Trumped up charges

Becky Sharp is a stereotype of social mobility which has a particular resonance to the design community. Hugh Pearman recommends we take a leaf out of her book.

Becky Sharp, the anti-heroine of Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, has collared a lot of press attention lately: because the turbo-charged Andrew Davies BBC screen adaptation of the novel, lamentable though it was, inevitably put a late 20th century spin on the character. What’s at issue here is the matter of “passing off”, or appearing to be what you aren’t.

Becky, remember, is a creature of lowly origins with no money, who gradually insinuates herself into the highest of high society in a vaguely disreputable way, leaving a trail of casualties behind her. She is unlike Daniel Defoe’s more flamboyant creation of Moll Flanders 125 years previously because Becky is very calculating in her actions, while Moll, though no angel, merely reacts to circumstances. Both were stereotypes at the time of writing and both are fully recognisable today.

Hence the spate of stories about today’s Becky-alikes, whether male or female. Those who hang out with rock stars get a lot of attention, inevitably, but what interested me more was a story in one of the papers, gleefully exposing people from middle-class state school backgrounds who assume the air of toffs. Among these was a fair scattering of that curious breed known as “style gurus”. All you need to do, it seems, is acquire a plummy accent and spend your money on expensive labels (if female) or bespoke clothes (if male). You can change your name, like Peter York, if you like, but you don’t have to. Then, simply take your newly acquired patrician mien and slightly camp delivery to the world of the Sloaney glossies, and thence to television. Ever after, you will be called upon as an arbiter of taste.

The first and greatest of these style gurus (apart from Beau Brummel, Oscar Wilde, etc) was undoubtedly Sir Roy Strong, once director of the Victoria and Albert Museum, but a darling of the glossies, in his Tommy Nutter suits, for years prior to that. Indeed, I think all his successors model themselves, consciously or otherwise, on him. From “humble” origins, usually provincial, to the languid drawl of the London aesthete seems to be a more or less instant transition. At first you are merely “doing a Becky” – massaging your own history in order to get on – but before very long the acting gets hammy. The constant rehearsing of bons mots to meet the hunger of the soundbite generation means that in no time at all, you tip over the edge into self-parody. Eventually you end up as – well, you know the people I mean.

What I find interesting is that these folk generally have an easier ride from press and public than, say, self-made business people, whom everyone dislikes – especially if they turn preachy. At least the business types do something for a living other than striking poses. They create jobs, they might sometimes even make things. But I find that latent snobbery conditions my responses too much in the other direction. To my eyes, for instance, the “style gurus” invariably give themselves away, not through the old tell-tale, their shoes (these are always impeccably Jermyn Street), but through their clothes. The tailoring may be immaculate, but they are always just a bit too flashy, too spivvish. Perfect, in fact, when reduced to the size of a TV screen.

Passing off? I know one critic who has fashioned an entire career out of disinformation about himself. You’d be amazed at the extraordinary things he has done in his life – until you find out he hasn’t. But such people only hit the headlines when they are apprehended trying to perform brain surgery or run a school – or run for ministerial office. By and large, we are a trusting lot, and if people present a reasonably plausible and consistent front, we don’t ask to see their degree certificates.

And this is very good news for designers and architects. The sculptor Sir Anthony Caro once wisely observed that all art is a con-trick. To which he might have added: all young designers must learn from Becky Sharp. No one will ever give you work unless you’ve designed something previously. No one will give you work of any substance if they know your studio consists of yourself, a pencil, a kettle, and a kitchen table shared with the cat. So you weave a little fiction around yourself. “I” becomes “we”. The pencil is boosted into a state-of-the-art CAD system. The kitchen table becomes by inference a cutting-edge atelier. You go to the prospective clients, they never come to you. And, of course, you dress the part and you DO have talent.

These little white lies serve a designer – any designer – very well, even when he or she really does, finally, become a big cheese. Because everyone has a project they really want to do, and have no experience in. By hook or by crook, you’ll get it. Good old Becky – she’s an inspiration to us all.

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