Class conscious

Shortly after our marriage, my wife sent me off to buy a new toilet roll (or loo roll, as she calls it). So I walked into a shop and purchased one in an absent-minded sort of way. It happened to be orange - a fact I hadn't even noticed until my wife, upon having the offering presented to her, chucked it straight back to me. "Toilet roll," she sternly said, "is white."

She meant that middle-class toilet roll is white and, as she spoke, I thought of all those B&Bs I'd stayed in for £22 a night, which usually had . . . yes, it was all coming back to me, orange or green or pink toilet rolls, with a spare one wrapped in a crocheted cosy in the shape of a poodle.

Usually, the "en suite bathrooms" of which those B&Bs so proudly boasted (along with "tea- and coffee-making facilities in every room") were avocado green or some other colour clashing subtly with the bog roll. Rarely were they white, because not only is middle-class toilet roll white, so are middle-class toilets.

But it's a problem, this business of white. A snobbish friend once derided a mutual acquaintance of ours as "the sort of person who wears white shirts", meaning he was flash. According to Peter Opie, manager of the shirtmakers Hawes & Curtis ("just say that we're the Duke of Windsor's tailors"), white shirts are "all right for a Buckingham Palace investiture, otherwise they're a bit . . . over-reaching". And, Martin Bell please note, Opie added that very few other items of a man's wardrobe should be white. (Underpants are the obvious exception - they can't be too white.)

At Smythson's, stationers to the upper crust, they also equate white with brashness. Pale blue is the colour of truly smart stationery - a point rather rammed home at Smythson's, where it is always described as "Bond Street blue". Or at least that used to be the case but, according to the assistant I spoke to, white is increasingly popular - "it's the influence of minimalism". I asked whether Smythson's staff would deflect people from the faux pas of using white stationery and was told they probably would not. "We're changing our etiquette in line with customer demand," the assistant shamelessly told me.

This article first appeared in the 12 July 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Were chimps the first socialists?