by David Chadwick
April 26, 2016
A feather in your cap.
To give someone a dressing down.
To put somebody in their place.
Getting ideas above your station.
Heard one of those phrases? Then you are living proof that class lingers on in twenty-first century Britain. Each one smacks of Feudalism.
The relationship between class and clothes is a particularly British phenomenon, dating back to the days of Chaucer. The cut of your cloth has always mattered here.
Never was this truer than in the 16th Century, when to preserve their position in the social order, the Elizabethan aristocracy enforced legislation called the Sumptuary Laws to put the rising merchant classes in their place.
The Sumptuary Laws reinforced social divisions by governing what a person could eat, wear, and even be, based on their class.
A king could eat 24 dishes at dinner and wear the colours of his choice.
A noble could eat 16 dishes but the only purple he could wear was on his garters.
Meanwhile a peasant found outside his parish of birth without a job could be tied up and flogged.
Shakespeare’s theatres posed a threat too, as it was thought that allowing commoners to dress freely would give them ideas above their station and so threaten the social order. Shakespeare’s own uncle once forgot to wear his cap to church one day and was duly fined—every male who was not a gentleman had to wear one. Of course, only an Oxbridge graduate could be a gentleman.
Yet class continues to divide British society.
Unlike in continental Europe, Britain’s aristocratic ruling elites were never entirely swept aside by war or revolution.
Our language, our names, our politics, our schools, our universities, even our careers all carry connotations of class.
And Capitalism is the only force capable of smashing down those barriers.
Take clothing, think of the current fashion trend for Tweed blazers and Barbour jackets – once the uniform of the British upper classes. As the cast of Geordie Shore will attest, for the first time in British history, people from all walks in life can now realistically afford to don the clothes of their choice rather than the costume of their rank. Capitalism facilitated this by putting the powers of production and distribution into the hands of private owners.
The benefits are apparent in the costs of food too. Between 1541 and 1582 cheese on average cost one penny a pound (453 grams). Labourers earned 6 ½ pence for a day’s work. Considering that a day’s work could last up to 18 hours, workers had to slog away for up to three hours to earn their cheese. Today the average cost of cheese per pound is £2.96. So a labourer earning the minimum wage (£6.70) has to work for less than half an hour to afford that same pound of cheese.
Ultimately class will not be banished by giving out handouts. Asset enhancement is the more efficient and progressive method. By mastering the forces of individual enterprise and ambition, providing individuals with the greatest liberty of choices, capitalism can bludgeon class into the nether region it belongs.
— This article originally appeared at the Foundation for Economic Education.