Nathalie Olah’s ‘Bad Taste’ Is a Real Class Act

From sourdough to Princess Diana, the author's new book explores what happens when our aesthetic values meet a class ceiling

BY Eliza Goodpasture in Books , Opinion | 10 NOV 23

As an art historian (and a Taurus, which might go without saying), a fascination with materiality is integral to my being. I spend a great deal of time thinking about stuff; buying it, wearing it, reading it. I also spend a lot of time admiring people whom I believe have good taste – a nebulous concept to be sure, but something that, if I can emulate it, will bring happiness and success. Right?

Nathalie Olah argues in her new book Bad Taste (2023) that the pursuit of ‘good taste’ has become the religion of late capitalist society. ‘Presentation is not only important to the outcome of a person’s life, but in many ways, paramount,’ she writes. It’s true – our world is so defined by aesthetic performance that it shapes our chances of success. Research shows that it is economically rational for women to strive for thinness to achieve professional success – not because this has any real impact on the work itself, but rather because it is considered tasteful and classy to be thin, and taste and class conformity matter.

Nathalie Olah, Bad Taste, 2023
Nathalie Olah, Bad Taste, 2023, book cover. Courtesy: Dialogue Books

Olah is the author of several books, including Steal As Much As You Can: How to Win the Culture Wars in an Age of Austerity (2019) and Class (2021). She points out early on in Bad Taste that taste and class have become almost synonymous descriptors of something one either has or does not. The blurriness of class categories – particularly in the UK, where Olah lives and works – and their increasing distance from income, mean that ‘having class’ is chiefly about aesthetics. But the way we perceive aesthetic choices is entirely entwined with wealth.

Tastefulness is often a requirement handed down to the lower classes.

In the chapter on homes, Olah refers to photos of King Charles III’s cluttered and dowdy drawing room as an example of the perception-shifting power of class. His room, which would probably be seen as tacky if it belonged to a working-class person, becomes old-fashioned and evokes old money because it belongs to the King. ‘Conformity to ideas of tastefulness is often a requirement handed down to the lower classes as a necessity for entry to the hall of financial security,’ Olah writes, ‘while the wealthy are free to live like pigs.’

Anna Delvey at fashion show
Anna Delvey, a con artist who posed as a wealthy heiress in New York, attends New York Fashion Week, 2023. Courtesy: Getty Images; photograph: Dominik Bindl

As she moves through four further chapters that explore tastes in fashion, beauty, food and leisure, Olah unpacks the ways in which objects, trends and cultural outputs are consistently guided by metrics of taste. Her examples run from Frasier (1993–2004) to Friends (1994–2004), sourdough to spaghetti, and Princess Diana to Anna Delvey, explaining that our insistence on placing value on distinctions will only ever reproduce the existing social order.

Bad Taste holds consumers and marketing executives equally responsible for perpetuating social stratification. It is this toxic dependency that makes it possible for me to buy a pair of silver Mary Jane shoes because I saw Alexa Chung wear them on Instagram, even as I am fully aware that my choices are governed by capitalism’s manipulation of taste.

So, how does one move through the world without entirely rejecting aesthetics and self-expression, however socially prescribed they may be? Olah’s excoriations don’t leave much space for personhood. In the world her book describes, taste is conformity; she never deigns to consider how much bearing free will has in shaping our intrinsic preferences.

Alexa Chung, 2019
Alexa Chung, 2019. Courtesy: Getty Images; photograph; Craig Barritt

Given how much Olah has written about fine art, it is a surprise the subject does not come up in this book. Including it might have helped ground her analysis of taste in a much longer historical arc, reminding readers that taste is more than Pierre Bourdieu’s theory of cultural capital (The Forms of Capital, 1986); it is also about changing perceptions of beauty and aesthetics. Olah, however, does concede for a moment: ‘as well as beauty being able to inspire a sense of wonder, the reverse might also be true – a sense of wonder, or happiness, might also open us up to the multiple and diverse forms of beauty that exist all around us.’

Perhaps the appreciation of multiple aspects of beauty is a way out of the binary trap of taste. But Olah’s critique without remedy leaves me where I first began – lost in a capitalist maze with nowhere else to go but back into the store wearing my silver Mary Janes.

Nathalie Olah's Bad Taste: Or the Politics of Ugliness is published by Dialogue Books

Main image: Leopard skin detail. Courtesy: Getty Images

Eliza Goodpasture is an art historian and writer.