Friday, 30 November 2012

Part XVI - The Purpose of Uniforms

This is part of a series discussing The Theory of the Leisure Class, by Thorstein Veblen.  His fourth chapter is Conspicuous Consumption. 

In the last post we were considering the wealthy gentleman's burden of demonstrating fine discrimination and impeccable manners.  To maintain a really good reputation, he need the help of others in the form of their performing vicarious consumption.  

As wealth accumulates, the leisure class develops further in structure, and there arises an elaborate system of rank and grades according to the inheritance of wealth and the consequent inheritance of gentility.  Sadly, money doesn’t always accompany gentility, so we have ‘impecunious gentlemen’, mentioned in an earlier post.  These gentlemen affiliate themselves to wealthier men by a system of dependence or fealty in order to gain enough money with which to lead a life of leisure.  It is curious, isn't it, that going out to work might be considered more shameful than being a hanger-on, but there it is.  However, the arrangement is not without reciprocity.  In return for money  they become his courtiers, retainers, servants and, being fed and countenanced by their patron, they are indices of his rank. 

The consumption and leisure undertaken by these hangers-on for their master or the patron represent an investment on his part in the increase of his good fame.  The results of, say, a ball or a feast are immediate for the host.  However, where his retinue perform vicarious consumption on his behalf, they must be residing near his person for him to receive due credit, which isn't always possible in a growing society.  So a more obvious means are needed in order to direct and assign the admiration they earn appropriately to him and not some other noble.  To this end, uniforms, badges, and liveries come into vogue.

The wearing of uniforms or liveries implies dependence and may even be said to be a mark of servitude.  There are two classes who wear uniforms and liveries and their services are characterised in the same way:  the free and noble  or the servile and ignoble.   It’s not very straightforward in practice, according to Veblen, which services are noble or ignoble, but it has much to do with the rank of the person for whom the service is performed, ie whose livery is worn.

Again we return to those proper, predatory employments of the leisure class, occupations that confer honour:  government, fighting, hunting, etc, and to a slightly lesser extent, the handling of arms and the accoutrements of war.  Base employments are productive labor, handicraft or menial services and the like.  However, a base service performed for a person of very high degree may become honourific, ie a Lady in Waiting to the Queen.  The title of the King’s Master of the Horse or his Keeper of the Hounds is doubly honourific owing to the high office of the king and the association with predatory occupations.

With the development of peaceable society, the employment of an idle corps of uniformed men-at-arms gradually lapses into vicarious consumption by dependents and narrows down to a corps of liveried menials.  Where the livery of an armed retainer has an honorific character, the livery of the menial is a badge of servility, obnoxious to those who wear it. 

Veblen says we are
" little removed from a state of effective slavery as still to be fully sensitive to the sting of any imputation of servility. This antipathy asserts itself even in the case of the liveries or uniforms which some corporations prescribe as the distinctive dress of their employees’.  In this country (the US) the aversion even goes the length of discrediting - in a mild and uncertain way - those government employments, military and civil, which require the wearing of a livery or uniform.” 
I know I was really excited about my first office job, being heartily sick of my Pizza Hut uniform.   I’m not certain how this perception of uniforms applies to schools here in Britain, where most schools require pupils to wear a uniform.  This practice was apparently instigated under the reign of Henry the VIIIth. 

In our next post, we'll talk about the middle class wife.


Beryl said...

I thought of Jeeves and Wooster and their relationship when I read this.

Shelley said...

Strangely, though I like that era and the two actors, I've never got into that series. I haven't even read any of those books. Must check them out. Maybe I'll enjoy the series better. It just seems rather silly to me. Then again, a lot of the stuff that went on and, indeed, the humour of the day could also be called pretty silly.

Susan Partlan said...

I've always loved uniforms. In fact, I wrote about my waitress uniform here:

and about my choir outfit here:

in case you're interested :).

Shelley said...

Susan - I remembered the ice cream story, but went back to see the choir outfit, and then remembered it as well. So many of your issues are shared by women our age (and height). I loved re-reading the comments as well. We are rather mean to ourselves, mind. I had to remind myself that I'm pushing 60 and can't expect to look like I did in my 20s or 30s for heaven's sake!