Lets take a peak into the world of society’s most elite members. Welcome to a world where budgets are big, daily activities are glamorous, and one’s looks are everything. The social elites are marked by excess capital and the fulfillment of a lifestyle that most people could only aspire to. Social membership to this group comes at a high price and requires constant maintenance. Power is obtained through possessions and wardrobe holds great symbolic value. At its core, in the world of the socially elite, fashion can be a tool by which these individuals illustrate their social standing on a visible platform and obtain power within the social group.
Taking a step back, one can see that fashion possesses a demarcating quality that communicates membership to a variety of social groups and lifestyles. As Thorstein Veblen suggests in his The Theory of the Leisure Class, social status is awarded based on possessions and possessions demarcate wealth. Veblen explains that desire for possession stems from a desire to represent a specific social class.
According to Veblen, apparel is one of the easiest distinguishers of wealth. Apparel is visible to all and often easily distinguished. As one seeks entry into a specific social class, wardrobe becomes the admission ticket. As we look to Image One, one can see what Veblen is referring to. Image One depicts Leyla Khoshbin, wife of multi-millionaire real estate investor and entrepreneur Manny Khoshbin, and a group of her friends after a day of shopping. Each of the women in Leyla’s photo uses fashion to display their wealth and membership to their elite social class. Each is donned in fur caplets – disregarding their California settings – dripping in diamonds, and carrying handbags ranging from $2,000 to $12,000. Interestingly enough, the group looks extremely similar in fashion, their outfits almost taking on a uniform like quality.
Examining the photo through the lens of Veblen, the similarities between the women’s fashion can be explained by two theories – conspicuous consumption and social class emulation. Veblen suggests that some people purchase and display specific prominent goods as a means of conveying wealth. He coins the term conspicuous consumption to describe this consumption trend. The women’s fur is an excellent example of conspicuous consumption. In today’s day and age, fur is seen as a luxury item and being that the ladies live in California, fur is certainly not a necessity for warmth. The fur becomes a representation of a social class.
Secondly, the similarities between their fashions speaks to Veblen’s idea that members of the same social class attempt to maintain a standard amongst each other as opposed to coming across as superior to their peers. Veblen writes, “(t)he 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) No one woman uses her fashion to appear of a higher status than the others, but rather uses it to demarcate her association with the said group.
As suggested in Veblen’s text, consumption patterns become an important point of conversation when looking at the relationship between one’s apparel and the message it conveys in the social landscape. Exploring consumption patterns futher, in Young Jee Han, Joseph C. Nunes and Xavier Dreze’s comprehensive study Signaling Status with Luxury Goods: The Role of Brand Prominence, consumer are broken down into four categories – Patricians, parvenus, poseurs and proletarians. Patricians are identified as consumers who consumer not to distinguish themselves from others, but rather to make themselves recognizable to other patricians. Their definitions of similar are reminiscent of Veblen’s theory on “the accepted standard of expenditure” as mentioned above.
One could argue that Leyla Khoshbin and her friends are patricians, in that their consumption practices are driven by upkeep and maintenance with each other. Pushing the theory of the patrician further, we look to Image Two and see how this idea plays out. In Image Two, wardrobe demarcates membership to the aspirational ‘prep’ lifestyle. Rugby shirts, crisp chino pants, and classic structured blazer convey the message of social membership. The subjects of the photo authentically embrace the ‘prep’ lifestyle and would consume in a way to fit in with other members of that lifestyle. Comparing a patrician to another group of consumers, the parvenu, a parvenu consumes with the intent to obtain status. Parvenus are concerned with distinguishing themselves from others and wish to be seen in an elevated light from the masses.
Image Three depicts three girls dressed in black, wearing the famed red-bottom Christian Louboutin shoes. Being that Louboutins have the iconic red sole, the status associated with these high-end pumps lies within the red sole. While some Louboutin owners could purchase the shoes with the pure intent of keeping up with the standard of dress of their peers – i.e. patricians – the bold, easily distinguishable red sole makes Louboutins the perfect example of a highly coveted product for parvenus, attempting to distinguish themselves as of a higher social class than others. This idea is constant with one of the findings of Han, Nunes and Dreze’s study – that patricians are able to distinguish value and appreciate quite luxury goods, where as non-patricians – i.e. parvenus – can not. Non-patricians need the easily visible status demarcations.
As a whole, Han, Nunes and Dreze’s consumer classifications speak to a very important point that Velblen’s text as alludes to – apparel and accessories become a language by which individuals represent their social standing and social membership. People understand the other, and themselves for that matter through the communicative quality that fashion affords. Going by this theory, one can see that maintaining social status requires a great deal of effort and upkeep. Elizabeth Wissigner suggests in her article Modeling Consumption: Fashion Modeling Work in Contemporary Society that models are obligated to live their lives in a certain way to attract consumers to the brands and products they are marketing. Wissigner suggests that the models partake in “aesthetic labor,” which encompasses leisure activities that are required to portray a specific image to the public. Wissinger write, “ (i)n labor markets that demand an aesthetic body, the onus is on workers to perform the necessary aesthetic labor… in time not officially defined as ‘work’, such as going to the gym or doing anything required to maintain one’s body for this work.” (Wissinger 283)
Extracting Wissinger’s concept and attaching it to society’s elite, one can see the striking parallels. If material goods and aesthetic upkeep afford social membership to an exclusive class of people, presentation becomes a full-time job. For example, patricians must engage in aesthetic labor in the form of consumption to maintain social membership amongst the other patricians. Wissinger’s concept extends beyond just clothing, including the importance of where one is seen and who they are seen with. Image Four depicts a group of men, all in attendance at the 2010 opening of Serafina restaurant in East Hampton. This picture exemplifies efforts of aesthetic labor. The men are all dressed similarly, in a style that distinguishes them collectively as of a certain class and in a location that is known to be the playground of the social elite. In order to fit in in an environment like the Hamptons, a certain wardrobe is expected. In the same light, some of the status and social capital that the Hamptons fosters can be attributed to the clothing and leisure activities of its dwellers. In this instance, locale and personal presentation have an ebb and flow type relationship. The aesthetic labor of the men in the photo is traced to their attention to wardrobe, effort to spend time in the Hamptons, and presence, with each other, at the social event.
Through careful analysis of these texts and application of their theories to real world scenarios, one comes to see the way in which fashion becomes a means of lifestyle representation. Fashion is used as a language and dress becomes the social uniform. Social capital, or power as some would say, is afforded to those who put in the efforts of this aesthetic labor and understand the fine line between maintenance and showing off. Power comes in the form of social acceptance in the group and need to be emulated by one’s peers. Society’s elite use fashion to both tangibly and visibly represent their lifestyle and obtain acceptance, respect, and eventually power within a social group.
At last, we look to Image Five to see Victoria Beckham, fashion designer and pop icon, with a series of her coveted Hermes Birkin handbags. Beckham exemplifies the link between fashion and power in relation to representation. Beckham has used fashion to distinguish herself as of a certain, influential circle within society; so much so that she has gone from a Spice girl to having her own line. She emulated members of this social group, who are fashion conscious designers, tastemakers, etc, through dress and with time, became the one to be emulated. Beckham has curated a collection of status bearing goods – i.e. her Birkin bags – that represent that power she holds within her social realm.