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Conspicuous Consumption and Veblen

How far is Thorstein Veblen’s theory, that the main function of dress is the display of wealth, still valid? Thorstein Veblen was a sociologist and economist who came up with the term ‘conspicuous consumption.’ He was the author of the book ‘The Theory of the Leisure Class’ published in 1899 which spoke about the working class in America.During that time the working class was visibly aspiring to the ‘leisure class.

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’ The Leisure class was known to be the emerging ruling class of that time, as they would consume and constantly engage in a public display of their status.

The following essay is going to explore Veblen’s theory in relation to the display of wealth through dress. I aim to show the relevance of Veblen’s concept today whilst taking into thought the changes in class, consumption and consumerism. Veblen provided a few main ideologies in which he examines the notion of ‘dress’ as an “expression of pecuniary culture” Veblen (1994:15) He stated that the idea of ‘conspicuous waste’ proved the wearer had the freedom to purchase anything they liked without so much as any economical obstacles. Currently, ‘fast fashion’ feeds the desire to overcome need, and clothes are replaced before they are worn out.

The seasonality of today’s fashion is the epitome of conspicuous waste as new trends come out every season which encourages one to throw out items that have gone ‘out of fashion. ’ Trends are changing faster than ever before (Fig 1). (Tesseras : 2010) states; “textile waste at council tips now accounts for 30 per cent, compared to just seven per cent five years ago. ” The thrill of watching each season’s runway shows, to the pressure of ‘joining in’ and following the trends, (Fig 2) fast fashion promotes mass production and waste.

Fig 1 Fig 2 Another principle of Veblen’s, is that of ‘conspicuous leisure’ which he defined as a non-productive use of time. Examples of conspicuous leisure include taking long ’unnecessary’ vacations to exotic places which are fully motivated by a social factor (Fig 3). ”Time is consumed non-productively (1) from a sense of unworthiness of productive work, and (2) as an evidence f pecuniary ability to afford a life of idleness” (Veblen 1934 : 43) These are time-consuming activities that suggest an indifference to such mundane concerns as working for a living. (Fig 4) “The leisure rendered by the wife in such cases is, of course, not a simple manifestation of idleness or indolence. It almost invariably occurs disguised under some form of work or household duties or social amenities, which prove on analysis to serve little or no ulterior end beyond showing that she does not and need not occupy herself with anything that is gainful or that is of substantial use. (Veblen 1934: 69) Figure 3 Figure 4 “Conspicuous consumption of valuable goods is a means of reputability… No class of society, not even the most abjectly poor, forgoes all customary conspicuous consumption. ”  Veblen (1994 : Chapter 4) In Veblen’s time during the late 19th century (Fig 5) and early 1900’s (Fig 6) woman’s wear was made to look as far apart from any work-wear as possible. Corsets, delicate fabrics and high heels all were worn to prove that they are entirely restricted from any laborious work and would make manual work very difficult.

Affluent women crippled themselves in order to put on a convincing display of idleness, and as he put it made them “permanently and obviously unfit for work. ” Veblen (1994: Chapter 7) The tight corsets and luxurious fabrics proved that they could afford to wear impractical clothing which was expensive to clean all for the sole purpose to acquire a certain level of status amongst the public. These consumers could easily fall into the ‘Nouveau Riche’ category which was an emerging class in the 19th century.

Style would therefore play a key role in separating the wearer from the working class. “In addition to showing the wearer can afford to consume freely and uneconomically it can also be shown, in the same stroke, that he or she, is not under the necessity or earning of a livelihood, the evidence of social worth is enhanced to a considerable degree. Our dress, therefore, should not only be expensive, but it should also make plain to all observers that the wearer is not engaged in any kind of productive labour” (Veblen: 1994:105)

Fig 5 Fig 6 Veblen’s most well-known principle related to his term ‘conspicuous consumption’ which describes the unnecessary purchase of services and goods which are bought for the sole focus of displaying and advertising wealth. This is done in the endeavour to maintain or attain a certain level of social status. Such goods are now collectively known as ‘Veblen goods’ which is a group of commodities. The fact that these goods are placed at such high prices is the very thing that makes them attractive to conspicuous consumers.

Conspicuous consumption was certainly not limited to the western countries, in China, for example, girls in affluent families would have their feet broken and tightly bound so that they grew to have tiny “lotus” feet. These were thought to be very fashionable since the women who had them were unable to survive without the help of servants. This was a sign of wealth taken to the extreme (fig 7 Figure 7 Mass advertising was kick-started by the Americans when Paris could no longer be relied on for the latest fashions due to ban in exports in the early 1950’s.

The Americans capitalised on this ban and created a new form of ‘American Fashion. ’ It was now the Americans’ turn to show the world what’s what. American images swamped the media. By the 1950’s the media had However, Elvis Presley, James Dean and Marlon Brando (Fig 8) now were coming onto the scene and headed the iconic ‘all-American’ rebellious look this decade brought about. Subcultures started to form, rebels and gangs adopted denim as a means of revolt against the want to fit the ‘mould’ the media portrayed. The Teddy Boys is a perfect example of such a subculture.

The Teddy boys were largely working class men who wore clothes that had resemblances to that of the Edwardian era and would dress up for the evening.

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This look was strongly associated with American Rock and Roll and this look made it ok for people to start caring again for what they looked like since World War II in Britain. The look compromised of dark shades of ‘drape jackets’, waistcoats, high-waisted tight-fitting trousers exposing the wearer’s socks and velvet collars. In direct contrast to this, the upper and middle class “white collar” workers, were choosing to dress own during their leisure time, casting off the constraints of the suit they had worn to all week, resulting in a complete reversal of Veblen’s “conspicuous leisure” theory, where the working classes are also rejecting the notion that just because they are involved in productive labour it does not mean they cannot dress socially above their class status. Figure 8 During the 1970’s the Hippy movement began and as the hippies were mostly from wealthy backgrounds and middle to upper class families this was clearly yet another rebellion against Veblen’s theory.

The 1980’s was the decade of ‘money loving’ and is often referred to as an excessive time of conspicuous consumption. The mentality in the 80’s was all about big money and spending (Fig 9). The economy had boomed, greed was good, women entered the boardroom with full force and it was all about power dressing. The yuppies were born due to conspicuous consumption and shopping malls began to sprout up everywhere. Figure 9 Today, there are still many examples of ‘conspicuous consumption’ and the studies on general modern consumption are so intricate, that almost all walks of life are targeted with today’s mass media.

Adverts and billboards are everywhere telling the public what’s ‘cool’ and what’s not. Brands like Louis Vuitton, Chanel and Moet ; Chandon sell a lifestyle. Moet ; Chandon (Fig 10) advert states ‘Be Fabulous’ and shows two beautiful well-dressed women climbing out of an expensive car with a bottle of champagne in one woman’s hand. An advertisement like this is basically trying to show the public what status could be achieved by purchasing a bottle of Moet ; Chandon.

The term ‘Keeping up with the Joneses’ comes to mind, as studies show that many consumers purchase goods just to ‘show off’ and maintain a certain status amongst their friends. Figure 10 Veblen goods aren’t just restricted to clothes as the purchase of certain magazines, purely for the status they offer. Being seen reading a magazine like Robb Report or Conde Nast’s traveller may give the impression that one can afford what is featured in the magazine. Veblen also spoke about the way dress can prove many things.

The wearer can give an impression that they can spend without much thought on the price. Veblen goods are still very much around, such as designer handbags, expensive wines and thousand-dollar watches. The luxury watch is an ultimate example of a Veblen good as the consumer really buys into the allure of a higher status. Companies like Rolex, TAG Heur and Omega have all used celebrities such as Roger Federer, Leonardo DiCaprio and Daniel Craig in his bond suit. Even though its purpose is very practical and can help with everyday decision making.

These watches are aimed a business men with a high salary who identify or would like to identify with the sports stars and actors wearing these watches at the back of TIME magazine and the like. A Louis Vuitton bag for example just wouldn’t be viewed the same without the high price tag. Today’s fast fashion and mass production also encourages conspicuous consumption. However mass production has changed the outlook on man’s life and has created a singular type of existence which can be viewed as almost humiliating and that the products are what drives man.

The trends we see from designers on catwalks are translated as quickly as possible into high street stores. It is not surprising that with the emphasis on keeping up with the latest trends which ties into ‘fitting in with society’ consumption of clothes has reached an all-time high. The quality of clothes however, is less of a feature than the over-all look of the item. In the Victorian times, garments had to be made of the best lace, but with today’s technology, garments can be made to look more expensive than they really are.

Keeping up-to trend with accessories such and bags and shoes is still very expensive to do. Designer’s put their signature touches on shoes and bags which make them more lust after. Christian Louboutin’s shoes have the signature red sole, Louis Vuitton may feature an LV and a Mulberry bag could carry their characteristic tree on the logo (Fig 10). To be seen with any of these items offers a instantaneous status that comes with it. The recession did not bring about any less ostentatious designer bags from luxury fashion houses during the recession.

Joseph Nunes, a marketing professor at the University of Southern California Marshall School of Business recently stated in the Journal of Consumer Psychology (2011) “A good chunk of America loves using products to signal their status. If the recession didn’t hit them, their need for status outweighed their need to follow social norms. ” Figure 11 Most high fashion haute couture designers have yet to cater for a poorer crowd, and still target people with a higher income. The current obsession with what celebrities are wearing can also dictate what a large group of the public choose to wear.

This is where Veblen’s theory is still very much in place. Victoria Beckham, Alexa Chung (Fig 12) and Kate Moss (Fig 13) are all very much followed by what they wear. By buying into the current ‘celebrity craze’ where being seen with a Birkin bag can greatly increase ones chances of a higher social status, one is also buying into conspicuous consumption. Magazines devote much of their features to ‘Who’s wearing what. ’ Most celebrities still choose to wear designer labels, thus making the public lust after these individual items, and save up for them just to be part of ‘the craze. This feeds into the label-hungry shopper where Burberry’s checked pattern and Gucci’s brown, red and green stripe offers a satisfaction worth shopping for. Fig 12 Fig 13 Charity shopping has presented a new outlook on inconspicuous consumption and the consumer no longer needs to spend a lot of money to look fashionable and be part of the ‘in crowd. ’ Five years ago the thought of purchasing second hand goods would be flinched at. Fashionably vintage items can be found and are lusted after in charity shops. Now you don’t have to spend money to look good which Veblen surely did not foresee.

Even the media has gotten involved and magazines feature articles on how to be a ‘smart charity-shopper’, how to recycle your own clothing and the art of buying ‘classic’ pieces which will last forever. A few notable factors have changed since Veblen’s time which presents a new outlook on conspicuous consumption. In the late 1800’s when looking at the display of wealth through clothes, one would look at the wearer’s fabric quality to determine their status. Good handmade lace and beautiful tailoring was a status of wealth. Now hints that determine wealth have become less subtle with the ntroduction of labels that indicate the garment’s worth. Logo’s like Ralph Lauren’s man playing polo on a horse (Fig 14) , Lactose’s crocodile, Burberry’s knight on a horse and Hermes horse drawn carriage. Many of these logo’s feature a horse, and this might be because of their age and may hint to a previous era or because of the fact that the ownership of a horse is a luxury in itself and is very expensive to maintain. There is much thought that goes into labels and there is always a message and reason behind them. Nike’s logo for example features a tick which means it is ‘correct. Subliminal messages such as these, feature everywhere today and there’s no doubt that Veblen would have never anticipated this. “This antagonism offers an explanation that the restless change in fashion which neither the canon of expensiveness nor that of beauty alone can account for. ” (Veblen: 1994:108) Figure 14 Veblen’s theory in the modern day can be seen as somewhat of a sweeping statement and is not entirely applicable to the present day. Veblen relied on the concept that only if you were of the nouveau class would you take part in looking fashionable, thus ignoring the middle class completely.

The internet, television and magazines (Fig 15) have brought fashion to a significantly larger audience where not only rich people partake in frivolous buying. Figure 15 I believe Veblen’s theory is still applicable today in some instances. However, with the introduction of mass production and the changing attitudes in class as that of which I have mentioned. Wealth is still very much shown through dress, from the use of logos and labels which hint on how much the wearer has spent on their clothes.

However today with so many fake products and good imitations of these well-known labels it may be impossible to know how much the individual spent on their garment. One thing remains the same however, the item was bought for the primary purpose of being ‘seen’ and acknowledged by others, fake or not. Designers pay celebrities to endorse their products or ‘be seen’ wearing them which indicates that Veblen’s theory has stood the test of time, it is still very much the taste of the wealthy that has an impact on fashion and dictates what sells and what doesn’t.

Veblen wrote that the lower classes would imitate the dress of the leisure class which as shown, is still applicable to today. Mass consumption and mass production are amongst the features that have changed since Veblen’s time. Throughout the decades since Veblen’s time there has not been as much of an emphasis on individuality and self expression through clothes as there is now, and this is where Veblen’s theory slightly loses its relevance. The movement to express oneself without considering wealth as much in a liberal society. Other factors have started to replace the display of wealth such as, religion, age, music taste and gender.

This is obvious because of the large amount of subcultures found today. I have shown how Veblen’s ideologies have lost and increased in relevance through the decades. Veblen was able to show how consumption can also be a symbol of social structure and that conspicuous consumption is relational and not functional and is a conscious display of affluence and status through the consumption of these garments. Bibliography Info Books * Malcolm Barnard (1996). Fashion as Communication. First ed. London: Routledge Publishers. (p59-64) * Thorstein Veblen (2005). Conspicuous Consumption. London: Penguin Books. p. 42-62) * Tim Delany & Tim Madigan (2009). The Sociology of Sports. North Carolina: McFarland & Company Inc. Websites * Tricia Ellis-Christensen. (2010). What is conspicuous consumption? .Available: http://www. wisegeek. com/what-is-conspicuous-consumption. htm. Last accessed 6th Dec 2010. * Dr. Paurav Shukla. (2010). Middle-aged consumers & luxury consumption. Available: http://www. evancarmichael. com/Management/1066/Middleaged-consumers–luxury-consumption. html. Last accessed 5th March 2011 * Ben Steverman. (2011). Conspicuous Consumption Is Back. Available: http://www. businessweek. om/investor/content/jan2011/pi20110127_382340. htm. Last accessed 7th March 2011 * Lexic. (2011). Literary usage of Conspicuous consumption. Available: http://www. lexic. us/definition-of/conspicuous_consumption. Last accessed 9th March 2011. Quotes * Thorstein Veblen (1994). The Theory of The Leisure Class. New York: Dover Publications. (p. 256) * Lucy Tesseras, 2010. Fast fashion: a throw away trend? {blog} 12 July, http://www. supplychainstandard. com Available at: <http://www. supplychainstandard. com/Articles/3061/Fast+fashion+a+throw-away+trend. html> {Accessed at: 2nd March 2011} Joseph Nunes quoted by Ben Steverman (2011). Conspicuous Consumption Is Back. Available: http://www. businessweek. com/investor/content/jan2011/pi20110127_382340. htm. Last accessed 7th March 2011. Images: (Fig 1&2) Image . (2008). Shop the Spring Trends. Available: http://fashiontribes. typepad. com/fashion/2008/02/shop-the-spring. html. Last accessed 8th March 2011. (Fig3) Couple on Yacht. (2010). Image. Available: http://www. corbisimages. com/Enlargement/42-18292911. html. Last accessed 9th March 2011 (Fig 4) John William Godward. (1900). Conspicuous Leisure. Available: http://en. ikipedia. org/wiki/File:Godward_Idleness_1900. jpg. Last accessed 8th March 2011. (Fig 5) Truly Victorian , (2010), 1899 Fashion Plate [ONLINE]. Available at: http://trulyvictorian. com/history/1890. html[Accessed 06 December 10]. (Fig 6) Chanarambie Victorian , (1905), “The Very Latest” back in the days of 1905 [ONLINE]. Available at:http://www. rootsweb. ancestry. com/~usgenweb/mn/murray/history/098-099. htm [Accessed 06 December 10]. (Fig 7) Daniel Schwen. (2010). Footbinding. Available: http://en. wikipedia. org/wiki/File:Foot_binding_shoes_1. jpg. Last accessed 8th March 2011. Fig 8) Columbia Pictures/Courtesy of Getty Images, (1953), Marlon Brando [ONLINE]. Available at:http://www. stylelist. com/2010/05/25/joes-jeans-marlon-brando/ [Accessed 08 December 10]. (Fig 9) image. toutlecine. com, (1988), Working Girl [ONLINE]. Available at: http://www. ellecanada. com/fashion/lights-camera-fashion/a/28965/4 [Accessed 08 December 10]. (Fig 10): Brandsizzle, (2006), Moet & Chandon [ONLINE]. Available at:http://www. brandsizzle. com/blog/2006/12/sexy_advertisin. html [Accessed 08 December 10]. (Fig 11): Geek Handbags, (2009), Mulberry Bag [ONLINE]. Available at:http://www. eekhandbags. com/mulberry/mulberry-does-an-interestingly-classic-daria-hobo-bag [Accessed 09 December 10]. (Fig 12): HOTELFASHIONLAND. COM, (2010), Alexa Chung [ONLINE]. Available at:http://lexposure. net/style/spotlight/people-and-parties/londons-top-10-it-girls [Accessed 10 December 10]. (Fig 13) Kate Moss. (2008). Image. Available: http://www. handbagfairy. co. uk/blog/fashion/a-decade-in-fashion/. Last accessed 9th March 2011. (Fig 14) Ralph Lauren Logo . (2010) Image. Available: http://flockedwallpaper. co. uk/Stockist/index. php? main_page=index&cPath=1604_770_464_440. Last accessed 2nd March 2011.

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