April 19, 2013 6:55 pm

Of belts and breeding

The search for a new belt at an airport departure lounge leads to the identification of new social strata in Britain
An illustration depicting belts and breeding©Lucas Varela

As I wandered around the departure lounge I remembered what it was that I had forgotten. I had neglected to pack a belt. It was not, in the scheme of things, a catastrophe. There was no likelihood of what the tabloids term “wardrobe malfunction”.

But it was while I was working out what to do about it that I also stumbled upon the answer to something that had been bothering me since I read about a new study of class in Britain that purported to have identified seven new strata of society. This, then, is a saga of belts and breeding.

I was not worried. I was, surely, in the perfect place to buy a belt: an airport departure lounge full of clothes shops. But as I studied the names – Bally, Smythson, Harrods, Paul Smith – I began to harbour doubts. One thing was sure, my new belt was clearly going to be a band of exceptional quality. Even so, I was sceptical. There aren’t a lot of bragging rights in an item designed to hold up your trousers. Even if I were the type to boast, would I really point friends towards my groin and invite them to check out my Dunhill?

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Robert Shrimsley

But it was when I started checking the prices that I realised I had arrived in a parallel universe. The belts on offer were retailing for £160-£190. Where was a Tie Rack when you needed one? I have never been a great one for expensive brands, but I can at least see the point of a really well-made suit, a beautiful watch or even a ridiculously overpriced pair of women’s shoes so uncomfortable that the owners have to carry with them a cheap pair to walk about in. All these items get noticed; they can add significantly to one’s appearance.

But a belt? Perhaps if it were diamond-encrusted with a bling buckle that screamed “under DEA surveillance” then, just maybe, you could comprehend a high price. But these were fairly normal to look at. They may have had a logo but one would have to be on fairly intimate terms with the wearer to notice it. Doubtless these were belts of pedigree, taken from the softest flanks of the best-bred calves and lovingly hand-rubbed by artisans who massage the fetlocks of the Aga Khan’s stallions. But – and here’s the thing – they are still belts.

Clearly, there are people out there who pay these vast sums; men so MoneySupermarket.com that they want their waistline cradled by skin from the finest Black Angus pot roast. But I imagine them as carelessly wealthy, rather than profligate. I imagine them as Richard Gere in Pretty Woman, buying suits at an expensive tailor and throwing in a belt without worrying about the price. But these shops were aimed at those knowingly prepared to spend such a sum on a belt.

Earlier this month, the BBC invited us to try out a new class calculator to place ourselves in one of seven castes ranging from “the elite” to “the precariat”. I had been both chuffed and surprised to find myself officially part of the elite. I have a good job and I had a good education so I could see why this was but it didn’t feel quite right. Now, staring at belts so expensive they could keep a family on benefits for a week, I knew what the study had missed. In focusing on income, education, cultural pursuits and friends’ professions it had underplayed values and background. These may matter less than they once did but they still define one’s personality and outlook.

A true member of the elite would surely have bought the belt but, standing in the departure lounge, my middle-class mores kicked in and suddenly I could hear my parents exclaiming, “A hundred and sixty pounds for a belt? You can get one in M&S for £12.50.”

So perhaps the £160 belt is the missing question for the class calculator (admitting that the very poorest will not be flying at all). From this we can distil the new social categories: Gatwick late-night charter; Terminal 3 Pret and WH Smith; Premium Economy and a meal at Gordon Ramsay; Ryanair to a ski resort, Club lounge on business; Club lounge on your own dime; and, finally, First Class and “check out my Bally belt”.

robert.shrimsley@ft.com

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