Personal Adornment and the Variety of Conspicuous Consumption

In Week One of Fashion and Power, we discussed the importance and cultural significance of personal adornment. This discussion was supplemented by Wilson’s “Adorned in Dreams” and Roach and Eicher’s “The Language of Personal Adornment.”

In “Adorned In Dreams” Elizabeth Wilson claims dress is always “unspeakably meaningful.” (3) From the beginning of time, clothing has appeared to be an adornment including “body painting, ornaments, scarifications, tattooing, masks and often constricting neck and waist bands.” (3) Fashion, as Wilson explains, is essentially inescapable. “Even the determinably unfashionable wear clothes that manifestly represent a reaction against what is in fashion.” (5) Those, too, who exist within a subculture of fashion subvert group norms set by fashion which makes them remarkable and expressly different. It is also inescapable in the essence that what could be out of fashion one day could be in fashion the next.

Some people may wear overalls for non-style purposes, but can invariably be fashionable without even trying, due to the ever-changing fashion world.

This cyclical nature means its impossible to exist entirely outside the sphere of influence of fashion within a civilized society.  Specifically, fashion is an urban creation. It begins in the cosmopolitan cities and disseminates radially outward.

Other meanings for dress are described in “Language of Personal Adornment” by Mary Roach and Joanne Eicher. Personal adornment, or the act of putting something on such as clothing, jewelry and other accessories, can either express how one if feeling or completely contradict their emotions. An example of this would be someone wearing all black during a time of mourning, sadness, or pain. Black adornments can emote a person’s feelings to the world and does not require the person to say anything. On the other hand, if this person was feeling down but wanted to change their mood, they could put on something yellow, reminiscent of the sun and summer, which could possibly lift their spirits or at least convey a sense of happiness to others. (110)

Fashion is ever-changing, which means there is always something new, whether it is a specific trend, must-have piece, or it bag. The newness in fashion has a rare quality and for a time might be indicative of the status and economic worth of the wearer. However, as soon as something more new replaces this item, the wearer may be seen as outdated and no longer trendy or in the know. This creates a heightened sense of power for those that can afford trendy, expensive pieces. They know that these items are not timeless and will at some point be essentially unwearable, but they are still able to spend two or three thousand dollars to look good while the pieces are on point.

Adornment not only reflects power, but also can define:

-Economic Status: One could reflect their economic status by wearing a uniform or costume that is particular to a specific job, such as a police officer or doctor. The types of dress that indicate specific jobs, however, are usually reserved for careers that make money, which Roach describes as the reason for a more ambiguous dress among American women (homemakers, in particular).

– Political power: Dress can indicate the political power of a person. Although it has become less common in recent years, there are certain costumes that indicate royalty. Adornments such as badges and stars can indicate the rank of military officers. Certain adornments, such as the black arm band for Vietnam protestors, indicate someone against political power. During the French Revolution, white, powdered, hair usually meant that someone was a part of the aristocracy.

-Religious condition: Rank within a religious institution can be showcased using certain adornments, such as hats and cloaks that vary by clerical rank. There are also different garbs for various sects of the same religion.Hasidic Jews wear clothing that resembles that once worn by Jewish community, while many non-Hasidic Jewish people tend to dress similar to non-Jews. (118)

-Participation in a Social Ritual: Women celebrating a marriage tend to wear white dresses while those in mourning at a funeral tend to wear black outfits.

-Recreational Role: Many young men and women use dress as a means of spending leisure time and expression. Adornments are not solely for practical or symbolic use, but can be used recreationally.

-Sexuality: Certain items of adornment are seen as having a sexual connotation, such as undergarments, and lingerie. When these are seen in public rather than the private sphere, it can highlight a person’s comfortability with attention placed on their sexuality. Adornment can also give clues regarding someone’s sexual preference and can exaggerate sexual features, such as breasts, hips, or broad shoulders.

Ceremonial wedding dress

Week Four’s discussion revolved around different ideas of conspicuous consumption in relation to secondhand style. We read pieces by McRobbie and Marwick to supplement the discussions.

McRobbie states that the role of secondhand style in fashion culture spans much further than secondhand clothing in “Second-Hand Dresses and the Role of the Ragmarket”. Style involves the act of finding clothes and assembling the right pieces, putting them together with other items to create an ensemble, and then using this outfit while moving and living. Styles that come from second hand stores, rag shops, and flea markets, especially during the 1970s and 80s, stemmed from specific socioeconomic conditions. One of these conditions was the expansion of women’s gender role.  Women were long considered to be slaves to consumerism, and shopping only perpetuated the relationship between femininity and consumption. As women began to fight for more rights and gain more freedom, shopping secondhand was seen as making fun of the original stereotype. The option to pick clothing from a wider variety was empowering to women, as they did not have to resemble generations of the past. Women were finally able to choose what they looked like, instead of having someone choose for them with limited department store options.

Another condition pertinent to the rise of second hand style was the rise of hippie culture. As protestors began to stray away from mainstream ideals and culture after the war, they created their own subculture: the hippies. Hippie culture was about being the opposite of the corporate professional. Their style went hand in hand with the  secondhand aesthetic as it combatted consumerism and the role of middle class. Secondhand style also emphasized a time when clothing was carefully crafted and seen through by one person. Hippie culture embraced this craftsmanship as it directly undermines the mass production that feeds consumption.

The third condition that lead to the rise of secondhand style is one of pure practicality. In the 1980s, London was in a recession, so many thrifty shoppers began purchasing clothing at rag markets and thrift stores. This allowed a certain population to have the option of keeping a certain style while still paying a low price point.

Secondhand style can easily be deemed as going against the mainstream aesthetic while building its own very unique subculture. One of the key elements that defines secondhand style is the transformation of meaning that occurs once the clothing or object is re-contextualized into a “secondhand outfit.” An example of this is the pair of spectacles that John Lennon of the Beatles made popular. The simple glasses were initially only worn by those that could not afford a more fashionable pair. By wearing the glasses, and thus appropriating them into the fashionable world of popular culture, Lennon made them trendy and “mainstream” within the secondhand subculture.

The problem with this act of appropriation in regards to secondhand style is that the original pieces were predominantly worn by the poor. When someone in the middle class, or specifically middle-class art students, take an inexpensive,unfashionable piece and transform it into something fashion forward, they may be poking fun at the poor. Though McRobbie notes that”…these clothes were chosen and worn as a distinctive style and this style was designed to mark out a distance both from “straight” and conventional dress, and from the shabby greyness of genuine poverty.” (138) Another argument that can be made is that this simply challenges the held ideas of class hierarchy.

A photo of John Lennon in his glasses on a cover promoting the sale of these glasses.

In “Conspicuous and Authentic: Fashion Blogs, Style, and Consumption” Alice Marwick uses fashion bloggers as evidence and perpetuators of a delineation from Veber’s original theory on Conspicuous Consumption. At the time of his theory Veber had no way of knowing how complex and intricate fashion consumption would become. Today it is possible to simultaneously work on both ends of consumerism. “Fashion bloggers are both producers and consumers of fashion content” so now “consumption is not limited solely to buying and selling.” (2)

Elin Kling is one of many fashion bloggers who are both producers and consumers of fashion. She partnered with Marciano for a clothing line.

Marwick explains the importance of authenticity within fashion blogging. Many bloggers emphasized the value of authenticity in determining the quality of a fashion blog. Marwick aims to re-theorize what it means to be a conspicuous consumer. She claims that in a modern society conspicuous extends far beyond the “fellow man” as theorized by Veber and “encapsulates audience theory rather than simply co-presence.” (12) Audience Theory surmises that mediated interactions of consumption demonstrated by fashion bloggers creates an audience of “the people who actually read a particular blog post, the people imagined by the blogger to read her blog, and the people that she actually knows read a blog.” (13) Another example that Marwick cites is that few people actually see what celebrities are wearing on a red carpet first-hand, but the photos, videos and streaming of the event creates a conspicuousness where viewers want to know what the celebrity is wearing.

The second re-evaluation Marwick makes is by taking a stance on how conspicuous is interpreted based on Colin Campbell’s question of whether conspicuousness comes from intent or gain. Marwick chooses and affirms the former as its impossible to determine how others have viewed one’s fashion. Marwick’s third point is that status is not coupled with wealth, but instead authenticity. An authenticity that is “a local phenomenon rather than a global one.” (14) Subcultures can provide their own set of status markers.

-Chelsea P and Ian M


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