A man goes to buy a car. The one he wants costs $25,000. Is that a good price? He can only determine that by comparing it to the price of similar cars. According to Marx’s concept of the commodity fetish, the market (exchange) value of the car obscures its real value, which is determined by the efforts of all the workers—miners, steelworkers, rubber workers, designers, molders, assemblers, et al.—who contributed to its manufacture.
Growing up on a Midwestern farm while Marx worked on the final draft of Capital, Vol. I, was a boy who, as a man, would have a very different take on the relationship of workers to the products of their labor. Thorstein Veblen would become famous for what he wrote about the fetishized commodities of consumers.
Veblen assumed that use of machinery and exposure to industrial processes made workers more rational, less inclined to superstition and animistic beliefs. Away from the mill or factory’s secularizing influence, however, they would buy not only things they needed but also what they thought they had to have to feel respectable. Veblen’s car buyer not only wants a car. He wants the kind of car his brother-in-law has, a Ford Flex, let’s say. According to Veblen’s concept of “conspicuous consumption” (or “invidious” consumption), the things we own tell others where we stand in the social hierarchy. As a sociologist puts it, “Goods are the tools that signal to others who we want them to think we are and who we want to be.”1
Thus, in Buddenbrooks , first published in 1901, two years after Veblen’s The Theory of the Leisure Class, Thomas Mann introduces readers to the bourgeois family, whose decline makes up the plot of his great novel, by giving us a tour of their large and well-appointed house. Some of us may do the same for a newly arrived guest in our own homes. But such tours are for the few. For the many, the people who see us at work and in public, our appearance and manner must suffice to tell others who we are—or who we want them to think we are. Over the past few decades, however, standards for personal appearance have been transformed in ways that seem to turn Veblen’s conspicuous consumption idea inside out.
For Veblen, all the nonessentials that we purchase as consumers reflect standards of respectability established by the upper class. The “motive that lies at the root of ownership is emulation,” he wrote, not just of others but of wealthy and powerful others. Under capitalism, one’s property “becomes the conventional basis of esteem,” by which Veblen meant both the high regard of others and self-esteem.2 Not every consumer theorist who has followed the Midwesterner has agreed with him on this, but they have all had to start by acknowledging his basic idea. As Jean Baudrillard summed up, “[T]he object of consumption creates distinctions as a stratification of statuses.”3
History has seemed at times to validate Veblen’s thesis. Werner Sombart maintained that, by the eighteenth century, French fashion followed the cravings of royal mistresses. Mass production of what had been luxury goods, reserved for a tiny but privileged minority—e.g., coffee, tea, perfumes, tobacco, woolens, silks, mirrors, soap, cotton prints—spurred early capitalist development.4 More recently, economist Juliet Schor has argued that keeping up with the Joneses is no longer enough for many Americans. Televised exposure to the lives of the rich and famous has boosted upscale emulation to unaffordable heights.5
With regard to personal appearance, Veblen had cited clothing as a good example of invidious consumption: “the function of dress [is to provide] evidence of ability to pay.”6 But respectable dress must also reflect the earliest division of labor, which (in Veblen’s version of prehistoric practices) downgraded work by making it the responsibility of the ruled—initially, women. Rulers (initially men) engaged in exploits such as warfare and hunting. To meet the standards of the leisurely rich of modern times, one’s costly-looking clothes must also indicate “conspicuous abstention from labour”—for example, by not showing any grime or wear and tear.7 Until the invention of “sportswear,” twentieth-century workers, peasants, and gentry alike all wore, when out in public, the dark suit and hat of the successful businessman. John Berger characterized this as an example of “class hegemony.”8 As for women, wrote Veblen, their clothing had to hinder “useful exertion” to achieve the respectable appearance of the ladies of leisure who ornamented the lives of high-status men.9 I would wager that no one who has worn a dress, girdle, stockings, heels, etc., will argue that such garb lends itself to a wide range of physical activities.
Sociological research bears out Veblen’s central thesis, to some extent. For example, Jeremy Schulz interviewed San Francisco and Los Angeles area owners and dealers of the tank-like Hummer H2. Several of these owners openly stated that they had purchased the vehicle because they could afford to and others could not. Some of them reported that less favored associates had directed hostile remarks at them, not because the heavyweight Hummer poses a threat to other drivers and to the environment, but because they—the less favored others—felt belittled by not having one of their own. The Hummers also drew positive attention. Male owners found, in some cases, that their H2’s attracted women; professionals used them to impress clients.10 Such reports of invidious reactions, “status anxiety” on the part of some non-owners, and status advances via ownership all seem to accord with Veblen’s concept of conspicuous consumption, as generally understood.
Schulz’s study found no support for Pierre Bourdieu’s qualification that conspicuous consumption can go too far, causing one to be regarded as nouveau riche, a person with “showy” taste. Such mutterings could have some bite in France, but outside of the antebellum South and the pages of Henry James’s novels, “nouveau riche” has never been a chilling epithet in the United States. However, the experience of several H2 owners and would-be owners seemed to support the argument of Herbert Blumer that consumer choices are not really about status advancement but conformity: everyone wants the latest thing. Hummer dealers reported that people in the first wave of would-be buyers competed frantically to be initial owners, frequently checking their places on the dealers’ buyer lists, becoming irate when someone moved ahead of them in priority.
In Beverly Hills, the appearance of an H2 in someone’s driveway set off competitive buying frenzies among neighbors.11 For these buyers, the H2 was not a symbol of financial success, as they and their associates were sufficiently wealthy to buy any kind of vehicle they wanted. Veblen’s theory, however, is nuanced enough to accommodate such consumption. He denied that most people’s discretionary purchases represent “a conscious effort to excel in their visible consumption, so much as…a desire to live up to the conventional standard of decency.”12 The Beverly Hills standard of decency is evidently rather capricious.
Veblen also wrote that, in the system of “honorific esteem” that governs consumer choices, there is “a tendency to exclude the baser elements of the population…even as spectators whose applause or mortification should be sought.” In short, the “upper leisure class sets the pace in all matters of decency.”13
Oh? How might upper-class emulation and lower-class irrelevance explain such recent fashion phenomena as designer construction boots, “garage couture” trucker hats, white trash chic (“wife beater” shirts, etc.), ghetto chic (cargo pants, front-to-back caps, the board game Ghettopoly, etc.), hobo chic, and hooker chic (see Bratz Dolls or visit an urban public high school)?14 If clean clothes showing no sign of practical use express adherence to a conventional standard of decency, what do pre-ripped, pre-faded jeans represent? What about “elegantly tattered tights” and laddered hose?15 How to explain the latest thing in men’s wear chic, “workwear,” the kind of clothes worn by “mythical” workers of America’s past—miners, farmers, railroad engineers, et al.?16 Apparently, most such contra-Veblen fashions and fads fall under the heading of “poverty chic,” which a sociologist defines as “fads and fashions…that make stylish, recreational, and often expensive ‘fun’ of lower-class statuses….”17
When the sole object is to get people to spend money on fashionable commodities, and faux poverty is “in,” nothing and no one who might serve this end is immune to exploitation. Elle Decoration has featured a fashion shoot in a Soweto township, focusing on an impoverished family’s pink rented shack. The title: “Pretty in Pink.” Face depicted a fictional homeless woman, “covered in dirt and Prada.” She was shown inside a cardboard box with a candle stub and puppy.18 The viewer of such an image is supposed to maintain an “ironic distance.” A blogger complains of a cultural tendency in the United States that makes it “hip and chic—to walk around looking like people who are poor. As long as the people walking around with that look aren’t really poor” and as long as the look has been commodified.19
Surely such exceptions to Veblen’s dicta are confined to items of personal appearance. No one would look to the poor for guidance in buying a car, refrigerator, or living room set. Hold on: a fashion journalist invites us to make “an anti-decorating statement” with a “Shabby Chic” sofa.20 And the aforementioned Hummer started out as a military vehicle, not a luxury car.
The question is, How did we get from Veblen’s highly plausible account of consumer choices to today’s realities, and what should we make of this development? Do people look to the poor and marginalized for fashion clues because our “leisure class”—dependents of the superrich who busy themselves maintaining and increasing their fortunes—enjoy their leisure in private enclaves, well out of the public eye? Instead of café society, we have celebrities, people famous for being famous, and a plague of entertainment producers and paparazzi who spread their images through celebrity tabloids, TV, and the Internet. Are these the faces and bodies of the people who now establish standards of respectable appearance? Respectability must take a distant backseat to publicity needs in the stretch limousine of many celebrities.
In the 1950s, rebellion in America ceased to be an organized political project—rabid anticommunism saw to that—and became a matter of individual style. David Riesman (in The Lonely Crowd) wrote that we had lost our inner bearings and had to look to others for clues as to how to conduct ourselves. The Beats suddenly appeared and seemed to hold a giant mirror up to the nation. Many recoiled in horror. Conformist? Square? There must be some mistake, they thought, and cast about for an alternative, some other image. They found one in the defiant youth of Blackboard Jungle, The Wild One, and Rebel Without a Cause. Such movies thrilled a generation, and “being a ‘rebel’ [became] the new aspirational category.”21
Capitalists quickly caught on to the fact that many people would rebel by buying rebel products. Soon the rebel had become “the central image” of consumerism.22 Consider popular music. Rock and roll, punk, hip hop, grunge: one defiant musical genre followed another, as each became commodified in turn, right down to “alternative’s reconciliation of rebellion and capital.”23 As Barbara Ehrenreich wrote more than twenty years ago, capitalism “had taken the anger and yearning of the poor and sold them to the restless youth of the middle class.”24 All that was needed for hip hop to join rhythm and blues, etc., in crossing racial lines was “short-term memory.”25
Ads urged consumers to “Break the Rules” (Vanderbilt perfumes), use “a revolutionary wash booster” (Tide), “Make a change for the good” (TIAA-CREF), buy “the revolutionary Sony HD TV,” “Just Do It” (Nike), and much more of the same. By the mid-1990s, Americans had all but lost the capacity to imagine rebellion “without a corporate sponsor.”26 Even the Beats were recycled and commodified. Leslie Savon in the Village Voice remarked of William Burroughs’s Nike ad that, in the absence of any threats from below, capitalism was free to exploit “even the most marginal elements of society.”27 Counterculture had truly become official culture.
The tattoo now serves as a middle-class fashion statement, both for women and men. By the late 1990s, getting “inked” had become an experience in self-styling, rebellion, and nonconformity. The defiance and independence associated with the motorcycle is no longer a trademark of outlaw gangs. Middle-class buyers have put Harley-Davidson securely back on its kickstand after a near financial spin-out in the early 1980s.28 Part of the appeal of the SUV was its off-road capabilities. These behemoths could go where cars could not, which accounted for the Hummer’s appeal to a subgroup of the buyers interviewed by Jeremy Schulz. But if the SUV was a symbol of rebellion, as some suggest, what is its off-road driver rebelling against?29 Is it all those government rules, all that liberal concern for the environment?
Long hair, in the 1960s, could get a man harassed, even thrown into jail in certain parts of the country. The sight of a defiant hairdo today is more likely to make a marketing executive’s eyes light up with dollar signs. The problem with rebellion as individual style is that, insofar as we can rebel by cultivating a rebellious appearance or a taste for rebellious experience, we don’t have to do anything else. Change begins and ends with the self. What would genuine rebellion look like? Let’s begin by assuming that it would lack any distinctive appearance or accouterments.
The Hardened Appearance
Let’s take a closer look at what is being emulated these days in terms of self-presentation, and by whom. A fashion reporter cites the “dualism” of a designer’s look, combining, as it does, “the conservative world of good taste” with “the moody hard-edged style of the street.”30 That street-edged look includes a blouse that appears to have been ripped down the front to below the level of the model’s breasts. A member of the fashion in-crowd will know instinctively that it’s supposed to look that way. Creations of the designers behind another leading label are inspired by goth, horror movies, and S/M culture, among other things.31
What about the “hard-edged” look of people serving time behind bars? Prison regulations typically require inmates to do without belts. We have all seen what appear to be middle-class men and youths sporting the prisoner’s drooping-pants effect.
Writing a few years ago, Greg Tate ascribed white enthusiasm for jazz, blues, rock and roll, and hip hop to “investment in the tragic-magical displays of virility exhibited by America’s ultimate outsider, the Black male.”32 Whites make up 70 percent of hip hop buyers,33 though one rapper has characterized whites listening to hip-hop lyrics as a kind of racial eavesdropping. The extent of African-American influence on white middle-class culture is now such that Carl Rux can plausibly assert that the whiteness (i.e., white privilege) sought by the latest European immigrants of the past has been replaced by “blackness.”34 This surely represents a kind of progress, considering the Zoot Suit Riots of 1943 and their consequent message that nonwhites would not be allowed to adopt a distinctive appearance. The zoot suit, of course, was later marketed as a “hipster” look for whites.
Other commentators think that outsider emulation expresses a yearning for authenticity, something more real than the conventional middle-class persona. Jack Daniels whiskey, for example, has become an “iconic brand,” linked through chance and successful advertising to the gunfighter myth. Just by sipping it, a person can make a claim to hypermasculinity.35 This points to something cultivable beyond blackness—namely, toughness. Jeremy Schulz, for example, found that wealthier Hummer owners had purchased the vehicle for its “sign value” of “toughness, defiance, and coolness,” all qualities linked to personal survival on mean streets.36
Even corporate executives now cultivate the three-day growth of stubble on their jaws that was formerly the mark of a hobo or combat-weary soldier. What do piercings declare but “I can stand what you shudder to imagine: a pin going through an eyebrow, tongue, lip, or other sensitive body part”? Something similar applies to tattoos. In short, the image sought by many men today is a warning: Don’t mess with me. For many women, whether intentional or not, it is an invitation: Do mess with me.
Ehrenreich has written that representatives of the then-existing order saw the youth rebellion of the 1960s as a problem of parental permissiveness—in other words, authority gone soft.37 But hippie hedonism would not be allowed to flourish beyond the early 1970s, and the regime that followed has been one of hardness and self-discipline. Witness the solitary jogger, or consider the caffeinated “geek” engaged in all-night study sessions in the 1990s and the seventy-hour workweek for a high-tech firm today. The tough-guy elaboration on the rebel icon represents a reaction to the 1960s and the youth culture’s penchant for dropping out. Dropping out today means landing on the streets, and toughness is now a major theme of personal appearance. It is a style that seamlessly coheres with America’s military adventurism, the prison-industrial complex, bare-knuckled capitalism, homelessness as a nonissue for public policy, extrajudicial killings by remote control, etc.
An Inner Logic?
People for whom freedom means the opportunity to forge a unique identity by consuming their own choice of branded products and services; driving their own brand of vehicle; watching their own favorite TV programs, movies, and sports teams; and having the chance to create a unique appearance are not about to rock the system. Are there such people in the United States? Yes, I think that there are a lot of such people, which is not to deny that each of them, each of us, really is unique in some largely undefinable way.
The question, in this context, is why do so many Americans exercise all the choices at their disposal to adopt a similar, quasi-streetwise look, as described above? We may all be buffeted, more or less, by the winds of fashion, but why the appeal of this fashion? Some sociologists describe what we have referred to as downscale emulation as a rational effort on the part of middle-class Americans to ward off fears of downward mobility. They suggest that, when one gets a tattoo or dons some pre-ripped pants, she may be engaged in a “short, safe, socially distanced and socially sanitized” exploration of poverty.38 Such other-class tourism, in this view, is counterphobic, like the anxious adolescent’s viewing of a horror movie. At some level, then, the hardened look may hide, if not the fear of landing homeless on the street, at least “the middle-class fear of going soft, giving in, and eventually losing the will to succeed.”39 The great German novelist knew what he was about when he gave his paterfamilias, Thomas Buddenbrooks, such secret but overwhelming concerns that he is gradually done in by the daily effort to construct a façade of energetic self-confidence.
If money can buy anything in today’s nonfictional world, why not an intimidating appearance? But the counterphobic day-tripper discussed above is just a theoretical device: I want to offer an alternative explanation of such efforts. Being a well-dressed white man is no longer sufficient to command respect when nonwhite entertainers and athletes, many of whom perform in settings where a rude demeanor is a minimal requirement, can command great wealth and widespread acclaim. By the 1980s if not earlier, wearing a suit could make one a target on a public street. Gentility is on the run. What I am saying is that for many, the hardened surface may represent protective coloring, an effort to blend in, though I doubt that many would admit to that.
Also, stylings that seem to mock the powerless and poor are part and parcel of a time and place in which “political correctness” is effective as an epithet. Irony is in, earnestness is out, and a preferential option for the poor is as passé as trust busting. The self-applied mantra of I’ve-got-mine has become a license to mock people who don’t have anything. All one need do is put on a fashionable and expensive counterfeit of their appearance.
The Symbolically Dispossessed
A sociologist points out that the working-class men and marginalized others whose cultural symbols have been appropriated by the middle class are victims of a kind of gentrification.40 Take muscles. Everyone has them, but formerly one would expect to see their definition mainly on the arms of laborers, boxers, wrestlers, convicts, certain kinds of criminals (e.g., “strong-armed” robbers), and the like. “Lower-class” muscle builders hoisted iron in poorly equipped gyms and garages. That was then, before middle-class men and women learned to treat their bodies as objects to be attractively sculpted or, as Veblen would have it, as conspicuous symbols of leisure. The pumped-up outcomes of such efforts make the carnival strong man (played by Anthony Quinn) in Fellini’s La Strada look undernourished. And the economic outcome of all these middle-class workouts is a private health club industry that, by 2004, had attracted 41 million members and sucked up more than $15 billion in revenue.41 Such clubs are generally not a working-class venue.
I mentioned the motorcycle. Jobless factory workers, disoriented Second World War vets, teen rebels, and the like once comprised a male subculture centered on motorcycle repair shops. Such men were poor, but on the road on their roaring bikes, they were the equal of any car-driver—or felt themselves to be. From an “icon of rebellion,” the motorcycle has become an icon of fashion, “consecrated…with middle-class distinction,” for example, by a Guggenheim Museum exhibit in 1998 called “The Art of the Motorcycle.”42
Tattoos used to be the exclusive province of working-class men, military careerists, prisoners, and marginalized others. As such, they expressed vows (“Mom”), showed allegiances (“2d Armored”), or made identity statements (“Born to Lose”). Around 1980, middle-class women and men began to have their bodies decorated, too, supporting a still-mushrooming industry of “body art.” These “modern primitives” claim ancient, even prehistoric, artistic and spiritual ancestry. But the line of descent that they would claim excludes the sailors, workers, et al., for whom tattoos spoke a language of commitment.43
Not only have the kind of people who formerly monopolized such cultural symbols been priced out of their usage, but the now-gentrified symbols and artifacts have been stripped of their former meaning. Karen Halnon thinks that the sort of symbols under discussion served as “socially necessary forms of compensatory masculinity,”44 making up, to some extent, for the powerlessness of those who deployed them. The question is, what kind of compensatory symbols remain to such men? Their guns maybe? The American flag? And what about the impoverished jobseeker in a tattered dress? Will she try to pass off her appearance as an ironic fashion statement?
Finally, let’s return to the would-be car buyer. Now, he is unemployed and can’t afford to buy a car. He can visit a dealer anyway, where he may discover that the car he covets is being made in China. No longer in the market for a car, he applies a distorted labor theory of value: “his” car is being made by the cheaper labor of Chinese instead of American workers. And he resents it. Overlooked in his anger is the likelihood that the vehicle is being exported from China by a U.S. corporation, and that the workers who make it struggle mightily to bring their wages and working conditions up to a level approaching what was once U.S. standards. The commodity continues to mystify.
- ↩ Mark Gottdiener, “Approaches to Consumption: Classical and Contemporary Perspectives,” in Mark Gottdiener, ed., New Forms of Consumption: Consumers, Culture, and Commodification (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2000), 4.
- ↩ Thorstein Veblen, The Theory of the Leisure Class: An Economic Study of Institutions (New York: Modern Library, 1931), 25, 29-30.
- ↩ Jean Baudrillard, Selected Writings, 2d ed., edited by Mark Poster (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2001), 57.
- ↩ Werner Sombart, Luxury and Capitalism, translated by W.R. Dittmar (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1967), 12-13, 121-3, and passim.
- ↩ Juliet Schor, Do Americans Shop Too Much? (Boston: Beacon Press, 2000), 7ff.
- ↩ Veblen, 169.
- ↩ Veblen, 38; cf. 170-1.
- ↩ Berger, About Looking (New York: Pantheon Books, 1980), 27-36.
- ↩ Veblen, 172.
- ↩ Schulz, “Vehicle of the self: The social and cultural work of the H2 Hummer,” Journal of Consumer Culture 6.1 (2006): 68, 72, 81, and passim.
- ↩ Schulz, 63, 77.
- ↩ Veblen, 102.
- ↩ Veblen, 187.
- ↩ Karen Bettez Halnon with Saundra Cohen, “Muscles, motorcycles and tattoos: Gentrification in a new frontier,” Journal of Consumer Culture 6.1 (2006): 36; Casey Kelbaugh, fashion photo, New York Times, September 14, 2009.
- ↩ “Rated HOT,” ad, San Francisco Chronicle, September 15, 2009.
- ↩ Beth Hughes, “Workwear is on the job,” San Francisco Chronicle, January 17, 2010.
- ↩ Halnon, 36.
- ↩ “Poverty chic,” The Guardian, June, 29 2002, http://www.guardian.co.uk/.
- ↩ Commie Curmudgeon, “The Problem of Poverty Chic,” November 3, 2006, http://nomorebigwheels.blogspot.com/.
- ↩ Penelope Green, “Making Shabby Chic, Again,” New York Times, October 15, 2009.
- ↩ Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter, Nation of Rebels: Why Counterculture Became Consumer Culture (New York: HarperBusiness, 2004), 129.
- ↩ Thomas Frank, “Alternative to What?” in Frank and Matt Weiland, eds., Commodify Your Dissent: Salvos From “The Baffler” (New York: Norton, 1997), 151.
- ↩ Cotton Seiler, “The Commodification of Rebellion: Rock Culture and Consumer Capitalism,” in Gottdiener, 222.
- ↩ Barbara Ehrenreich, Fear of Falling: The Inner Life of the Middle Class (New York: HarperCollins, 1989), 96.
- ↩ Carl Hancock Rux, “Eminem: The New White Negro,” in Greg Tate, ed., Everything But the Burden: What White People Are Taking from Black Culture (New York: Broadway Books, 2003), 23.
- ↩ Frank, “Dark Age,” in Frank and Weiland, 264.
- ↩ Quoted in Frank, “Why Johnny Can’t Dissent,” in Frank and Weiland, 36.
- ↩ Halnon, 39-41.
- ↩ E.g., Heath and Potter, 4.
- ↩ Cathy Horyn, “Balenciaga and Balmain Preach to the Converts,” New York Times, October 2, 2009.
- ↩ Amanda Fortini, “Twisted Sisters: The Designers behind Rodarte,” The New Yorker, January 18, 2010.
- ↩ Greg Tate, “Nigs R Us, or How Blackfolk Became Fetish Objects,” in Tate, 9.
- ↩ Melvin Gibbs, “ThugGods: Spiritual Darkness and Hip-Hop,” in Tate, 93.
- ↩ Rux, in Tate, 37.
- ↩ Douglas B. Holt, “Jack Daniel’s America: Iconic brands as ideological parasites and proselytizers,” Journal of Consumer Culture 6.1 (2006): 373-5; cf. Jacqueline Botterill, “Cowboys, Outlaws and Artists,” Journal of Consumer Culture 7.1 (2007): 105-127.
- ↩ Schulz, 78-9, 84.
- ↩ Ehrenreich, 68ff.
- ↩ Halnon, 36; cf. Zygmunt Bauman, “Tourists and Vagabonds: Or, Living in Postmodern Times,” in Joseph E. Davis, ed., Identity and Social Change (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Pub., 2000), 13-26.
- ↩ Ehrenreich, 173.
- ↩ Halnon, 33-56.
- ↩ Halnon, 41.
- ↩ Halnon, 48.
- ↩ Halnon, 42, 49.
- ↩ Halnon, 44; cf. James_Earthenware, posted response to Commie Curmudgeon.
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