Social relations are complex, particularly as increased global productivite democratizes formerly luxury, exclusive goods.
By: Christina Gayton
In The Theory of the Leisure Class, Thorstein Veblen claimed “our apparel is always in evidence and affords an indication of our pecuniary standing to all observers at the first glance.” Historically, the elite would visualize their status through clothing by wearing elaborate garments with rare decorations (i.e. gold, diamonds) and delicate materials that were easy to stain or tear (i.e. white, silk). However, today, resources like gold and silk are much easier to come across and take care of among nearly all economic classes. Thus, dressing with wealth has become more complex in the modern day, and several fashion trends have emerged as a result.
Luxe Normcore combines simple with high end. By pairing cheap, casual clothes like ripped jeans and t-shirts with luxury items like balenciaga shoes, wealthy individuals are able to make a statement: “Wearing incredibly expensive shoes is no big deal for me.” Designer handbags and other accessories that would normally be reserved for high profile events and paired with elegant attire now is toted alongside sweatpants. Thus, rich people can attempt to convey that luxury is not an effort for them; it’s simply a part of their everyday.
Statement Pieces with Less Functionality
Dressing with less functional pieces has been a statement of wealth for centuries; in the 1800s, restricting corsets were the rage among the upper class, and high heels emerged as a hot fashion staple for the privileged in the 1500s. These pieces made manual labor more difficult and inconvenient, which is why they were easily used by wealthy individuals who luckily did not have to physically labor.
Although heels have now become a staple in many wardrobes, statement pieces still subtly demonstrate affluence to demonstrate the superfluous, which can be seen through colorful clothing and distinct patterns. These statement pieces are generally harder to pair than basic colors, like white and black, and thus, may not make as many debuts out of one’s closet. Particularly in expensive cities with small apartments with limited storage, being able to buy and store many statement clothing items demonstrates monetary abundance when compared to the everyday basics NYC black wardrobe.
Despite unique clothing being a potential social status signal, dressing down can even be a wealth symbol. This is for three main reasons:
1) The wealthiest people don’t have anything to prove and find it more important to save or invest money than buying high end brands.
According to data from the US Consumer Expenditure Survey, the wealthy (top 1%) are increasingly less likely to spend money on material goods and more inclined to save money or spend on experiences and investments like education, health, and travel. All the while, middle class Americans (around $70,000) are increasing material consumption.
Also notably, health spending is a cross between conspicuous and inconspicuous consumption; although “buying health” cannot be blatantly seen, wealth can afford oneself convenient healthy food, access to nutrition knowledge, supplements, good healthcare, and luxuries like a personal trainer. So, no matter what clothes one is wearing, having clear skin, shiny hair, and a fit body underneath the clothes may be just as important of an indicator of financial wellbeing.
2) CEOs and other highly ranked officials can flex their power by showing that they can wear whatever they want, even in the office.
This point is the main origin of the term “countersignaling,” which is defined as “the behavior where agents with the highest level of a given property invest less into proving it than individuals with a medium level of the same property.” Essentially, humility and understatement are being used as the ultimate symbol of security in one’s wealth and status, an ascended status compared to the nouveau rich.
3) Rich people are busy with more important matters than spending time on picking outfits.
The average American makes thousands of quick and sometimes difficult decisions in a day. Choosing what to wear is just another task on the list. Barack Obama describes how decision fatigue resulted in his simple wardrobe, saying “You’ll see I wear only grey or blue suits. I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make.”
High End Brands and Expensive Items
This point is the most obvious example when displaying wealth through fashion comes to mind: buy brands that are expensive and show them off. High end brands are an excellent example of veblen goods. Veblen goods are goods that defy the normal economic rule of increased price leading to decreased quantity demanded. In the case of veblen goods, increased price creates more desire- possibly because it may indicate scarcity and exclusivity.
So can anything be a social status signal?
From these few examples describing the wealth indicators surrounding dressing up and dressing down, it may seem like anything can signal status. Social relations are complex, particularly as increased global productivity democratizes formerly luxury, exclusive goods. Veblen further described in The Theory of the Leisure Class that once the masses found ways to emulate or achieve the garb of the rich, then the symbol substantially decrease in value. Thus, the upper class will always need to develop new ways of signaling status with their money.
Currid-Halkett, Elizabeth. (2017, 14 June). The New Subtle Ways the Rich Signal Their Wealth. Retrieved from http://www.bbc.com/capital/story/20170614-the-new-subtle-wlays-the-rich-signal-their-wealth
The Jet Set. (2018, January 16). Reasons Why Rich People Dress Simple. Retrieved from http://financeblvd.com/the-jet-set/reasons-rich-people-dress-simple.
Walsh, F. Wealth Inequality in Fashion- The Rise of Luxe-Normcore. Retrieved from http://www.petrieinventory.com/wealth-inequality-in-fashion-the-rise-of-luxenormcore/