Friday, 15 March 2013

Part XXXI - Conspicuous Novelty

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.





The third principle that Veblen says applies to the clothing of the leisure class is that it must be fashionable.  In fact, people of all classes strive to be sufficiently in style as to not be embarrassed.  This relates in part to Veblen's earlier chapter in which he comments about the need for novelty.  It is his explanation for why fashion continually changes.  

The fashion industry has changed considerably from the turn of the last century.  The need for novelty seems to have been replaced, or at least abetted, by the need for profit.  The speed with which fast fashion can produce cheap copies of new designs has perhaps been the industry's undoing in some respects.  There is not the definitive, must-have silhouette of costume that once demanded new clothes in order to be up-to-date.  However, even classic clothes eventually date and only the younger generations can get away with wearing 'retro'.   The vintage clothing most likely to survive the decades tends to be evening clothes for which most people don't have a great need.

I've avoided extreme fashions and gone for classic since my early 30s.  In some ways I regret this form of premature aging, though I'm sure it saved me a mint.  I tell my step-daughters to wear all the crazy clothes in fashion while they are young, as when they get older it just won't do, unless of course one has the body and the budget of Daphne Guinness

As mentioned previously, Veblen also explains that the speed of change, eg the rate at which novelty wears off, increases as the financial differences between the classes decreases.   The quicker Primark can knock off the catwalk designs, the quicker new ones are needed.  

Personally, I find all this novelty a bit wearing.  As much as possible I've stepped off that treadmill.  I think of it as yet another benefit of retirement.  Anyhow, next week we'll begin exploring Chapter Eight:  Industrial Exemption and Conservatism.

6 comments:

Beryl said...

How interesting to think of Industrialization as it relates to fashion. Thinking about those places where there is still a lot of traditional dress worn, I wonder if there is a percentage correlation between Western dress and the degree of Industrialization?

D A Wolf said...

There are so many possible directions for this conversation, Shelley - the specific issue of dressing in a certain way (is whimsy in fashion the sole privilege of the young?), the concept of novelty in terms of human curiosity ("familiarity breeds contempt"), and the speed with which novelty is required from a marketplace perspective - ever faster in some industries (gadgets, phones, our assorted communication devices)...

So much here.

I will say that I've never been a believer in "dressing your age" or rather, I believe that dressing any way one wishes is a perogative we all have as long as we are being appropriate (for work or a public event, for example). That said, there are tremendous differences in individuals' abilities to "pull off" a look with the confidence required, and I do think it has a good deal to do with confidence.

As for the classics, they're classic for a reason! (And you likely did save a mint.)

And novelty?

It's one thing (among the leisure class or any other) when it comes to purchasing oneself whatever is new (sign of a propensity toward boredom?) - however - when the need for novelty is applied to relationships, I find that to be a terrible shame, when sometimes appreciation for the classics - with a few updates and accessories - makes so much more sense...

Fascinating post, really. You've made so many interesting observations.

Shelley said...

D.A. - I'm so pleased that someone else sees the rich diversity of topics addressed by Veblen's theories. Though his writing is hard going and I probably don't translate it particularly well, I do find it all quite fascinating and this is why I persist in writing these posts. It's my form of study or homework, a way to make myself review his ideas again to get them firmly in my mind.

You are right, wearing some clothes is all about confidence.

Beryl - I remember our first trip to Prague and Slovakia, seeing traditional clothing - or at least clothes that didn't look exactly like other parts of Western Europe & the US. I think there might be some correlation with industrialisation, but the other variable I would guess is money: traditional heavy woolen clothing lasts a long time and is more practical, even if it's not in the latest styles.

Susan Partlan said...

What a great post Shelley! As you pointed out in three very thoughtful (thank you) comments on my blog, simplicity is the essence of elegance, so I see no reason why avoiding extreme fashions and sticking to classics should be thought of as prematurely aging!

You can always add elements of interest that read "current" such as a trending bag or hem length. Or maybe just a fresh new hair cut with some sass.

The need for profit is driving everything now and you are right to feel weary. I think most of us do.

Gam Kau said...

This is such great stuff, really enjoying all this information even if it is a lot to take in.
My mother grew up in colonial era Hong Kong and wore traditional Chinese dresses (cheongsam). As her family and society at large became more prosperous, local Chinese people emulated the clothing of their colonizers. And this still holds true today. Western branded goods are seen as superior to locally made goods; more status, thus the great interest in luxury goods by Chinese tourists.

Shelley said...

I think the Westernisation of the world is quite sad - everyone looks pretty much the same these days and it gets boring. While I don't admire the traditional styles of every culture (I tend to consider how silly it would look on me, a very self-centered way to look at it, I know), Chinese dresses are so beautiful! I'm thinking that in future China may be the dominant country and it will be interesting to see how that influences the fashions (and not just of clothes).