Putting Status on Display: Taste and Distinction

     This week’s class discussion focused on concepts relating to status and display. We discussed works from Pierre Bourdieu, Thorstein Veblen and an investigative study conducted by Young Jee Han, Joseph Nunes, Xavier Dreze.
     In Thorstein Veblen’s The Theory of the Leisure Class, Veblen suggests that wealth provides a means of grouping and ranking members of society. Social status is awarded through evidence of possessions, the primary distinguisher of wealth. Desire for possessions stems from a desire to emulate a specific social class. As one’s social world expands, the importance of commoditized wealth becomes a key tool of display. (Veblen 24-25) Veblen coins the term conspicuous consumption in an effort to explain the acquisition and use of particular prestigious goods as a means of displaying ones wealth. Simple accumulation of excess wealth does not serve as enough evidence in the public sphere to solidify social standing; possessions of commodities are crucial. (Veblen 24; 44-46)
      Apparel is one of the easiest distinguishers of wealth given its visibility. Aside from physical possessions, Veblen claims that leisure time is the best evidence of wealth; a concept referred to as conspicuous leisure. Non-productive activities, such as hunting and painting, demarcate increasing levels of wealth. Another prime example of wealth is good breeding as evident through “refined tastes, manners, and habits of life.” (Veblen 31) Good breeding requires a certain degree of time and excess wealth in order to achieve such respected qualities and therefore serves as a distinguishing quality of the leisure class.
   
 Conspicuous Consumption: But Mom… All of the Girls at School Have at Least 5 Cartier Bracelets 
     Both conspicuous consumption and conspicuous leisure rely on the element of waste to “demonstrate the possession of wealth” (Veblen 53) This waste is conspicuous and void of utility. Conspicuous consumption and conspicuous leisure are both effective means to become socially stratified, however one can become more effective depending on the social context and or the people to whom the wealth is trying to be displayed. Social class contextualizes consumption habits and efforts to display wealth. “The accepted standard of expenditure in the community or in the class to which a person belongs largely determines what his standard of living will be.” (Veblen 68) Furthermore, it appears that people are more concerned with appearing to live decently within their social group rather than appearing superior to their peers.
     Conspicuous Waste: Money Ain’t No Thang
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     During class discussion, we examined modern-day leisure time activities and saw a positive correlation in the amount of equipment a sport required and its social prestige. This proved to be an interesting realization given Veblen’s stance on wealth as displayed through possessions. Discussion also focused in on personal pampering in the form of manicures and various other beauty regiments. Through the lens of Veblen’s theories, we found manicures to be an excellent example of a non-productive, leisure time activity that requires excess money and time to partake in. Furthermore, manicures are a visible indicator of leisure time and subsequently wealth. Veblen’s theory of conspicuous waste proved to be a topic of debate, causing us to recognize the importance of context and social class in the discussion.

     In Bourdieu’s Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste, he discusses the economy of cultural goods, and the way in which individuals use objects as well as immaterial tastes in order to distinguish their selves. He attributes specific tastes to one’s upbringing and education. This is to say that, people of different backgrounds place value upon different items and practices. Bourdieu extends his claim about the acquisition of taste by equating consumption to a process of communication. He posits that consumption requires an “act of decoding, which presupposes practical or explicit mastery of a cipher or code” (Bourdieu 2).  This is to say that, objects have no meaning with out the “cultural competence” to understand them. Therefore it is important to note the relationship between sight and knowledge. This relationship is evidenced by the French verbs voir (to see) and savoir (to know) in the sense that one cannot see what he or she does not know. As we discussed in class, certain consumers may not see the value in Patek Philippe’s understated timepieces because they are not as easily recognized as Rolex timepieces. While Patek Philippe watches range anywhere from $25,000 to $1,000,000 in the absence of knowledge, a Patek could be mistaken for a generic watch with a leather strap.
Understated Elegance: If you Don’t Know… Now you Know… Bottega Venteta
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     Bourdieu asserts that taste in itself is an instrument used to classify individuals. Namely, tastes perform the function of “legitimating social differences” (Bourdieu 7). For Bourdieu, both one’s taste in food and the body as a whole are indicative of one’s social standing. Specifically, the type of food that a man eats as well as the way in which he eats are both forms of distinction. Furthermore, the degree to which one’s physical appearance strays from nature constructs an “index of moral uprightness,” while a natural look is considered uncouth (Bourdieu 190-193). In essence, one’s practices and tastes define his or her self. In Bourdieu’s words “he ‘makes’ the opinion which makes him… and impose[s] his own objectification” (Bourdieu 208).

Taste is Transformative – “Laisser-Aller” (letting oneself go) vs. Moral Uprightness

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Young Jee Han, Joseph C. Nunes and Xavier Dreze’s comprehensive study, Signaling Status with Luxury Goods: The Role of Brand Prominence, looks at the way in which brand prominence relates to pricing, counterfeits and types of consumers. Brand prominence is best understood as the degree to which visible insignia denote a specific brand. For the purposes of this study, the researchers identified 4 types of consumers: Patricians, parvenus, poseurs and proletarians. Our in-class activity allowed us to break off into groups based on the consumer classifications and explore their consumption habits. Patricians are at the top of the consumer taxonomy, they do not consume in order to set themselves apart from other consumers, but rather to identify with other patricians. On the other hand, the term ‘parvenu’ classifies consumers that “crave status.” Parvenus are primarily concerned with communicating that they are better than the “have-nots” (17). Unlike the patricians and the parvenus, poseurs cannot afford to purchase luxury goods. Nevertheless, poseurs are concerned with their social status, and thus buy counterfeit goods. Lastly, the proletarians are not necessarily wealthy or poor, but are categorized by their indifference towards the practice of consumption. Specifically, the proletarians are “not driven to consume for the sake of status” (17). The first study reveals that as brand prominence decreases, the price of goods increases. Namely, quieter handbags cost more, and Mercedes with larger emblems cost less (20). The second study indicates that a high level of brand prominence characterizes most counterfeit handbags. This seems to be the case because consumers that are interested in counterfeits are aiming to signify social status in a visual manner (21). The third study exemplifies that patricians are equipped with the knowledge to see the value in quiet luxury goods, whereas non-patricians are unable to distinguish between the subtleties of these products (24). The final study reiterates the tendencies of each class of consumers. Specifically, patricians are less likely to purchase items with high levels of brand prominence, while parvenus and poseurs are quite likely to purchase “loud” handbags (26). The authors of this study hold that accessibility and high levels of brand prominence are eventually detrimental to a brand’s value. The researchers suggest that designers create a griffe, a subtle motif that distinguishes a label, as a means of branding (27). In order to remain desirable a brand must always appeal to the “crème de la crème of clientele for less sophisticated consumer to find their wares attractive” (28). The study concludes with an acknowledgement that these results rely on generalizations.

Money Does Not Buy Class: #ParevenuProblems

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The three aforementioned pieces work together in order to effectively relate the ideas of status and display to the themes of our course — fashion and power. These concepts are thought provoking because identity is becoming increasingly defined by consumption. In conclusion, consumption allows us to put status on display.

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