This is part of a series about Theory of the Leisure Class by American economist Thorstein Veblen. He titled his seventh chapter Dress as an Expression of the Pecuniary Culture.
Last week I addressed the first of Veblen's principles about clothing, that it had to demonstrate conspicuous waste and to be expensive in order to be appreciated. The second principle is that clothing must demonstrate conspicuous leisure either through design or cleanliness. Veblen says that the lower classes didn't wear corsets except for on holiday; they had to be able to do labour which required full range of motion. Middle and upper class ladies wore corsets. The lower classes also didn't have as much spare time or conveniences needed for maintaining a pristine appearance. I soon learned the practicality of a dark-coloured coat from using public transport in a wet climate. I can only imagine the difficulties of keeping tidy in a world of coal fires or mud streets.
The fashion of tanned skin seems to be tied to this custom of conspicuous leisure. When hard work was done outside, fair skin was the demonstration of leisure. Over time, pallor became associated with being a wage slave chained to a desk and deep tans signaled exotic beach holidays or boating at the weekend and so tans were in. As concern about skin cancer has risen and tanning beds are the purview of the poor (not to mention streaky orange weirdness), the body spray job is the way to go and a slightly more moderate shade is desired.
Though I'm not au fait with office culture these days, when attached to a university I observed the different dress code. The far more casual / eccentric dress sported by that cohort seemed to insinuate, "I don't need to dress to impress. I'm wanted for my brains, not for how I look." I gather that this attitude has taken over much of corporate America as well, and the men's tie industry must be very squeezed these days. Dress codes seem only to apply to the minions who have to deal with the awful public.
One of the saddest sights I often see is a young couple out in the evening, the girl teetering or limping along in ridiculously high heels. She's determined to be fashionable but her boyfriend's budget won't stretch for a taxi. She hasn't caught on that those shoes are really only for ladies of leisure and wealth. Shuffling along, bored with waiting for her, his attention is glued to his mobile.
Next week we'll finish Chapter Seven with Veblen's third principle of dress: novelty.