This is part of a series discussing The Theory of the Leisure Class, by Thorstein Veblen. His sixth chapter is titled Pecuniary Canons of Taste.
Last week we discussed beauty, expense and serviceability in cutlery, flowers, jewellery and lawns. Veblen also addresses how the expensiveness or exclusivity of various items influence how beautiful we perceive them to be.
“…the cat’s temperament does not fit her for the honorific purpose. She lives with man on terms of equality, knows nothing of that relation of status which is the ancient basis of all distinctions of worth and repute, and she does not lend herself with facility to an invidious comparison between her owner and his neighbors.”
“For this he makes up in a servile, fawning attitude towards his master, and a readiness to inflict damage and discomfort on all else. The dog, then, commends himself to our favor by affording play to our propensity for mastery, and as he is also an item of expense, and commonly serves no industrial purpose, he holds a well-assured place in men’s regard as a thing of good repute. The dog is at the same time associated in our imagination with the chase — a meritorious employment and an expression of the able predatory impulse. Standing on this vantage ground, whatever beauty of form and motion and whatever commendable mental traits he may possess are conventionally acknowledged and magnified. And even those varieties of the dog which have been bred into grotesque deformity by the dog-fancier are in good faith accounted beautiful by many. These varieties of dogs — and the like is true of other fancy bred animals — are rated and graded in aesthetic value somewhat in proportion to the degree of grotesqueness and instability of the particular fashion which the deformity takes in the given case.”
“In this country [the US], for instance, leisure-class tastes are to some extent shaped on usages and habits which prevail, or which are apprehended to prevail, among the leisure class of Great Britain. In dogs this is true to a less extent than in horses.”
“It is more or less a rule that in communities which are at the stage of economic development at which women are valued by the upper class for their service, the ideal of female beauty is a robust, large-limbed woman. The ground of appreciation is the physique, while the conformation of the face is of secondary weight only.”
Older novels tell us that girls were keen to have a ‘nice nose’, 'soft hands' or ‘bright eyes’ but I couldn’t comment on whether it was in the past more important to have a pretty face or a good figure. However, we do know that in poorer societies where food is dear, a woman with a plump figure has been considered more attractive than a skinny one. The opposite is true (at least amongst women’s opinions) in developed societies where food is plentiful. I won’t try to debate why so many of us wrestle to keep a healthy weight, only to say that whatever option is the more expensive, that is the one held in the highest esteem.
“But the requirements of pecuniary reputability and those of beauty in the naive sense do not in any appreciable degree coincide. The elimination from our surroundings of the pecuniarily unfit, therefore, results in a more or less thorough elimination of that considerable range of elements of beauty which do not happen to conform to the pecuniary requirement.”