Their names are recognized around the world and their lives illustrated by media through magazines and TV shows, which we wholeheartedly devour, consistently begging for more. They star in multi-million dollar productions, dine at five-star restaurants in every metropolis and travel by private jet to remote, extravagant destinations where paparazzi perch behind tropical greenery to click away dozens of photos. They also dress in cutting-edge creations swept right off international runways and carry accessories your average person would need months of savings for. With these extracurricular hobbies, it’s no surprise the words “celebrities” and “luxury” go hand in hand. Within the realm of fashion, the connection of celebrities’ identities to luxury goods has been constructed through the clothing they wear.
Celebrities receive recognition for their talents; whether they sing, act or model, there’s generally some sort of performance that warrants their high earnings. However, according to Thorstein Veblen, “In order to gain and hold the esteem of men, it is not sufficient merely to possess wealth or power…[it] must be put in evidence, for esteem is awarded only on evidence” (Veblen, 24). People know celebrities are wealthy because of their careers, but they are explicitly connected to luxury and a leisurely lifestyle through activities and appearances. The necessity of keeping up appearances is both to clarify their importance to the public, as well as reinforce their identities to themselves. It is through what Veblen coins conspicuous consumption, that “as a mark of prowess and a perquisite of human dignity,” those of elite, or in this case, celebrity status, purchase the most desirable things (Veblen, 44). From diamonds to Celine bags, celebrities consistently exclaim I am someone special with their consumption of these highly sought-after goods.
The messages linked to specific occasion outfits also divulge information on the life of a celebrity. As Fred Davis claims, “different combinations of apparel with their attendant qualities are capable of registering sufficiently consistent meanings for wearers and their viewers” (154). This means evening-wear is, as the name implies, specifically for formal occasions and registers in the majority of people’s minds as so. Thus, when celebrities are so frequently photographed wearing such denotative clothing for particular activities—gowns for award shows, bikinis for vacations, and trendy, one-use outfits for a night on the town or dinner at Cipriani’s—they’re signaling to the public that they can not only afford these outfits, but partake in a particular lifestyle these styles are indicative of. This ties into Veblen’s concept of conspicuous leisure, a lifestyle which, “is the readiest and most conclusive evidence of pecuniary strength, and therefore of superior force” (Veblen, 25).
On the topic of one-time use garments and apparel particular to a single function, or even, lack thereof, one may consider the celebrity award show. Highly publicized, glamorous events requiring over-the-top gowns, are also a prime time for designers to showcase their best work, utilizing celebrities as their mannequins. Supermodel Karolina Kurkova’s breathtaking Marchesa gown, worn just the other night to the Met Gala, demonstrates a breathtaking, albeit entirely profligate, characteristic of luxury consumption. The gown certainly shall never see the light of day again, as rewear in the public eye would cause a public relations catastrophe. Her affordance of wearing such a frivolous item once, demonstrates what Veblen calls conspicuous waste: “Throughout the entire evolution of conspicuous expenditure…runs the obvious implication that in order to effectually meet the consumer’s good fame it must be an expenditure of superfluities. No merit would accrue from the consumption of the bare necessaries’ of life…” (60). While celebrities often do not pay for the attire they wear to these events and find themselves clad in gifts from designers begging to dress them, an average person would never attend this event as an honoree. Subsequently, without the status to acquire loans from designers for this type of event, they could not engage in extreme waste, emphasizing celebrities’ status as extravagant figures.
Society’s obsession with celebrity fashion is perhaps fueled and explained by Georg Simmel’s belief, “naturally the lower classes look and strive towards the upper, and they encounter the least resistance in those fields which are subject to the whims of fashion; for it is here that mere external imitation is most readily applied” (545). While most people realistically come to terms with the fact these luxe lifestyles will probably not be in their own futures, they are aware they may adopt certain fashions to appear as if they do. What celebrities wear showcases their personality and affects their reputations, so upholding their style in an appropriate manner is crucial to maintaining their identities. Similarly, an ordinary person trying to represent this identity may not be able to fake the vacation home in Monaco or the Bentley, but she may attempt to alter her perceived identity by dressing to parallel current celebrity trends.
That is to say, perhaps the real outfit inspiration celebrities provide comes from their casual caught-buying-groceries outfits documented by paparazzi. It’s the Chloe bag Jessica Biel and the Olsens are caught carrying in their “regular” everyday routines, which the public would find authentic and appealing. This one-time splurge of a lifetime, which differs from the more frivolous gowns and whatnot, would receive multiple uses as a person’s “excursion into luxury” (Han, Nunes & Dreze).
Those who attempt to present themselves as possessive of brand status would fall under the category of “poseurs,” as they desire the image of the more affluent “parvenus,” celebrities (Han, Nunes & Dreze, 17). Consider the “Shop the Look” posts by Harper’s BAZAAR, in which models, actresses, tastemakers and It-girls inspire the site’s editors to provide readers with shopping guides to mimic these looks. Olivia Palermo, a wealthy New York socialite, is frequently regarded as a stylish trendsetter. With a focus on how to get her look, attention, once again, is drawn on the reader’s desire to copycat and emanate the identity of the rich and famous. Additionally, when celebrity trends truly catch on, fakes and cheap versions become swept up by mass production, making items accessible to the lower classes. Once this occurs, celebrities must pick up new trends in order to always maintain this identity of exclusivity because, as Simmel knows all too well, “As fashion spreads it gradually goes to its doom” (Simmel, 547.)
The relationship between designers and celebrities also aid in the cultivation of the latter’s identity. Designers may feel drawn to certain celebrities based on the messages they disperse with their appearances. They can function as valuable commodities, as Dr. Alice Marwick explains, since “their endorsement can create trends and spur sales” (4). Charlize Theron, for example, always boasted a sparkling reputation as a beautiful, award-winning actress. Her sensual, strong identity was exactly what Dior wished to embody in their “J’Adore Dior” perfume advertisement. Designers are also no strangers to naming items of their collections after VIP figures. The once lithe, British icon of the 60’s known for her sensual nature, Jane Birkin, inspired the Hermes “Birkin” bag, while the brand’s eponymous “Kelly” bag directly speaks of elegant actress and Princess of Monaco, Grace Kelly. One may assume there is serious debate and thought that goes into associating a company’s product with a celebrity and, naturally, would aim to find a match fitting to the image they want. Princess Grace’s classic, tasteful public identity therefore resonates with the Hermes brand.
Couture-savvy lyrical geniuses also commonly endorse luxurious lifestyles by dropping designer names in their songs. Rapper Theophilus London mentions both Givenchy and Lanvin within the first verse of his song “Big Spender,” while Jay-Z notoriously named an entire single after American designer Tom Ford. These mentions are entirely intentional, seeking to associate the lifestyle they rap about, as well as their personal identities, to that of luxury and quality.
The luxurious image of “celebrity” has been constructed over the course of time, but has roots in a century as early as the 19th, with Thorstein Veblen’s writings. Celebrity culture has, and always will be, an obsession of society, but it’s pertinent to understand where and how this construct of luxury came to be so interweaved with their characters. They have proven luxury to be more than just a simple handbag, but rather an entire wardrobe, lifestyle and identity by which they oblige.
– Victoria O.
Davis, Fred. Do Clothes Speak? What Makes Them Fashion?
Simmel, Georg. Fashion
Veblen, Thorstein. Theory of the Leisure Class (excerpts)
Han, Young Jee. Nunes, Joseph C. Dreze, Xavier. Signaling Status with Luxury Goods
Marwick, Alice. Conspicuous and Authentic