Friday, 1 March 2013

Part XXIX - Conspicuosity of Dress

This is a series discussing Theory of the Leisure Class by Thorstein Veblen, an American economist.  His seventh chapter is titled Dress as an Expression of the Pecuniary Culture.

Yes, I know 'conspicuosity' is not a word, but I think it ought to be; the -ness extention is dull.  I was really excited when I first read this Chapter title, but I think that while it is one of the more fun parts it is also this is one of the more boring chapters.  I say this because many of the ideas I found in this book shed a new light on things I’d observed but never understood.  In contrast, this chapter only tells me what I already knew.  Veblen outlines three principles of dress, all of which have to do with 'conspicuosity'.

Clothing is one of the most obvious ways in which we practice conspicuous consumption and from an early age.  One only has to look inside their own closets, at all the charity shops, indeed at the mountains of clothing I saw in a market place in The Gambia, to know that conspicuous waste is a defining feature of the clothing industry and its clients.  
“Other methods of putting one’s pecuniary standing in evidence serve their end effectually, and other methods are in vogue always and everywhere; but expenditure on dress has this advantage over most other methods, that our apparel is always in evidence and affords an indication of our pecuniary standing to all observers at the first glance. It is also true that admitted expenditure for display is more obviously present, and is, perhaps, more universally practiced in the matter of dress than in any other line of consumption.”

I suspect that Veblen defines waste as using clothing for any other purpose than protection of the body.  If I didn’t have to sacrifice pleasing colours, I’d been keen to see what articles might be developed if this were the only criteria.  The clean, simple lines of the 1990s seemed to be the closest we came to that, unless it was the utility designs during WW II.  I can forgive some of the snobbery attached to natural fibres.  Technical fabric does a better job of warmth or wicking in certain situation, but some of those fabrics are horrible against the skin.  I’ll take wool, silk or cotton any day I’m not engaged in strenuous activity.

Anyhow, Veblen asserts that the greater expenditure on clothing is about looking good (respectable).  Furthermore, when we have shabby clothing we feel it more keenly than in our dress.  Acknowledging ripped jeans and all, I’ll put it differently.  Did you ever feel out of place, not quite good enough, because you were not dressed appropriately?  I’m sure it is this sense to which Veblen is referring.  He says we’ll do without a lot in order to afford proper clothing.  In fact, we’ll be ill clad for the sake of appearing well-dressed.  Ripped jeans fit in here, perhaps.  This certainly describes the blue, shivering girls standing at the bus stop in a skimpy dress and heels in January, on their way to go dancing at the clubs in Newcastle.  They’re famous for it.

Again, Veblen says we spend a lot of money just to fit in and not get negative attention.  In addition, we have been conditioned to think that anything not costing a lot cannot be desirable.  He uses the phrase ‘Cheap and nasty.’  I confess to having admired a Viyella coat the other day, but when I learned it wasn’t 100% wool and was lined with polyester, I thought less of it.  I spend less than £500 most years for clothing and buy most of it second-hand.  So, strangely, I feel I can well afford to be a snob about clothing I’m not likely to buy.  I’m sure there is an explanation for this but I’ve not figured it out.

So, the first of Veblen’s three principles about ‘Dress as an Expression of the Pecuniary Culture’ is that it must be expensive in order to be valued.  The lower classes that support fast fashion obviously don't follow this trend.  However, the stories I heard at a high-end consignment shop in Sydney and what I occasionally read at Privilege absolutely support this principle.


Beryl said...

I liked your comment that you feel you can afford to be a snob about clothing that you're not likely to buy.
Spending a lot of money just so one doesn't get negative attention is such a sad commentary on Veblen's time. (I guess Joan Rivers might be as old as she says she is.)

Susan Partlan said...

I used to spend almost nothing on clothing, really just replaced T shirts and capris at Lands Ends or L.L. Bean and rarely bought anything else. There's still very little in my closet, but as I add to my tiny wardrobe I think very much about quality and fit and less about price, although price is a consideration.

Shelley said...

Beryl - I just now got your comment about Joan Rivers! Boy, am I slow on the uptake...

Susan - My friend asked me how I managed to spend as much as £500, knowing my habits! I admitted to spending £85 on some Hunter wellies - and I don't regret a penny of it. I could spend much more on clothes than I do, but don't really see the point. I would like more quality, but there is so much junk out there I'm thinking the only way to get it is to sew.