a bit of freedom, in that uniqueness, which does also come with a bit of a mess (which we can then try to stuff away in our cheap IKEA storage furnishings).
Posted by Heather B on 8.27.07 at 13:31
Uniqueness and creativity. I like to think that the urge to create a specific kind of space--and the display of certain loved objects--transcends class analysis, or at least adds a special wild-card of personality that truly is about expression and not about displaying a class alliance.
Posted by Hayley on 8.28.07 at 5:24
well, not that I question that genuine creativity and expressiveness is at the heart of your communal family endeavor, Heather, but it is worth noting that "clean lines" and artfully disheveled messes and an anti-mass production ethos are not just aesthetic and political considerations (though they are certainly that), they also bear with them very distinct class connotations, as does, for example, linen.

I don't want to be overly cynical about this, and of course you're right, Hayley, that we're not just the sum of our class alliances. My point, though, is that the class stuff is almost always there as well, in ways subtle and occasionally not-so-subtle. I made a joke to someone the other day that in the environs in which I was raised (i'm looking at you, progressive community in western Mass), hardwood floors were considered a statement of progressive principle. An exaggeration, sure, but I think it's true that these things are bound up in ways that most people are unwilling to acknowledge.
Posted by Dan on 8.28.07 at 6:20
I grew up working class/middle class (dad is a truck driver, mom is a school teacher) and my boyfriend grew up upwardly-mobile - both of his parents were the first in their family to go to college, he grew up in a nice middle class suburb, etc. One thing that I've noticed is that he seems to feel that working-class style is more masculine. He likes to mow the lawn with the push mower and lift weights because it makes callouses on his hands, for example, and he's inordinately proud of his stint moving furniture (my dad, on the other hand, likes to mention his brief office jobs but never talks about his furniture-moving days.) That said, here's our box-spring-covering solution; an extra fitted sheet. Not ruffly, but not bare. And it came from the thrift store. So it says "We are cheap but tidy." Which is a middle-middle attitude if I ever heard one.
Posted by Rosa on 8.28.07 at 7:58
Interesting point, Rosa, about how often it's the people who are one generation removed from doing manual labor to earn a living who make a kind of cult around manual labor. People who actually lift things all day long, week after week, year after year, probably are more than happy to have a self-propelled lawn mower.

I think one of the reasons that I'm so insistent on being honest about one's class status is that it's one of the ways that we can free ourselves from the contortions of pretending we're something different than we are. And the freer we are from those contortions and illusions, the harder it is for politicians and the media to flatter us, pander to us, or manipulate us in destructive ways.

Exhibit A in this argument, of course, has to be the current president, who could only sell successfully sell himself as a regular joe to a nation that was totally mixed up about class.
Posted by Dan on 8.28.07 at 8:14
I can't wrap my mind around even the notion of class. It strikes me as a kind of group think arising out of an unhealthy preoccupaiion with what other people think. If someone were to tell me to do, or not do, something based on the concept of class, my simple reply would be:
FUCK YOU I DO WHAT I WANT!
Posted by tom on 8.28.07 at 8:47
While the class discussion is certainly interesting, that bed needs a bedskirt. They make ones that aren't ruffled now. Without it, it looks really low rent, and maybe that's fine, but I would be embarrassed to have guests sleep there unless you are currently in college. You have a guest room. Get a bedskirt. The extra fitted sheet was a good better-than-nothing suggestion. In case it's relevant, I grew up firmly middle class, currently more like lower middle class. And I have an unruffled bed skirt covering my box spring.
Posted by lizriz on 8.28.07 at 11:27
I am not sure what about this column makes my skin crawl, but it sure is crawling.
Posted by H on 8.28.07 at 11:28
Well, yeesh, H, you can't just accuse me of making your skin crawl and not back it up with some explanation (I suppose you can, but it seems unfair).

Re: lizriz's comment, you may be right. My point, however, stands, which is that even if you are right, and it looks low rent, it still doesn't push my class buttoms because I just don't have much anxiety that I'll be perceived as low rent. That fear just wasn't on the radar when my sense of class anxiety was being nurtured. And there's nothing about a cheap looking bed that screams out conformist middle-class, which is what I am anxious about. Thus it's better (I'm using "better" in a very narrow sense) to look cheap than to look middle-conformist.

And just to reiterate once again, I don't think that any of this reflects particularly well on me, but I also don't think it reflects all that badly either. My contention is that most of us are making these kinds of calculations, and the exceptions probably aren't the ones who look a certain way (the linen-wearers, for example), but rather the ones who don't have any kind of coherent look at all.
Posted by Dan on 8.28.07 at 12:50
Sometimes I look around my house and try to imagine it from the point of view of an early Soviet era communist. I identify the objects that are decadent and bourgeois. I also think about nurturing an aesthetic that values living with less, and living intelligently in a smaller space. Like Dan resisting the look of middle-class conformity, I would bristle at being perceived as a "more and bigger is better" type of consumer (hi, Dad). But this is all from the point of view of someone with more than enough, for whom it would be actual work to have less. That is a privileged perspective, as is Dan's.
Posted by Hayley Wood on 8.28.07 at 13:03
Have you been to this site yet? http://www.classactionnet.org/index.php It has lots of links and book recommendations to issues on class and how it permeates our thinking and our realities. I also highly recommend the fitted sheet solution. I've been using it for years in my middle class household because if I didn't big class buttons would be pushed. Weird, but awareness is good?
Posted by Janel on 8.29.07 at 13:18
"one generation removed from manual labor" I do think it's partly class-based, it comes from the common attitude of blue-collar workers that bosses are sissies. But I think there's a lot of longing for belonging, too. When people shift classes they lose a lot of connections. There's a gulf between my boyfriend the office worker and his grandfather, the retired brewery worker, that's almost too wide to reach over. It's worse when you're the kid whose parents work at the plant to put you through college; you end up in this whole other world, one that does not value where you came from. It's painful. I have a friend who worked her way into really rarified circles. She was one of the first in her family to go to college. It was a HUGE accomplishment. But the people she's around now all look down on the state college she went to and say things like "You're so smart, I assumed you went to [name ivy league schools].
Posted by Rosa on 8.30.07 at 20:35
Bedskirt: yuck. I guess I've been lucky to avoid that argument with my wife thus far because we have a futon in our guest bedroom. However, we definitely differ on the presentation of our house for guests and how we are perceived. Our house, which we bought as a fixer-upper, remains a long-term project. She sees some of the yet-to-be-fixed parts as "white trash," a term that makes me nervous because of my family connections to what might be perceived as rural squalor. This despite the fact (or, perhaps, because of it) that I grew up in a comfortable suburban environment. On another thread in these comments: there is perhaps an entire article in there on class in the Valley and the particular mythology that the Valley likes to tell itself about its post-class uniform.
Posted by Andrew on 8.31.07 at 6:00
oh, I made my wife get rid of the futon, although I think that's less a class thing than just a "clean lines" thing, although maybe "clean lines" is a class thing. I don't know.

and I agree, there is a story to be written about the Valley''s post-class uniform, though I don't know who the right person to tell it is.

And Rosa, that's an interesting point about how ascending in class status can leave someone feeling cut off from a sense of belonging. I guess it doesn't occur to me because, even though there's some definite class ascension in my family's recent history, we have an almost untainted legacy of moderate-to-considerable alienation, which comes, pretty much, from our Jewishness. I don't even have a one-generation removed sense of what it would be like to feel really integrated into a larger culture or community (as opposed to, say, a community of students, where I feel very comfortable).
Posted by Dan on 8.31.07 at 13:03
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